HUNGARIAN GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
Just what the doctor ordered
For the last month or two Formula 1 has been looking rather frail. The show has not been up to much and while Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso have emerged as two men in search of a title, the races have been rather less than action-packed. But the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix was a many-splendoured piece of theatre. Things did not go by the book - and thank goodness for that. There were heroes and villains, twists of fate and wild moments and at the end there was much rejoicing and even a few tears as Jenson Button won his long, long long-awaited first Grand Prix victory. New stars were born and old ones were left looking flawed.
It was just what the doctor ordered for F1. An adrenaline injection to the heart.
The story could not have happened but for the most bizarre weather seen in Hungary for many a year. Occasionally in August we have seen the River Danube rising up and threatening to burst its banks but usually the water has come from far-away mountains. Budapest itself is traditionally hot and sticky at this time of year. One does not bother to pack a sweater or a coat. Tyre companies do not bother sending cold-weather tyres.
And therein lies the tale of the weekend because everyone turned up in Budapest with the wrong tyres - and a lot of people turned up with the wrong clothing. It was wet and it was cold. One might even have said miserable. The skies were grey and the rainstorms were impressive.
Qualifying has left a strange grid with the big names down in the midfield and plenty of opportunity for someone other than Michael Schumacher or Fernando Alonso to win the race. Or that was how it seemed. With the track so damp that Felipe Massa, the man who was second on the grid, spun on his way to the pre-grid. On the final parade lap Pedro de la Rosa had a spin but fortunately managed to gather it all up in time to take his forth spot on the grid.
And then they were off hurtling blindly down the straight towards the first corner like some automotive version of the Charge of the Light Brigade. We held our breath because traditionally the first corner in Hungary is a mess.
Amazingly these magnificent men in their flying machines all managed to get through the turn without any major incident. There there things happening everywhere but a lot was lost in the spray. We caught glimpses of how it was that Michael Schumacher went from 11th to fourth and Fernando Alonso from 15th to sixth.
While they were doing this, Raikkonen was up and gone, intent on winning the race from the front. Initially he was chased into the first corner by de la Rosa but Barrichello was suddenly there. It was clear within a minute or so that Michelin had better tyres in the circumstances than Bridgestone. This point was made in the most emphatic way possible when after four laps Alonso drove around the outside of Michael Schumacher in Turn 7. It was a spectacular move but one which could only have been attempted with a great deal more grip than the car on the inside.
In those early laps as Raikkonen went away, Button was the man in the spotlight as he overtook Heidfeld, Coulthard, Massa, Fisichella and Michael in the space of just seven laps. Barrichello headed for the pits almost immediately because of a poor decision to race full wets. Rubens fell back to 10th.
The McLarens pitted on laps 16 and 17 (with de la Rosa going first and Raikkonen following). Button too was an early pit caller and Michael Schumacher joined him in pitlane after trying to stop himself being overtaken by Giancarlo Fisichella and tagging his front wing on the rear tyre of the Renault driver. Suddenly Michael was back to ninth.
All this put Alonso into the lead and he had built himself a huge advantage of 39secs by lap 25. We knew he had to pit but his advantage was enough to have emerged still in the lead by a good 15secs. That did not happen because on lap 26 second-placed Raikkonen crashed heavily into the back of Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso as he tried to lap the Italian. It was an odd accident because there seemed to be no reason at all why Kimi would have done it. Liuzzi did not change line nor really his speed and yet suddenly there was Kimi going up and over the Toro Rosso with bits of car flying in all directions.
According to an official McLaren statement after the race, Raikkonen said: "I could do nothing to avoid the collision with Liuzzi. He really slowed down on the racing line and there was just nowhere to go."
This was not what happened.
When Raikkonen and Liuzzi - old mates from karting days - discussed the matter Kimi confessed that he had been doing other things at that moment as he was about to allow de la Rosa to overtake him because Pedro was on a three-stop race. Kimi was looking his mirrors and did not notice the Toro Rosso until he getting an aerial view of it. De la Rosa had a very lucky escape as wreckage was going everywhere. And Liuzzi was pretty unhappy.
