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Hungary: he who wins also loses

Hungary: he who wins also loses

Three of the greatest champions of the 21st century so far – Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton (to list them in the order that they won their titles) –previously demonstrated their pedigree on the Hungaroring: a circuit somewhat atypical of the others, which is more like an overgrown kart track. 

It’s one corner after another, with the exception of a long downhill straight that finishes with the only true big braking point to test drivers’ bravery of the entire lap.  Right there, where they go from around 300kph to 100kph before tackling an off-camber downhill right-hand turn, is where Formula 1 saw a moment of magic back in 1986. 

At that time, the world was still emerging from the cold war, and the Berlin Wall – only a few hundred kilometres from Hungary, was still resolutely standing. It was also the year that Hungary made its Formula 1 debut: and since then it’s never left the calendar. In that very braking area, Nelson Piquet in a Williams descended on Lotus driver Ayrton Senna (who was leading) like a tornado. It ended up in a predictable fashion: with the laws of physics against him, Piquet was obliged to lift off and Senna retained the lead. But on the next lap (lap 33), something happened that nobody was expecting. 

Piquet launched another attack, again on the outside, before getting crossed up and applying opposite lock almost like a rally driver.  But somehow it stuck, and he was through. That was an overtake with a capital O; the sort of no-holds barred breath-taking move that is truly remarkable because of its rarity.

But we digress. Or sort of: we were talking about world champions who display all their explosive virtuosity at the Hungaroring. In 2003, this trend was confirmed once more thanks to Fernando Alonso’s impressive victory with Renault. The French car was quick but still light years away from what Ferrari had come up with that year, at the height of the Schumacher-Todt hegemony. Yet in Hungary the Ferrari was strangely muted and unreliable: to the point where it even broke a suspension arm just on the straight, with Rubens Barrichello driving. But it wasn’t only this that left the way clear for Alonso to take his first win, as he had already beaten Michael Schumacher (who could only manage eighth on the grid) to pole position.

Four years later in 2007 and Alonso was in the eye of the storm again in Hungary, for very different reasons. He was neither a Renault nor a Ferrari driver; instead he was doing his first stint with McLaren, running Mercedes engines at the time. It turned out to be a one-off season with the British team (or so he thought…) because of his tricky relationship with Lewis Hamilton and inconsistent results, but above all because of the spy story that led to McLaren being found guilty of obtaining secrets from Ferrari, with the result that all of McLaren’s points in the constructors’ championship were removed that year.

Hungary was a pivotal moment, centring around the battle against his team mate Hamilton, and the alleged favouritism that Alonso believed the young debutant was getting. Alonso was fighting for pole position when he came into the pits for a set of new tyres. The harder compound was put on his car, but the Spaniard noted a soft set ready for Hamilton, who came into the pits directly behind him. 

As a result, Alonso refused to get going again for a number of seconds, disregarding the increasingly desperate radio messages from the team. With the session entering its very closing stages, the delay was enough to ensure that Hamilton couldn’t complete another lap to compete for pole position – which was retained by Alonso. He was however deprived of it by a stewards’ decision that dropped him five places on the grid, gifting pole to Hamilton. It was the beginning of the end of their relationship, with the internecine battle within McLaren helping to ensure the title went to Kimi Raikkonen and Ferrari at the end of the year.

The 2007 Hungarian Grand Prix also marked an important chapter in Sebastian Vettel’s career. The young German, who had just turned 20, had made his grand prix debut a month and a half earlier at Indianapolis, standing in for Robert Kubica who was recovering from an accident at the previous race in Canada. It was a notable debut: Vettel’s eighth place put him onto Red Bull’s radar, which gave the German Scott Speed’s Toro Rosso to drive in Hungary, after the American was suspended for poor results. So, it was in Budapest where Vettel’s extraordinary career really got underway, who then went onto win his first race at a torrentially wet Monza in a masterful display the following year. Interestingly, aged 21 years and 73 days, he broke the previous record for the youngest driver to win a grand prix that Alonso had set in Hungary in 2003 (aged 22 years and 26 days). This eventually earned Vettel a full-time seat at Red Bull, with the result of four consecutive titles between 2010 and 2013. Vettel’s record was subsequently broken by Max Verstappen in 2016, who became Formula 1’s current youngest winner at the Spanish Grand Prix, at the age of 18 years and 228 days.

But here’s the thing. Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel have a special wish for the Hungarian Grand Prix. If they’re superstitious, they will wish not to win. Because after 2004 (when the Hungarian Grand Prix was won by Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari) whoever has won at the Hungaroring has then failed to win the world championship…

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