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Race Day : August 10th 1997

A Long and winding road: Hot and dusty for

The 12th Hungarian Grand Prix: Hungaroring


Williams team boss Frank Williams won’t be mentioning it out loud and certainly his drivers, Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz Harald Frentzen wouldn’t dare mention it to him, but he will undoubtedly have his private thoughts for this coming weekend. For, here last year, was where he tied up the Constructors championship title with a definitive 1, 2 win, his two drivers crossing the line barely three quarters of a second apart, a massive 141 points accrued for the team. The drivers shared victories in 9 out of the 11 races contested so far, and at the same time equalled the points record previously set by Ferrari. Perhaps more to the point, was that a Williams driver also occupied the lower steps of the podium on 6 occasions, 5 of them second places. The strength of the Williams cars was obvious but few seemed to acknowledge the support that the two drivers maintained for the team and the consummate skills required to stay in such close proximity to each other throughout the season.

Villeneuve in his first year of F1, learning the tracks and driving out of his skin and Damon Hill, as seems to be his personal cross to bear, suffering the slings and arrows from the press and his team boss for any small lapse of concentration or purpose were, in hindsight, the dream team. Even the great Michael Schumacher could not have amassed all those points single handedly (Eddie Irvine at best last year, was an encumbrance) and even with the second best current driver in the world (who? Hill? Villeneuve? Alesi? Berger?), the points position after the eleventh race of the season, probably would not have been a great deal different.

Should Williams score a double this weekend, it would only bring their tally to 91 constructor’s points, 50 less than last year and had Ferrari not suffered a major hiccup at the British Grand Prix, it would be less. The Wisdom of Frank William’s choice of second driver now must seem suspect to one and all, yet we all know that he is a man, like Eddie Jordan, of rare vision and it is seldom that he gets things so wrong.

It is unquestionable that Frentzen is quick, even the lowly punter can see his potential, but is it all a bit too early? Can Williams afford to wait until Frentzen blooms into bud and starts filling the pits with the rich perfume of success? Frank will be a brave man to keep the young German on for a second year, but the feeling is that he must, if only to protect his investment. To fatten Frentzen’s skills up this season and then release him to another team would be unwise, yet the acid test will come, if he is kept on, next season. If he doesn’t make good, then Williams has saddled himself with a slow horse for the whole season. It is also important for the team to groom a German for championship status, as the rumours of a tie up with BMW, make the inclusion of a German in their driver package a sound business deal as well. But then with Michael Schumacher free from his Ferrari contract at the end of next year, who knows how many noughts Frank might be prepared to put on his cheque? Realistically, he has only Villeneuve to rely on this season to grab the driver’s title, as even he must see that the constructors crown is slipping away and unless Frentzen suddenly picks up some form, the Canadian cannot do it on his own.

Going by Frentzen’s form in the last two races, he would do well to stay out of second slot on the grid. By getting the ‘dirty’ side of the track his attack for the front could be fraught with danger. A fast acceleration along the pit straight to the first 180 degree blind corner will demand heavy braking and the avoidance of other moving objects is of paramount importance.

Alan Jenkins, Stewart Grand Prix Technical director, says of the circuit, "You will see clouds of dust at the beginning of every session. The conditions can change constantly according to the amount of dust carried on to the track by the wind, by cars going off or support vehicles." He also commented on the pressures of fitting in a good lap whilst waiting for the track to clean itself. "There is a notable reluctance on everyone’s part to be first out on the circuit and clean it up for everybody else, which often makes for a very quiet first part of the practice sessions." He said. "As yet Formula 1 has not established a procedure stating who should clean the track for the others! Schumacher thanked Rubens Barichello for doing that in Canada but I don’t imagine we can expect him to return the compliment in Budapest!."

The Hungaroring is a slow circuit with straight line speeds slower than Monaco and an average speed only a little higher. It is also a high downforce circuit and with 16 corners, good lap times are not easy.

Built in 1984 and host to the first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix in an Iron Curtain country, the Hungaroring in 1986, saw one of the largest ever crowds at an F1 event in that opening year. Over 200,000 eager fans saw Nelson Piquet take the chequered flag for the first time in a championship race in the Eastern Bloc. The race being unexpectedly slow, was curtailed after the two hour time limit expired, a lap short of the scheduled 77.

Motor racing in Hungary dates back to 1936 when the Budapest GP was held in Nepliget Park over a 5 Km figure of eight circuit. It was won by Nuvolari driving a Ferrari entered Alfa Romeo. The war years provided spasmodic racing and it was only in the 1960’s after Budapest’s airport at Ferihegy was used for Formula Junior, that European Touring car championship events were held on a modified version of the park in the centre of the city.

