Some of today’s Grand Prix stars harbour fond memories of lapping the Hungaroring. After all, having been fortunate enough to claim a qualifying slot close to the head of the field, they were probably careful enough to avoid the inevitable wheel-rubbing that is all but guaranteed to have sidelined some of their rivals.
Formula One drivers always used to seek and be satisfied and thrilled by the season’s most tortuous and challenging racetracks. It was one of the reasons that so many of them were fascinated by the original Nordschleife Circuit that ran into the hills around Nürburg. Similar feelings existed for the Hockenheimring that claimed the life of Jim Clark.
However, the safety lobby arrived quite understandably and Jackie Stewart was outspoken about the risks posed by such venues, not least because he had ‘lost’ so many friends and colleagues over such a short period of his career. The speeds of the cars had increased, yet the circuits were lined by trees, with little to differentiate between spectator zones and the tracks themselves. Minimal run-off areas and, where they existed, little or nothing to inhibit inevitable clashes with the scenery caused major concerns.
// SKINNY RIBBON
Anachronisms remain, of course. Monaco is heralded, by fans and drivers alike, as the epitome of an era long gone, although it is loved for its curiosity value. You seldom hear of complaints about Armco-rattling, or the inability to pass in any safety. Last week’s 2012 German GP demonstrated that, even on a narrow Hermann Tilke-redesigned venue like the Hockenheimring, driver opportunism could result in the high-end thrills that are missing at the wider, safer and more modern circuits, in China, Dubai, India and Turkey. Yet, the Hungaroring tends to polarise those views.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, as a younger road-tester, I was there and I can still recall the impact of flying to Budapest. It was mysterious. People in black or dark grey cars followed us everywhere. It was a hangover of the rapidly changing political scene in what we now regard as ‘Eastern Europe’. Away from the drab greys and concrete beiges of the major conurbations, the circuit at Mogyoród was green and colourful.
The Grand Prix had been promised. Although even Bernie E. was nervous about the quantity of ticket sales. Yet, here were we…western motoring scribes…driving the ultimate examples of anti-Soviet, capitalistic motorcars…a fleet of Bentley Mulsanne Turbos. It was both right and so very wrong to two-wheel these automotive leviathans across the red and white kerbs, when they might have been better engaged wafting through city centre traffic in New York, Paris, Tokyo or London.
There were a few minor mishaps. Boiled brake fluid. Baked discs. Overheated suspension. Fortunately, no bumps, although the air in the paddock and pit lane was ripe with the scent of bronze-sintered linings and overworked Avon tyres. Bentley had confidence in the track and the various Bentley management personnel managed to raise a smile from time to time, not least when they explored the outer edges of their own road cars’ dynamics for themselves. The Hungaroring was undeniably narrow for a marauding Bentley and overtaking was virtually impossible, unless a colleague was heading for the pitlane.
// WINNERS DECIDE
Senna, never exactly renowned for complaining about circuit width, loathed the Hungarian track. He had good reason during the 1990 GP, when Belgian driver, Thierry Boutsen, kept his Williams ahead of the Brazilian by mere fractions of a second at the end of the race, Senna having struggled fecklessly to get by for most of the previous ten laps.
These days, even with the enthralling about-turn that appears to have enlivened the 2012 season, races are still won in the pitlane and you can guarantee that a clever strategy in that speed-restricted area will determine a winner this coming weekend. Mind you, a ballsy performance in 1989, by the inimitable Nigel Mansell, witnessed him passing no less than 11 cars from his midfield grid position, on his way to race victory. You will not hear Mansell complain about Hungary.
Damon Hill claimed his first-ever F1 win at the venue in 1993. Fernando Alonso, so adroitly leading this year’s Championship, did the same in 2003, underscoring his talents and being both the first Spaniard to win a GP, as well as being the youngest ever driver to lift such honours, all at Hungary. Top Brit, Jenson Button and Finland’s Heikki Kovalainen delivered the requirements in 2006 and 2008 respectively. Even the illustrious Michael Schumacher has a Hungarian claim to fame dating back to 2001, when he equalled Alain Prost’s long-standing record of 51 victories, while also securing a fourth World Title, thereby matching Prost’s tally, at the Hungaroring.
It is fair to suggest that Hungary has provided lots of happy memories. However, the twisting and moderately smooth tarmac of the present day track is a dramatic change from its earliest setting in one of Budapest’s city parks. Népliget was just over three miles in length, when its roadways became the venue for the Hungarian Grand Prix in 1936. The place reverberated to the soundtracks of Mercedes-Benz, Auto-Union and Ferrari, complete with their eye-burning dope fuels and impossibly brave drivers.
