The 2009 Formula One World Championship has amounted to a drama of significant shifts in competition which have been as entertaining as they've been abrupt. Brawn GP stormed out of the gate with six wins in seven grands prix with Jenson Button at the wheel after two seasons at the arse end of the grid under the Honda banner.
Then came the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, which produced another tectonic shift in the competitive order as Red Bull rocketed to the top with a genesis of a B-spec car. The Brawn car, on the other hand, appeared human, struggling to generate heat in the tires and to fight off the pace of teams like Ferrari and Williams. The situation remained the same for the next race at the German Grand Prix, and Red Bull cut significant chunks out of Brawn GP's seemingly insurmountable lead in both the driver and constructor championships.
The Hungarian Grand Prix from the beginning promised to be a very pivotal moment in the Formula One season. The official beginning of the second half the season, it would provide the ultimate revelation of the true order of competition in the current championship. With the prospect of hotter weather suiting its chassis and a self-proclaimed significant upgrade, many expected the race to be the site of Brawn's counter-attack against Red Bull with improved performance.
Instead, we saw something completely different at the Hungaroring: a new challenger for wins and significant points who will greatly upset the title fight in a previously unimagined way.
McLaren's 2009 iteration—the MP4-24—has been the joke of the paddock for most of the season. Very rarely in the history of F1 does a team produce a car capable of being driven to a world championship one season only to produce a dog stuck at the back end the next, but this is exactly the car bestowed upon 2008 World Drivers' Champion Lewis Hamilton at the beginning of the season.
A joke it no longer is. After struggling to make Q2 as recently as Silverstone, the team moved an upgrade scheduled for the Hungaroring forward to the German Grand Prix. The upgrade immediately paid off, as the car gained 7-8 tenths of a second per lap in performance according to team principal Martin Whitmarsh.
Unfortunately, the strong performance of the car in practices and qualifying was thwarted at the opening of the race. After both Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen (who did not have the full upgrade of the car due to manufacturing constraints, but nonetheless got the bulk of it) rocketed off the line, Hamilton's right-rear tire punctured in contact with Red Bull's Mark Webber as he entered the first corner, sending him wide while ruining his race. Kovalainen fought valiantly in the first stint while bringing home a solid points finish.
The performance that the Nurburgring highly encouraged McLaren's prospects for the Hungaroring, especially considering that both drivers would have the full upgrade and that the low-speed and technical circuit theoretically plays to the car's strengths. Furthermore, McLaren's recent record at the circuit is outstanding, with three poles and victories in the last four races.
But no one expected the performance from the MP4-24 this weekend that it ultimately delivered. Quickest in every practice and fast in qualifying, onlookers expected the McLaren drivers to have another outstanding KERS-charged start and score significant points, perhaps even a podium. A shot at victory, however, appeared slim, with the Red Bull drivers qualifying second and third and seemingly having the strongest car in the field.
Hamilton delivered something completely different. He rocketed off the line up to second on the grid in turn one, but a moment of over-steer cost him time and he fell behind Webber. Shockingly, however, he stayed on Webber's diffuser and pulled off a rare Hungaroring overtaking maneuver in fine form in the stretch from turn one into turn two.
More surprisingly, Hamilton left Webber in the dust as he proceeded to set a blazing pace in the first stint. He assumed the lead once the extremely lightly-fuelled Fernando Alonso pitted and never looked back, managing the rest of the race to perfection to deliver an authoritative victory in excess of 11 seconds over Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.
The Plot Thickens
The increasingly intriguing championship fight between Brawn GP and Red Bull was already shaping up to tighten end in dramatic fashion. It has taken a fresh and violent turn with McLaren's arrival back to the top.
McLaren are all but mathematically out of both championship fights, as Hamilton is 51 points behind Button and the team is a staggering 86 points behind Brawn in the constructors' championship. With only seven races left, their only chance to take either title is if Hamilton wins out the rest of the year while Kovalainen delivers significant points each race and the Brawn and Red Bull drivers struggle to score. The latter part simply won't happen.
Still, McLaren will have a major say in who ultimately becomes champion with a car that will challenge for race wins and significant points the rest of the season. This will surely not be Hamilton's last win of the year, and Kovalainen will continue to score significant points, especially considering that he will soon have an even further upgraded front wing rushed on to Hamilton's car at the last moment this weekend.
Red Bull could do without this development, as they are the hunters of Brawn and still face a significant gap to overcome in both championships. They may have a significant performance advantage over Brawn, but they do not need McLaren at the front of the field taking points off of them. They need all the points they can get and can't afford to give the brilliant engineers at Brawn time to diagnose their car's current woes.
