Formula One’s ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone called an emergency meeting with the team principals minutes before qualifying for the Hungarian GP began on Saturday lunchtime. With television viewing figures waning – in some territories at least – and disappointing box office last time out at Hockenheim, Bernie is officially worried.
TopGear.com recommends that someone glue him to his wingback leather chair and force-feed him a re-run of yesterday’s race until bits of carbon fibre fall out of his ears. It was an all-time classic.
It seems to us that elements of F1’s old guard – Bernie, Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo and Ron Dennis among them – have forgotten that F1 is a sport first and foremost, and a business second. We know that money is too tight to mention among some of the back-markers – not least because the TV revenues are not divvied up equably among the teams – and such is the political nature of the F1 paddock that there will always be sniping and shenanigans, but right now it seems like the sport part of the equation has pre-eminence. Above all else, yesterday we were treated to a full-blooded, nail-shredding, wheel-to-wheel, balls-out motor race. And there have been a fair few of those this year.
Pre-season, we figured that 2014 would be dominated by Lewis Hamilton’s battle with Nico Rosberg, and Mercedes. But Hungary proved yet again that this narrative is unfolding in a way that no one could have predicted. Mercedes was forced into an unseemly team mea culpa after Lewis’s car exploded before he even had a chance to set a time in qualifying. ‘If Lewis has any mechanical issues today,’ Mercedes boss Toto Wolff observed ahead of the race, ‘I’m going to jump over the wall and push him myself…’ Some have even whispered that there’s an anti-Lewis conspiracy within the team, which is abject nonsense but gives you some idea how much bad luck Hamilton has endured.
Lewis started from the pit lane, and almost wrote his own race off on the first lap after a spin into the wall. Having not done the formation lap, he simply had no brake temperature. Track conditions were appalling after a pre-race downpour, but he got away with slight damage to his front wing endplate.
That left him free to do what Lewis does best, and carve his way through the field, assisted by not one but two safety car interventions. The first was triggered when Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson dropped his car on lap nine, and extended when Lotus’s Romain Grosjean lost it on a straight while trying to keep his tyres alive; the second when the hapless Sergio Perez ran wide onto the greasy astro turf on the last corner, pirouetting into the concrete wall on the main straight right beside the Red Bull and Mercedes pit wall chiefs, and showering them in carbon fibre. On lap 33, Sebastian Vettel almost had an identical accident, but somehow completed his 360 degree spin with the slightest of touches on the wall.
Everywhere you looked in between the mayhem there were battles going on, and driving of supreme skill. One of the benefits of the torquey turbo engines – from a viewer’s perspective if not a driver’s – is that these cars will slew sideways at the drop of a hat, and there were armfuls of opposite lock visible in every cockpit. Fantastic.
But as ever, calling the right tyre at the right time proved decisive. When the race restarted on lap 27 after the second safety car, Fernando Alonso was leading, with an impressively tenacious Jean-Eric Vergne in second, Rosberg third and Lewis in fifth. By the time Alonso and Lewis made their last pit stops, on laps 38 and 39, and Ricciardo made his on lap 54, the scene was set for a final 10-lap showdown that delivered the sort of racing you couldn’t script – the two fastest guys in the world, battling the new superstar, all three on different strategies and trying to work miracles with tyres in different states of distress. Not to mention the now fast-charging Rosberg hunting all three down, on brand new rubber, and still smarting from Lewis’s failure to let him by earlier in the race. ‘I’m not slowing down for Nico. If he gets close enough to me, he can overtake me.’ Mercedes is apparently reviewing its approach to team orders, but for what it’s worth we’re totally with Lewis on this one.
Hamilton and Alonso both held Ricciardo off for as long as they could, but in a move of breathtaking audacity the Australian made it past Lewis at turn two on lap 67, and nailed Alonso in an even more brilliant lunge on lap 68, demonstrating an equal amount of faith in his brakes, as well as his own ability.
Alonso crossed the line less than two-tenths of a second behind Ricciardo’s Red Bull, Lewis was crawling all over his gearbox, and Rosberg was a scant half a second behind him. Four cars covered by a little over a second, after an hour and 53 minutes and 70 laps of racing, in seriously challenging conditions.
And Bernie thinks he needs to spice up the show?