Now that this is (hopefully) no longer a spoiler for everyone, it’s time to talk about the Hungarian Grand Prix and Jensen Button.
Make no mistake about it – this race weekend was all about Jensen. And that’s not just because the 2009 World Champion knows better than anyone how to employ strategy and navigate a track during unpredictable and changing wet/dry conditions to win (which he’s done twice now this season). Or because he went out and brought home his latest victory at the same place he secured his first in 2006. No - impressive as those things are, it’s because this was also his 200th time to start an F1 race. Ahhhhh, sweet victory…
Button started on the “clean” side of the track in 3rd, behind (whom else) Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel and his Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton. Those two traded places as race leader much of the first half of the race between a couple rounds of pit stops to replace those sensitive but oh-so-grippy Pirelli tyres and when rain pressured them to keep the noses of their cars pointing forward. Button hung behind these two until his veteran pit crew executed a mid-race stop and helped him sneak in front of Vettel; then Hamilton’s decision to go back out on the better-performing option/super-soft tyre during his would-be final scheduled pit stop required him to make one more before the end. Being the only one of the front runners who chose not to switch to the prime/soft tyre for their last stop proved to be a costly one, as that extra pit stop handed the lead over to Button.
Neither the front runners nor the weather let him have the win easily from there though. Hamilton - who would race his own mother hard ‘til the end – played cat and mouse with his own teammate (in true Hamilton fashion, I might add) for a few laps until just enough rain started falling to scare him back into the pits for intermediate (wet/dry) tyres. Unfortunately for Hamilton the rain was about as short-lived as a round of pit stops, and he had to switch back to the prime tyre a couple laps later. (And throughout all this drama I haven’t even mentioned Hamilton’s drive-thru penalty a few laps after, which he incurred before his prime tyre pit stop, when his attempt to recover from a spin forced Force India’s rookie driver Paul di Resta off the track.) When the weather finally left the track alone for good and all the pit stop and tyre strategies had worked themselves out, Button found himself with little more than some lap traffic ahead until the checkered flag.
The WTF moment of the day came when Lotus Renault's Nick Heidfeld came to a grinding halt on lap 32 shortly after leaving the pits when his car caught fire. Exhaust gases igniting were the cause of his second consecutive DNF.
Maybe this section should be titled “Where did you come from Paul Di Resta?” I posted after the Chinese Grand Prix in April how much Di Resta impressed me personally. In Hungary, the Scot moved up 4 places from his grid position to finish in 7th place, his best effort of his rookie season in F1. And maybe even more impressive then his final place was his ability to keep control of his car when Hamilton ran his Force India-Mercedes off the track while recovering from that spin. He’s had a good run of bad luck lately, moving backward from his starting position to finish each of the last 4 races, but maybe Hungary gave him a bit of the confidence boost he needed to finish the season strong and steal some more points from the usual suspects.
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso been looking great all season, winning the British Grand Prix and placing 2nd in Germany. He secured the last spot on the podium in Hungary and hasn’t finished lower than 7th all season except for one retirement in Canada. The two-time world champion is in the same boat as each of the other non-Sebastian Vettel front runners, but if anyone is able to chase down Vettel by the end of the season, he’s probably looking like the best man for the job. He reminds me a bit of Iceman from “Top Gun” in that he always drives ice cold…“No mistakes. Wears you down. You get bored, frustrated, do something stupid, and he’s got you.”
The Calm before the Storm
If there’s one thing indicative of the last three races (which have brought us three different winners), it’s that the championship hunt has just been blown wide open. F1 is taking a month off, but get ready for new vigor from all who still stand a chance (outside as it may be) to start running Seb down starting in Belgium. With 200 points still up for grabs, Vettel’s 85 point lead over his teammate Mark Webber looks relatively small by comparison. Can it be whittled down by one of the 4 guys directly behind him in the championship points? Some think he’s already won the championship this season with a lead like that…but in my mind, it’s not a question of if anyone catches him, but when. It is Formula 1 racing after all…