"It ruined both of our races," he complained. Running 12th may not sound like much but at the wheel of a Toro Rosso that is a pretty sensible achievement
It also ruined other plans.
The Safety Car appeared for five laps and Alonso's lead was wiped out. Although backmarkers ahead meant that when the race restarted Button (who did not pit under the Safety Car) was still nearly nine seconds down when the caution ended. In the laps that followed Alonso and Button duelled and then Jenson closed in. Button had to stop again but then we knew too that Alonso would have to do the same. As the track dried the timing of these stops become crucial.
Button stopped on lap 46 when he was right behind Fernando. He had made up a lot of time. In part because Alonso lost four seconds when he pushed the wrong button on his steering wheel; and in part because he had probably turned down the revs, hoping to get either more rain or a dry track so that he would not have to stop again.
"I was chasing after Alonso and the track was drying," Button explained. "I had to stop again and they asked me what I wanted to do and I said leave the tyres as they are and let's see what happens. That was the right decision."
Now Alonso had the advantage because the track was drying all the time. On lap 51 he headed for the pits. He took on dry tyres and set off, knowing that all he had to do was to catch Button and force his way through, or wait until the Honda driver had to stop.
But when he got to the first corner, Alonso discovered that he had a wheelnut that was loose. It fell off at Turn 2 and that was it for Alonso.
"These things happen in motor racing," he said, "but what an incredible race. The first part was fantastic, and the car felt really good in the wet conditions, even with a much bigger fuel load than our rivals. After the Safety Car, we avoided taking too many risks and with the dry tyres, I think it would have been a comfortable win for us today. But everything is relative and with Michael retiring, it means we haven't lost anything at all this weekend."
Well, not quite. As Button went off into the lead, stopped for dry tyres and still had time to enjoy his final laps, other things were happening. Schumacher was going very quickly on the drying track, trying to get the wet Bridgestone tyres to last the distance and gaining some extra speed as they lost their tread and became much the same as old-fashioned slicks. It was getting tougher and tougher with 10 laps to go as de la Rosa and BMW's Nick Heidfeld came up behind him and began to look at ways to grab second place.
Michael was willing to do a lot to keep the McLaren behind him. De la Rosa was so much faster than the Ferrari that he came close to passing the Ferrari several times but could not make it stick. On lap 64 he did it but Michael went across the chicane and took back the place when he ought by rights to have lifted off and given the position to de la Rosa.
"He jumped over the chicane, backed off, and then when I went into Turn 8 on the inside, thinking he was letting me go past," said Pedro. "And he suddenly accelerated and we clashed wheels. I didn't understand."
A couple of laps later Pedro finished the job and sped away while Heidfeld came up to fight with Michael.
It did not last long. Heidfeld is no weed and when Michael tried to hold him back, Nick kept coming. Michael ran into the back of the BMW and damaged his suspension.
"Of course I'm disappointed," Michael said. "We had a great opportunity but we did not take it."
Michael's demise promoted Barrichello to fourth, Coulthard to fifth, Ralf Schumacher to sixth and Robert Kubica to seventh - a great debut for the Polish driver, who had had a couple of spins along the way.
The last point went to Massa, who had had a terrible afternoon always seemingly on the wrong tyres until the final laps when he set a string of fastest laps.
Yet the story was not quite over. As Button celebrated the removal of a great weight from his shoulders, down in the scrutineering bay they were finding that Kubica's BMW was two kilograms short of the weight limit - because his tyres had been worn down so much. There was little hesitation. Kubica was out and those behind were promoted. Michael was suddenly eighth and in the points.
And yet the Ferrari driver had not been punished for not allowing de la Rosa to re-pass him after the incident at the chicane.
Surely the Race Director ought to have reported that one to the Stewards as well.
Michael got away with it and perhaps that one point will make a big difference in a few weeks from now. Perhaps not.
That may not seem fair but there was one other point that no-one seemed to notice. What in the world was a seven-time World Champion doing fighting like that when he could have gone home with five points if he had simply allowed de la Rosa and Heidfeld to go ahead.