Thousands of local people flocked to spectate at that first ever Hungarian Grand Prix, although the actual numbers remain unconfirmed. However, this was a country riven by politics and, then, the war intervened, which put an end to such overt displays for the best part of fifty years, even though local racing did take place sporadically. A remarkable 200,000 paying customers and guests attended the landmark 1986 event, which was a figure unexpected for such a poor country that has seldom been repeated since, even though, for some reason, the place has become over-run by Finns in recent years, which ensures that Kovalainen, Raikonnen and Rosberg (he may have a stated nationality of German but his father, Keke, is staunchly Finnish) obtain healthy semi-partisan support.
// LOOKING FORWARDS
Today’s circuit is little changed from what was designed in the early-1980s, when Tamas Frank, Vice President of both the Hungaroring and the country’s motorsports’ body, created his outstanding Hungarian legacy. With a length of 4.381 kilometres (2.722 miles), the venue consists of a loop around the pitlane/paddock complex, with a drive out into the lovely countryside and back again, accompanied by some wiggles and woggles, with some strange camber changes that turn a conventional racing line into something somewhat odder. The circuit underwent some minor modifications in 2003, intended to improve overtaking prospects.
Last year’s victor was Button, although Lewis Hamilton took Hungarian race wins in 2007 and again in 2009. Mark Webber delivered the goods for Red Bull in 2010. Thanks to Ferrari’s new-found form, Alonso could build his championship lead this weekend and peck away at Red Bull’s team points simultaneously. Yet, with such an open championship this season, placing personal bets on a possible race outcome is a sure-fire way to reduce potential income.
One aspect is guaranteed. Both visitor attendances and the international TV audience will be substantial for the final race of this first half of the season, before the teams take their much-needed summer break. Of course, the visitors to the Hungaroring are well-served, with fabulous views across the natural ‘bowl’ created by the valley in which the circuit is laid out. If that helps to keep the place alive, then I reckon that I might be able to live with the inimitable procession that will probably count as the 2012 Hungarian effort in the championship. However, I would not count on Bernie being too delighted.
// LAPPING THE BOWL
With a whole month to go, before the customary seasonal blast through the Belgian forests at Spa-Francorchamps, F1 fans had better fill their boots with Hungary first. Taking a lap around the circuit, the main pitlane straight is also the start/finish zone and it is well-lined by spectator stands on one side, with the pitlane/paddock area opposite.
Jostling for position in the first lap melee will not produce any high speeds along this stretch, although race maxima around 291kph can be expected through the speed camera three-quarters the way along the straight, before braking very hard for the incredibly tight hairpin right of Turn One. This is also the pitlane exit, which needs care on approach during the race. The drivers enter this area in the vicinity of 180mph in seventh gear, grateful that it has a moderate run-off area to the left, downshifting in fast order to second, to negotiate the bend.
A short straight follows an opening right-hander, which courses downhill towards Turn Two, a tight left-hand bend, which is both narrow and off-camber and, again, demands second gear. It is a very constricted and slow bend, where tail-ending is prevalent. The cars accelerate briskly to the high g-force, fifth gear right-hander at Turn Three, before a high-speed uphill blast to Turn Four, which has a blind approach but departs off and slightly downhill to the left.
Third gear is good for Turn Five, a right-hander which can be taken at around 95mph. A short but fast straight alongside the left-side spectator banking takes the cars onto Turn Six to the right, with an immediate change of direction, a kind of extended chicane to the left, for Turn Seven. Another short but fast and level straight whisks the cars to Turn Eight, a fourth gear left-hander negotiated at around 115mph.
Turn Nine demands that the cars hug the kerbs in third gear (at around 100mph) heading right and downhill towards Turn Ten, a left-hander. Fast and flowing, this is probably the only section of the Hungarian circuit that does present a moderately smooth progression. Turn Eleven is a right-hander, taken in sixth gear at close to 160mph. However, care needs to be taken not to drift out too wide on the approach to Turn Twelve, another right-hander, at which standing on the brake pedal will prove necessary.
At this point on the circuit, the spectator stands can be seen up ahead, further accentuating the hilly nature of the venue. Turn Twelve demands second gear and is fairly slow, although it opens onto the long double-apex left of Turn Thirteen, another second gear, 60mph bend.
Just prior to reaching Turn Fourteen, the fairly lengthy pitlane access commences off to the right-hand side. It is a fairly steep climb to the right turning that necessitates a downshift from an entry in fourth gear to third, to ensure the fastest exit speed back onto the main start/finish straight and another lap of the Hungaroring.
To be honest, I am uncertain what the future holds for Hungary and its Grand Prix. The venue offers a mixed bag of benefits and demerits and, although Hungary has a developing economy, it is hardly racing ahead of the game in the current European economic climate. The circuit definitely requires some fairly major attention but, whether that will occur now that its front man is out of the frame remains in doubt.