F1, Hungary: where it’s impossible to overtake. Most of the time…

F1, Hungary: where it’s impossible to overtake. Most of the time… 01

At the Hungaroring, you don’t overtake. Which is a bit like saying that in London it rains all the time, and that there aren’t any seasons anymore. But if we just stick to raw numbers, this statement is actually not too far from the truth in the case of the Hungarian Grand Prix venue.

Of the 33 races that have taken place there up until 2018, the person starting from pole position has won 15 times. On six other occasions the person who has started from second on the grid went on to win. That’s not a complete validation of our theory but it does go to show how much the people who start at the front in Hungary have a good possibility of keeping their rivals behind them. However, as is the case for most rules, there are some notable exceptions – and these are often the ones that stand out and write history.

Let’s start with 1986: the year that Budapest made its first appearance on the Formula 1 World Championship. Just by existing, the race was a landmark in itself: Formula 1 had finally penetrated what was known back then as the Iron Curtain. Only a few hundred kilometres away was the Berlin Wall and communism was still in full force throughout countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, which were very much separated from the rest of Western Europe.

The journalists who landed in Hungary’s capital for the first time found shop windows that were empty and bare, albeit a bit more well-stocked than those in some of the other countries we have mentioned.

A short stroll from the Chain Bridge – a Hungarian icon that crosses the Danube – were ancient buildings still bearing bullet holes from the artillery fired in the Second World War. But to the northeast of Budapest, in the gently rolling countryside around the village of Mogyorod, the Hungaroring had emerged: a notable concession to capitalist values and the western lifestyle, even though the grand prix press officer was a military person. She was called Erika Laszlo, running a small army of colleagues who were yet to discover what even a fax was. Personal computers, on which articles would be written and sent, were still science fiction at the time. 

F1, Hungary: where it’s impossible to overtake. Most of the time… 02

But back to the race. Ayrton Senna was on pole position in his Lotus – and that was no big surprise given that the Brazilian was already the reference point when it came to setting fast laps. Alongside him on the front row was Nelson Piquet in the Williams. Senna got away well and set about building a healthy lead. His Lotus was noticeably slower than the Williams of Piquet, but the circuit’s layout gave Senna a helping hand. The Hungaroring is mainly about short corners – none of them quick – and it’s not the sort of place where a driver can let the car drift and play with the limits of adhesion. Through all those corners the racing line is in fact extremely narrow. 
Ducking out of it to try and overtake inevitably leads to some big slides. And then there is the searing heat of August in Budapest, making life more difficult for everyone.

For 31 lap, Senna dominated. Piquet followed him – always menacing, but never quite able to find a way past. Not even the pit straight – nearly a kilometre long – offered him enough of a drive to pass heading into the long corner that immediately follows it: which is wider but has an adverse camber that makes it extremely tricky. Nonetheless by the end of lap 31, Piquet had done it. Senna carefully defended the inside of the corner, forcing the Williams to the outside at high speed onto the track limits. Piquet had to resort to rally-style opposite lock to save the situation and it looked like that was that: Senna was staying ahead. Piquet had taken big risk but he had somehow got away with it: better to settle for second. But champions never think that way, and on the following lap Piquet attacked again. It was exactly the same manoeuvre: round the outside, with armfuls of opposite lock. 

This time however he kept his right foot to the floor and manage to make it stick, with a move that looked like it was straight out of a film. It was one of Senna’s rare defeats in hand to hand combat: unusually, he had to settle for second. If the memories of that single overtaking move seem clear and stark it’s because they don’t often happen like that in Hungary.

But in 1989 there was another exception. The world championship was all down to Williams and McLaren, with Riccardo Patrese and Senna claiming pole and second on the Hungaroring grid respectively. But from the sixth row of the grid started Nigel Mansell, in a Ferrari that was mediocre at best in qualifying: 2.2 seconds back from pole. The other Ferrari fared a bit better: Gerhard Berger qualified sixth thanks to a time that was more than half a second faster than his English team mate. When it came to the race, it was a somewhat different story. Patrese dominated until his Williams developed a few gremlins that forced him to concede the lead to Senna.
 
But the real drama was taking place behind them. Mansell was like a man possessed: his Ferrari was flying and he seemed to be able to overtake anywhere, using lines that had never been seen before on this slow and slippery circuit. On the lap 57, Mansell screamed up to Senna’s McLaren like a hurricane and started to make his move on the long climb behind the pit straight; a place where the superior horsepower of the Honda turbo should give a big advantage.

But the Ferrari was unstoppable. By the time Senna saw it loom large in his mirrors, it was already too late. He took the desperate gamble of trying to use the slipstream of Stefan Johansson’s Onyx to get past and put a car between them. Mansell understood what was going on and placed his car half a metre behind the McLaren’s right-rear wheel, meaning that Senna had no room to get past on the right, and instead had to back off to avoid running into the Onyx. 

The rest is part of Ferrari legend. Mansell was away, and he won by nearly half a minute. On the pit wall, nobody could compute such a win, achieved against so many odds. When Mansell finally climbed off the podium with the trophy, he was hugged so hard that he was nearly suffocated – especially by sporting director Cesare Fiorio.

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