Also complicating matters is what appears to be improved form from Renault, Ferrari, and Williams. All three are behind McLaren now, but their cars have improved significantly over the course of the season. All three teams are now good enough to regularly threaten to take points off of Brawn and Red Bull should their drivers have bad starts or poor qualifying efforts.
Fallout, and More Observations
Hamilton has probably done more for his stock as a driver with his performance and win in Hungary—and for his work in helping McLaren develop the car—than anything he's previously done. He's revealed a lot about himself as a man and a driver. Rather than retreating in the significant adversity he's faced this season, he has shut up, gotten to work on helping McLaren develop the car, and driven it for all it's worth.
The fact that McLaren could not utilize Pedro de la Rosa in tests this year and have had to rely on their race drivers' feedback while developing the car speaks a lot about Hamilton's technical aptitude and development as a driver. The team now has a race winner that was at the back of the grid as recent as two grands prix ago, and Hamilton's contribution to the cause is certainly no small one.
Considering other aspects of Hamilton's drive today, he displayed a maturation and rounding in his driving that seemed missing before. He has for the duration of his short career maintained the reputation of an ever-aggressive and exuberant hard charger who infamously tortures his front tires with incredibly late breaking and has given away a number of potential wins and top finishes with mental errors.
The race hinted that Hamilton has finally learned the concepts of composure and patience. He tempered his ruthless wrangling of pace out of the MP4-24 in the first stint and whenever needed and possible with cerebral easing off in the second stint to manage his option tires for a long run. At least in one race, Hamilton displayed the complete driver he could always be with smoothing of his rough edges.
Hamilton now appears to be having the type of season Alonso had last year, which confirmed to many people that the Spaniard is the top driver in Formula One. Like Alonso last season, he began the season with a highly under-performing car, and one arguably worse than the Renault of last season. Hamilton has imitated Alonso's determined performance of last year in helping the team develop a race winner from a pile of rubble and has delivered such a result.
Hamilton will probably receive the same type of praise Alonso got last year, and deservedly so. While he was already a firm contender in many people's minds for the title of top driver in Formula One, he has rather unquestionably cemented his place in that conversation now.
Speaking of Alonso, he must be absolutely gutted after Renault ruined his race and opportunity for a nice points finish with an inexplicable error on the first pit stop. He drove the first stint beautifully and quickly, unquestionably getting everything he could out of the car and doing exactly what he needed to earn significant points. The team has now been rightfully suspended for the European Grand Prix for making a blunder that is unbecoming of Formula One, especially in light of one of its top drivers nearly losing his life from a blow to the head of a dislodged damper spring.
However, an interesting situation now emerges ahead of Valencia. Formula One MUST have Alonso in the race in his home country of Spain or risk losing the vast majority of its attendees and a disaster of a grand prix weekend.
Furthermore, the injured Felipe Massa will clearly not be ready in time to race there for Ferrari. This opens up the opportunity, at least for one race, for the move that everyone says and seems to want to happen: Alonso driving a Ferrari.
It is not unheard of for a driver to drive for a team in a season while also being under contract with another team. Sebastian Vettel tested for BMW-Sauber in 2007 and filled Robert Kubica's seat for a race while also being under contract with Red Bull. He would later go on to fill the seat at Toro Rosso vacated by Scott Speed's removal.
The circumstances all line up too perfectly for this not to happen. Surely Alonso, Renault, and Ferrari can make an arrangement to put him in the seat, and you can bet a lot of people on all relevant sides have already thought about it if not openly discussed it.
Everyone would surely want to see it happen for a race. It would not only save Valenica from being a disaster after already underwhelming in its first grand prix, but the idea of arguably the best racing driver in the world racing for the most storied team in motorsport would make the weekend possibly one of the most anticipated events in all of sports for the year.
It would even do Raikkonen some good. Needing some strong performances to perhaps save his Formula One career if you believe the rumors of his dismissal, the Iceman would get the external motivation boost he seems to occasionally need to deliver to his potential.
Many may think Renault would oppose such a move, but the only man there with much of a say is Flavio Briatore. We should all remember than not only is he Alonso's manager but also the owner of F1's television rights in Spain. He'll quickly realize he will benefit from such a move.
And if it has to come to it, the ever profit-savvy Bernie Ecclestone will likely interject with his influence to make it happen.
It's quite clear that Brawn have work to do to claw back their pace of earlier in the season and challenge for wins and significant points. They are not only behind Red Bull now, but McLaren as well, and they are not comfortably racing Williams, Ferrari, Renault, or Toyota, either.
