A HACK LOOKS BACK

The Hungarian GP

A peculiar thing about the Hungarian GP and its reputation for processional racing is that it has also thrown up an occasional thriller. Choose your favourite. Most recently it was the wrangle in the rain, with Jenson Button coming through after a superb Prost-style finger-tip performance. Crikey, that's two long years ago now - and we're still waiting for Jenson to produce the follow-up win required to prove that 2006 wasn't a one-off. Believe it or not, but the Boy Wonder will be all of 30 in less than 18 months. Time, I suggest, to shave off that scruffy grey beard ...

The other Hungaroring spectaculars all melt back into history now. There was the Schumacher Miracle in 1998, when Ross Brawn put him on a three-stopper before telling him he would need to do 20 qualifying laps to take advantage of the strategy in order to get past the McLarens. Then there was Nigel Mansell making a nonsense of the "no passing" tradition by hurling himself past a dozen cars, including Ayrton Senna's, to take a great win in 1989. But I won't forget the inaugural race in 1986, when Nelson Piquet duelled with Senna in that scary downhill first corner to grab the first of Williams' seven Hungarian wins. The last of those, alas, was with Jacques Villeneuve in 1997.

The forecast for this weekend hints at heavy rain showers on Sunday, so maybe we'll get a surprise result. After Silverstone, though, you'd have to be a dedicated gambler to bet against Lewis Hamilton in the rain. With his GP2 experience and last year's win in Hungary, he certainly knows the place well enough by now.

Another slightly bewildering thing about the Hungarian GP is its popularity with fans from Finland, famous for their prodigious thirst and the blue cross flags which fly proudly over the grandstands all weekend. Many years ago, someone rather earnestly explained to me that the Finns preferred this race to any of the others in Europe because of the similarity of the Finnish language to Hungarian. This turns out to be true only insofar as the two languages are constructed in a similar way: the vocabulary, however, is totally different. The real reason is that Budapest has long been a cheapish destination for Finland's most popular no-frills airline.

If you've never been to Budapest, I can heartily recommend a visit. The place oozes history, there's lots of architecture and it doesn't have to be expensive. My mate Dan, with whom I've shared hotels and hire cars for longer than Sebastien Vettel's lifetime, had the brilliant idea a few years back of joining one of those hotel clubs which guarantees him a room at a budget price if he books it well in advance. As soon as the F1 calendar is announced, he gets on the web and books us a place in a half-decent chain hotel at a rate which would look good even if the biggest thing in town over that weekend was canoe racing on the Danube.

The procedure when we check out on Monday morning is getting familiar. "Aaaah, gentlemen," says the nice man on the front desk, presenting a bill for six times the rate that was advertised the previous October, "we have had to adjust the price of your room. It's because of the Grand Prix, you understand. So sorry about that."

Dan deftly responds by presenting Mr Smarty Pants with the hotel club's own advertising blurb ("Book Now!!! Make Sure of Your Three Star Accommodation!!! Guaranteed Rates!!!") and the nice man's face drops. I'm sure that the back office staff are under strict instructions to block off every room as soon as the date of the GP is confirmed. So far, so good, though: Dan's on the case before they are. This year, unfortunately, I won't be in Budapest to enjoy the Monday morning ritual at the check-out desk. It's probably fortunate, because sooner or later the smug look on my face was sure to attract a Hungarian knuckle sandwich ...

Of course, the Hungarians have ways of getting even. If you're approached in the street by anyone, keep on walking, because there's a chance your would-be friend will try to persuade you he's a government agent checking on illegal currency transactions and wants to examine the banknotes in your wallet, in case they're forgeries. Believe it or not, but some tourists actually fall for that one. Then there are the restaurants which offer to bill you in your own country's currency. Don't even think about it, or you'll find you've paid double.

Back on the racing front, it's intriguing to reflect that there have been years when the Hungarian GP was the race that settled the title. In 2008, with four different drivers and three different brands of car having won the first ten races of the season, the fight for the championship is clearly not set to be decided until the last couple of rounds. Even with just ten points separating the top four drivers, though, it is impressive to see how Lewis Hamilton has regained his grip on the battle.

I would like to think that I wasn't the only fan to be shocked when the British media took it upon themselves to attack Lewis back in June, just as he hit that awkward patch which culminated in the pitlane collision with Raikkonen in Canada and a ten-places-back penalty in France. Colleagues, especially the ones who write for daily newspapers, convinced themselves that Lewis had lost his touch.

It was certainly unfortunate that Lewis allowed himself to give the impression that he wanted to be the new Ayrton Senna when he should have been concentrating on establishing himself as the first Lewis Hamilton. But that wasn't the reason for his drop-off in form of course: it was the fact that the development of the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-23 had taken its handling in a direction that didn't suit Hamilton's stand-on-it driving style.

By the time the British GP came around in July, some new tweaks, including a more efficient front wing, had allowed Lewis to rediscover the sweet spot and regain the confidence in the car which he had enjoyed last year. In the most recent tests I'm pretty sure that the McLaren boffins have been concentrating on ensuring that Heikki Kovalainen is equally comfortable with the MP4-23, because Ferrari is most certainly not finished yet, and Lewis needs to be able to count on his team mate to fight with the Ferraris and to beat them on the occasions when he's not in the hunt, for whatever reason.

Mind you, it won't suit me too well if McLaren's popular Finn starts winning regularly, because I have a small wager with a Bulgarian photographer (don't ask, although inevitably, as I remember, alcohol was involved) that Lewis is going to beat his Finnish team mate to the title. The Hungarian GP has a history of proving good drivers with their first-ever victories (Damon Hill in 1993, then Fernando Alonso in 2003 and -- of course -- Our Jenson in 2006), so I won't be miffed if all those well-refreshed Finns urge their man on to success on Sunday.

But I'm more convinced than ever that this is going to be Lewis' big year. Bring it on.

Print Feature