The Hungaroring was a brand new track built in a natural bowl and designed to give spectators maximum viewing. It has an almost oval infield and a multi cornered outfield taking it into the Harmas Forrest close by the village of Mogyorod about 12 miles North East of the city. Only one small alteration has been made since it’s construction, bridging the original downhill chicane after turn two behind the paddocks. Put there originally to by-pass a previously undetected underground spring, the unpopular chicane was straightened to provide the only fast section of the circuit. Nigel Mansell’s 1992 World Championship was decided here and Damon Hill won his first Grand Prix in 1993. "The city of Budapest has a special atmosphere, and the atmosphere of the circuit is also very pleasant," said Michael Schumacher and, sounding a bit like the elder statesman of F1, he added "With the public sitting on the grass, it reminds me of the old days in racing." Well, pass me the Ovaltine and the Daily Sketch.

The race is usually one of the less exciting moments of the season, processional out of necessity, as there are so few passing places. Jordan’s Gary Anderson explains, "There are 16 corners per lap and the drivers will need to get a rhythm going and learn to drive their cars smoothly through theses corners. It is also impossible to overtake and this, plus the fact that tyre wear will create the need for more pit stops than usual, makes race strategy in Hungary crucial." In fact the last three Grands Prix have been won by drivers on three stop strategies. Eghbal Hamidy Aerodynamicist with Stewart thinks otherwise: "Tyre wear here is generally very low, which means a probable one stop strategy for most teams. If you plan just one, you minimise your chances of losing time in traffic."

This leads one to surmise therefore that the top four teams will probably go for more stops than the lower half of the grid, as their power advantage will take them more easily through the slower back-markers. It will be interesting to see where Rubins Barichello and Jan Magnussen are, half way through the race. The fact that the lower half of the grid contain all the Bridgestone runners, may prove eventful and with a reputation for keeping their tyres going longer, we may indeed see the Goodyear shod cars stopping three times out of necessity.

‘Passing in the pit lane’ at the Hungaroring may be the only chance of a podium finish for Damon Hill and the singularly unspectacular TWR/Arrows team.

Ferrari not really suited to such a twisty course, surprised the spectators last year by taking pole in the mercurial F310. Gearbox selection problems curtailed his race with only seven laps remaining giving Villeneuve and Hill the space to take the Constructors title for Williams.

For Benetton also, the circuit is not conducive to their approach, despite their victory in 1994 with the Cosworth. As with Ferrari in 1996, it was Schumacher rather than the car, that won them the points. Gerhard Berger after such a brilliant comeback a fortnight ago must surely have sparked a positive wave of renewed motivation through the Enstone factory, but he cannot be expected to maintain such indomitable form, yet a higher placing than of late could be on the cards.

"It may have been our first victory for some time, but we see it as the start of something again and of a 'let's get on with it now attitude." says the team’s Technical Director, Pat Symonds. "Everyone is very highly motivated, especially Gerhard and Jean who just want to win as much as everyone else. But Hockenheim and Hungaroring are at opposite ends of the spectrum so we can make no assumptions and will have to work very hard if we are to do it again."

The Jordans of Giancarlo Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher should go well, as the constantly improving Peugeot engine is flexible enough in the slow corners to push them to what little straight line speed is attainable. The Italian, so cruelly beaten by a puncture at Hockenheim, will now be desperate to find a win before being forced out of a two year contract with the team by Flavio Briatore who has taken up his option on him for Benetton in 1998.

Mika Hakkinen in the McLaren, made 3 points from last years race and with the recent upturn in form him and the evolution Mercedes engine, there is no reason why he should not find himself on the podium. "Despite the inherent difficulties of the track, I am looking forward to the race," He said. "The Finnish supporters always make the Hungarian Grand Prix something special."

Ferrari, the prancing horse turned lion, is now in the driving seat and looks likely to pull off a victory with Schumacher, provided pole position can be achieved. The Senior German driver is well aware of the pitfalls of the circuit. "The configuration of this circuit is similar to Magny Cours. Normally it is very slippery because there is all the sand on the track surface and is a bit bumpy as well. It is always quite difficult to find the right set-up and the race often turns out to be tough because the absence of long straights means that you never have a chance to relax."

Of the 572 points that the past 11 Hungarian Grands Prix have thrown up, Williams have taken 212, by far, the greatest points tally for this particular race. Whether they can add another 32 to that score remains to be seen, but if the new improved and leaner Ferrari grabs that pole position, quite literally, it wont be seen for dust.


Chris Richardson:


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