Formula 1, Hungarian Grand Prix: overtaking wanted

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Passing is impossible in Hungary – and that’s straight out of the book of universal truths, chapter one. It’s a point well worth making, as the track located just to the east of Budapest seems to have been specifically created to encourage high-speed traffic jams, with the sort of processions that only a technical problem, driving mistake, or minor miracle can disrupt.

The Hungaroring is essentially a series of corners, none of which are sufficiently quick to give the drivers sleepless nights, on either side of the single short straight that makes up the start-finish. The track is pretty narrow (apart from that solitary straight) and above all there’s only one real racing line – which is about the width of a car. Off the line, there’s all sorts of dirt and debris. This makes it not really worth going there, as the grip just disappears.

All these factors often mean that the Hungarian race is a fairly boring affair. Overtaking – the very thing that makes races exciting – is quote a rare commodity. But the very first grand prix in Hungary was something that was truly out of the ordinary. It was 1986: the Berlin Wall was still standing firm and the sudden arrival of Formula 1 behind the Iron Curtain seemed almost like a transgression of the Warsaw Pact: an attempt to break the deadlock of the Cold War. The media centre was even run by a somewhat terrifying colonel from the Hungarian army – Erika Laszlo – who ruled over the journalists as if they were her personal cadets. The whole operation was a paradigm of military precision. Normally in those days, if you wanted to use the telex or fax machines – or even the telephone sometimes – you needed luck on your side. But at the Hungaroring, everything ran like clockwork. It was the race itself that attracted the most attention though.

That was down to two Brazilians, Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet, who lined up alongside each other on the front row for what looked set to be a race that would be decided by the first corner. For 32 laps, that’s exactly how it was: Senna’s Lotus got the better start, and occasionally allowed the Williams of Piquet to close to within a few centimetres, bit never more. Piquet wasn’t one to abide by conventional wisdom, however – both on and off the track. At the end of lap 31, he decided to make a move. And given that there aren’t really many places where it’s possible to overtake at the Hungaroring, he chose a place that was definitely impossible: around the outside at the corner immediately after the pits straight.

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You can still look up on YouTube what happened next, right here: Senna defended his line while Piquet, going the long way round, nearly span his car at 250kph but gathered it all up with an instinctive rally driver move; somehow managing to keep it on the road. That was that, we all thought: nice try. But at the end of lap 32 he tried it again – in exactly the same place. Once more the car got sideways, once more he counter-steered, but this time Piquet kept his foot in too – and emerged in the lead. It was a mesmerising manoeuvre, rewarded by a race win.

Something similar happened in 1989, but without the on-track acrobatics. Senna was on the front row once more, behind the Williams of Riccardo Patrese (who had qualified on pole) while Nigel Mansell started a lowly 13th in his Ferrari. Patrese made a clean start and looked set for a predictable win. But after 52 laps the Williams ground to a halt, putting Senna into the lead. Game over? Not quite. Because Mansell, who had worked his way up the field with a series of stunning overtaking manoeuvres, eventually found himself right behind the McLaren, which was faster on the straights. So Mansell was going to have to improvise. He ducked out of Senna’s slipstream on the slight rise after the pit straight, right when the Brazilian was about the lap the Spirit of Stefan Johansson. With nowhere to go apart from the back of the Spirit, Senna was forced to lift off. That was Mansell’s opportunity to take the lead and hang onto it for the final 20 laps to the finish. Check it out right here:

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And that brings us up to date. The Hungaroring isn't actually too different now to how it was back then: to overtake, you still need a miracle, or a stroke of genius. But Hungary itself is a very different place. Gone is the austerity of the Iron Curtain. These days Budapest is a cosmopolitan European capital, which attracts tourists from all over the world – especially during the grand prix weekend. It’s a country that has grown phenomenally, year on year. And the race that in 1986 seemed to be a bit of an experiment is now a constant fixture on the F1 calendar, run for the 36th time this year. Many other, more celebrated, races have come and gone. But Hungary is still there.

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