Hungarian Grand Prix – Ferrari are under pressure heading to the Hungaroring: can Sebastian Vettel right his wrongs before the summer shutdown?
Ferrari are the team most under the spotlight as F1 heads to the melting pot of Hungary. Hot, sticky, relentless heat is mixed with a track that just doesn’t let the drivers relax. The Hungaroring is often described as “Monaco without the barriers”; apart from a short pit straight, there are no notable straight bits. Sector 2 is particularly difficult, a mixture of medium speed sweeps that all need to be strung together. Get one wrong, and the driver is completely out of position for the next one and the lap is ruined. A tough venue, then, for Ferrari to raise their spirits after an incredibly difficult week both on and off track.
Sergio Marchionne, the charismatic and ruthlessly effective leader of the Ferrari brand, was instrumental in bringing them back to the front of F1. Taking over from talismanic leader Luca Di Montezemelo in September 2014, he immediately made his mark by installing his long-time associate Maurizio Arrivabene as leader of the Gestione Sportiva and Team Principal of Ferrari. Giving them carte blanche to fight back after the disaster that was 2014, 2015 was an immediate correction back closer to the front and they’ve been getting better and better ever since. No surprise, then, that they are a team in mourning in Hungary this weekend. Marchionne’s death wasn’t particularly unexpected news after the shock announcement of the sweeping personnel changes throughout the Fiat Chrysler group last weekend, but that doesn’t mean it loses any impact on the people within the team. Fittingly, the Ferrari cars, as well as customers Sauber & Haas, will run a black stripe on their cars to acknowledge his passing. This is something Ferrari do in times of mourning: they ran a black nose tip when Pope John Paul II died in 2005, as well as a black nose for the 2001 Italian Grand Prix after the 9/11 attacks.
Citing the exceptional circumstances surrounding the team, the FIA excused Kimi Raikkonen and Arrivabene from their press conference duties. Both had been scheduled for the driver’s and personnel conferences respectively and their absence has the added benefit for them of not having to field any questions regarding the team’s mindset after the disaster that was the German Grand Prix. Last year’s calamitous Singapore Grand Prix seemed to knock the wind out of the sails of the team’s Championship challenge, and Hockenheim has the potential to destabilise them to the same extent. Having been leading comfortably on pretty old Soft tyres, and roughly matching the pace of the hard charging Lewis Hamilton on new UltraSofts, Vettel’s slight error into the Sachskurve with 15 laps to go will haunt him for years, despite his comments to the contrary. It was the slightest of twitches and, had it happened at any other corner on the track, he would have had plenty of run off area to right his wrong. Instead, he ended up in the barrier with only the smallest of touches.
“There’s not much to say: I made a small mistake which had a huge impact on the result.” explained Vettel after gathering his thoughts. Distinctly choked up on the radio after throwing away a home Grand Prix win, he needed twenty minutes alone in his motorhome before coming out to face the press. “I braked just a tiny bit too late for the corner, locked the front tires and then the rear ones, so that I couldn’t turn the car anymore. I think I had managed everything right before that. We had the pace and we had been in control of the race up to that point. It was my mistake, so I am disappointed, but I don’t think we still have to show what we can do. We’ve shown everywhere that we are competitive, so I am looking forward to Hungary next weekend.”
Much like his error while attacking Valtteri Bottas after the Safety Car in Baku, as well as his Singapore start last year, there’s a sense that Vettel still makes the occasional error that Lewis Hamilton isn’t as prone to. Perhaps Lewis is more risk averse nowadays as opposed to a talent difference: even the very best have made errors like Vettel’s. Fernando Alonso cracked under pressure from McLaren at the 2005 Canadian Grand Prix and hit the barrier to end his race, while Michael Schumacher slid sideways into the Wall of Champions at the same race in 1999 to hand the win to Mika Hakkinen. The Finn himself did the same thing at Imola earlier that year, while he also spun off while leading at Monza later in the year, to the delight of the baying tifosi. Most famously, Ayrton Senna crashed at Portier while dominating the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, before heading to his apartment to hide his hurt from the world for hours before re-emerging. Even the very best make mistakes at this level; Vettel just needs to make sure he doesn’t do it again.
Ferrari need to strike back emphatically this weekend to ensure Hamilton doesn’t gain too much momentum. Having led both championships heading to Germany and looking nailed on to extend their leads until Lap 52, there’s a growing sense that the SF71-H might be the best package on the grid. Fast through the corners, light on tyre wear, and seemingly the most powerful engine on the grid, Mercedes ought to be worried. And they are: the constant comments regarding the legality or otherwise of the Ferrari power unit indicate that Merc are still feeling the pressure. The W09 has shown signs of unreliability recently, as well as the possibility that their engines are no longer the benchmark after four years of the Hybrid era. While Germany was a brilliant result for Merc, Vettel was almost certain to win the race until his mistake.
The Hungaroring has been a very successful venue for them in recent years. In 2015, the team also arrived to the venue under a cloud. Days before the race, Jules Bianchi passed away from the injuries he suffered at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. While he was a Manor racing driver, he had tested extensively for Ferrari and was widely tipped to replace Kimi Raikkonen before his accident; much like Sauber’s Charles Leclerc is now. While the Mercedes was still the class of the 2015 field, Vettel took a brilliant win. While 2016’s race went Mercedes’ way, the 2017 event again saw Ferrari take the victory. It was a tough one though; an early lead for Sebastian Vettel ebbed away when his steering went out of alignment. Protected by Kimi Raikkonen in P2, the pair successfully held off the Mercs to take a 1-2 and lead into the summer break before it all fell apart in the second half of the season.
While you can never rule out Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, this weekend, on paper, looks set to be a direct fight between Ferrari & Red Bull. With their power deficit not an important factor here, the lithe and agile RB14 should come alive in the hands of Daniel Ricciardo & Max Verstappen. Monaco was a strong indicator of how good their chassis really is, and it wouldn’t be altogether surprising to see the Red Bulls dominate this weekend. Sebastian Vettel has acknowledged this possibility too, but says that Ferrari’s battle is with Mercedes, suggesting that the two leaders aren’t hugely concerned about an interloper for one event. It’s going to be a tense weekend as Vettel seeks to fight back the 17 point lead he personally handed to Lewis Hamilton on a plate. Can he make up for it on Sunday?
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