Button's comments after the race indicated that it may not be as simple an issue as the weather hurting the car's ability to generate heat in the tires. He specifically stated that the car is not as well-balanced as it was earlier in the season, and he even stated on his Twitter page that the team struggled with rear tire graining.
Thankfully for Brawn, McLaren have bought them time with their newly found race-winning form that will thwart Red Bull's challenge. But they cannot waste time, as their lead may be significant in both championships, but the previous two grand prix weekends have shown just how many points may be made up in a short time.
The Hungaroring has a reputation as a particularly technical driving circuit that bestows success on the most talented among the pilots, and along with Hamilton's resounding win, many drivers impressed during the race. Timo Glock followed his impressive second place finish at the circuit last season with an impressive drive from his 13th place grid position to a sixth place finish.
Glock has made a habit this season of producing underwhelming qualifying performances and impressive race drives, coming up the grid from midfield or back-marker starting positions to earn good, and often points-paying, finishes. His drive today and followed the script, as he started the race in 13th spot and eventually earned a sixth-place finish.
If Glock could get his qualifying issues sorted, he would really start shining. In any event, it's quite likely that top teams in the sport are looking at his season thus far and thinking about him for one of their race seats.
Mercedes has repeatedly stated they want German drivers, and spots at McLaren and Brawn may open for Glock for next season. In any event, he is a highly underrated driver who deserves more credit than he gets and who looks to make a top team a very happy employer in the future.
Nico Rosberg scored another strong points finish. This is his fourth consecutive top-five finish, and it couldn't come at a better time for him with an expiring contract and both McLaren and BMW reportedly coming to him with offers for 2010. A podium, and perhaps even a number of them, may be very soon forthcoming for Rosberg, and this will only increase his value.
All things considered, Williams have really done a nice job in keeping their car developed despite being under-resourced relative to the top teams in F1. They now have a more competitive car than their big-budget engine supplier at Toyota, and they are giving championship leader Brawn fits.
Williams likely doesn't have a shot at keeping Rosberg with bigger teams are after him, but they're showing some real talent in their engineering pool. With cost-cutting agreed to among the big-budget teams, they are positioned to compete on a more even playing field in coming seasons.
The team is also surely earning a solid return in their Formula Two venture, and continued success may yield more sponsorship opportunities. The stars are lining up for the formerly great Williams team to return to truly competitive form, especially considering the apparently inevitable promotion of uber-talent Nico Hulkenberg next season.
The two Finns in the field deserve plenty of credit. Raikkonen delivered a very strong performance in getting an excellent start and extracting the absolute maximum out of the Ferrari today, earning his second podium of the season in the difficult F60. He has always been good at the Hungaroring, a very technical track that really tests the driver, and today he aced the test.
Raikkonen perhaps was inspired to perform with the tragedy befalling his teammate in qualifying, and the team ultimately dedicated the finish to Felipe Massa. Hopefully he will continue the form he showed today for the rest of the season and, provided its his wish, stay in Formula One. When he is on, the Iceman is one of the greatest drivers in F1 history.
Kovalainen also deserves credit for his finish this weekend. The McLaren has improved, to be sure, but he is starting to overcome his poor form early in the season and the pressure he is surely facing with nearly everyone saying he'll be dropped at the end of the season. If Kovalainen can build on the solid performances and points finishes of last two grands prix with a strong run down the stretch, he will surely have no problem finding a seat in F1 next season.
While McLaren seem certain to drop him, Kovalainen may yet make a strong case for keeping his seat. There is no question he is a talented driver who can deliver results when he is on, and there is a lot to be said for the stability within the team since he paired with Hamilton last season.
One driver who did not help his pedigree so much this weekend is Nelsinho Piquet, who has probably seen his last race at Renault. He did not deliver a strong performance at the Hungaroring, and Briatore was caught on camera exiting the circuit with the race not yet complete in a display of clear disinterest in Piquet's race after Alonso's retirement. Romain Grosjean seems certain to get his much-anticipated debut at Renault, and what a place to do it at Spa.
Piquet never seemed to produce results worthy of his name. It is admittedly difficult to enter Formula One as the teammate of a two-time world champion, and it was very unrealistic to expect him to match the standard of arguably the best racing driver in the world. Still, Piquet did not seem to progress much in his mostly mediocre form, and it became clear that he was not destined for success with Renault.
He may yet find a way to stay in F1, however. His father is still a three-time world champion with plenty of contacts, and three new teams will enter this year with a need for a F1 driver who knows the cars. Piquet may also be a candidate for a test/reserve role with a lower-end team, which may give him an opportunity to eventually work his way back into F1.
The 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix marks a tectonic shift in the championship. The remainder of the season will thrill, and it's too bad we have to wait four weeks to pick it up again.