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August 5, 2008

F1: Hungarian Grand Prix

Qualifying

Not very exciting. The McLarens locked out the front row, basically paddling their competitors. Ferrari seems to be falling off the pace with Felipe Mass qualifying third and Kimi Raikkonen sixth. Nick Heidfeld was held up in the last turn during his final qualifying lap, didn’t make it out of Q3. If I recall correctly the BMWs did not get on track until late in the session, which seems like a big risk to take.

Race

Massa made a fantastic start. Lewis Hamilton didn’t appear slow off the line but Massa just rocketed by. At the first turn it looked like he might’ve overcooked it locking up the tires briefly, but he managed to go around the outside of Hamilton which was advantageous because he would be inside for the next curve. After the pass he pulled out a steady lead.

Was Massa’s qualifying position a result of a driving error or was he running light for the race? It was hard to tell.

Raikkonen tried to go toward the inside line at the start and was boxed in. Fernando Alonso was able to get around him and stay there until the second round of pitstops. Raikkonen could not get by the Renault.

Sebastian Vettel went wide on the first lap and both Hondas got by. Nelson Piquet also lost a spot on the first lap to Jarno Trulli (?).

Hamilton eventually suffered a left front flat. The cause was unknown but he was lucky to be able to get back around to the pits without damage and losing many positions. Based on his record of flats and tire issues it seems he is harder on his tires than the other drivers. But he’s also extremely fast so it’s probably a function of the trade off between speed and tire wear.

There were a rash of refueling fires among the mid-field teams. Nothing race-stopping but definitely common enough to cause concern. Commentator Steve Matchett speculated they were caused by high air temperature. It was apparently very hot.

After his stop for a tire change, Hamilton seemed off his previous pace after the tire was replaced. It might be he was unsettled or was concerned about it enough that he wasn’t quiet as quick as at the beginning.

Three laps to go from the end Massa’s engine let go in a big way on the main straight. His race was lost and Heikki Kovalainen became the 100th different Grand Prix winner, Timo Glock managed an incredible second place with his Toyota, and Raikkonen rounded out the top 3. He also took fast lap after getting clear road. So Kovalainen woin his first grand prix!

Ferrari has had a number of engine failures this year and one has to wonder if the fact that McLaren supply all the teams’ engine control units (ECU) has any bearing on this. This is not to suggest foul play, but that McLaren has simply been bullet proof on the engine front because they designed the ECU while all the other teams have had to design or adapt their power train to that ECU.

The Ferrari drivers are splitting points and are both in it for the championship while Hamilton is the only McLaren driver who’s in the title fight. Heikki Kovalainen is too far back in the points to be a realistic challenger.

So Hamilton has total support (like Schumacher) from the team to go for the driver’s title, while Kovalainen’s re-signing for next year and his breakthrough win will probably see him to score more points regularly. McLaren’s pace of development has been astonishing. The four paddle steering wheel with a pair of controls for different engine torque maps seems to have boosted the performance noticeably (though it’s not the only reason). They’re looking very strong.

All the other teams are no doubt working on their own versions. However, I am not sure the controls are perfectly within the rules and we might hear rumblings later in the year about that – if competitors using it start dominating. I’m such a cynic but remember the controversy around mass damper systems a couple of seasons ago, among other technologies (ahem, active suspension).

Also, the KERS system for next year may be on target despite recent development incidents. No word yet on how Ferrari and McLaren are doing with them.

Finally, it appears to me Raikkonen will retire at the end of this year at the age of 29. It’s been denied time and again, but that’s only more proof that it will happen. For further proof, you just need to look at his performance at the last few races. He’s been slower than Massa in most qualifying sessions. I’d say he’s not as motivated as before, and that’s a pretty clear sign his heart is no longer in it. Hopefully it’s not true and he’ll stay, but I have my doubts. Don’t be surprised to see Alonso at Ferrari in 2009.

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