The one thing everyone in racing knows about Budapest is that it’s hot, especially when it’s time to race at the Hungaroring: it’s almost always the last round before the summer break, and the combination of the hot, hot heat, the mirage of a holiday just over the horizon and a tight, technical circuit combines to make the Budapest round one of the hardest for all of the teams on the grid.
Which is what made Wednesday so surprising: huge, ponderous storm clouds covered Hungary, causing huge delays, diversions and rough landings for everyone, and driving through the rain lashed streets of Budapest had everyone worried about a new, completely unexpected challenge for the teams and drivers to have to negotiate over the weekend.
They needn’t have worried: Thursday saw the usual hot and sunny conditions welcome everyone to the Hungaroring, and there was more than a few sighs of relief as the teams got ready for free practice. The weather wasn’t the only return to regular service: Charles Leclerc hit the ground running to top the morning session, overturning his own quickest lap 3 times before grabbing P1 a third of the way through the session before everyone concentrated on race runs, with Nyck De Vries having the only notable incident after juddering over the new larger kerbs at turn 11 and into the wall, giving his mechanics some extra work in the few hours before qualifying.
Oliver Rowland was less than a tenth off the Monegasque in practice, with the same gap back to De Vries, and had held a little in reserve as usual. Would this be the weekend to bring Leclerc’s pole run to an end? Unfortunately for his rivals, the answer is both yes and no.
The Monegasque driver was untouchable in qualifying, despite a red flag on his hot lap for a spin by Sean Gelael: Leclerc simply returned to the pits until the track opened, headed back out to set the pole lap by almost half a second and returned, to the astonishment of his rivals. He went back out on his second set behind everyone else, ready to play clean up, but there was no need: no one could get close to his time, so he returned without needing to make a second run.
Leclerc sat in the press conference with Rowland and Artem Markelov, and it was a bit of a glum affair for the others. “PREMA gave me a great car,” Leclerc noted, confirming the obvious, “and I’m very happy about the lap this afternoon: this morning I was not happy with the way I drove, but this afternoon I’m happy with the lap I delivered.
“It’s a good pole position, and we knew that the position would be very important because here in Budapest overtaking is quite hard, so we will have to do a good start tomorrow and try to keep the lead.”
It wasn’t until a while later that Leclerc was called to the stewards’ office, and he had left the circuit before the news emerged: he had been disqualified from qualifying for using a part on his diff which did not comply with the material requirements in the Dallara User Manual, which is a breach of the technical regulations. He was, however, allowed to start the race from the back of the grid, while championship rival Rowland would receive the points and start from pole.
Saturday saw the blast furnace conditions arrive in force, with all of the drivers hiding away as their cars baked in the forecourt of the paddock, waiting for release. But there was nowhere to hide when the lights went out: Rowland might have collected the points for pole but Markelov was P2 in the championship and looking to close the gap to Leclerc, blazing away when the lights went out to lead Rowland, Jordan King and Nicholas Latifi into turn 1.
Budapest rewards the prime strategy (start on softs and switch to mediums), which is why so many of the field use it: there is often an early safety car, and even if there’s not it’s generally quicker, as evidenced by the overwhelming majority of drivers using it. Alex Albon was the highest placed gambler to start on mediums in P11, with only 3 drivers towards the back chancing their arms: Sergio Sette Camara, Louis Deletraz, and Charles Leclerc.
The Monegasque driver, on full tanks and harder tyres, ate through his rivals like a crocodile breaking fast, finishing the first lap in P12 and looking for more: unseen by the cameras concentrated on the front of the pack, Leclerc and Albon were engaged in a fierce battle for supremacy, the former teammates reopening last year’s blazing title fight from GP3 as they locked horns over who would have a clear track when their rivals pitted.
King was the first to lose his tyres, with Latifi sneaking past before the Englishman could pit for fresh rubber, while at the front Rowland made a great stop on lap 11, Markelov came in next time through to cover but lost time in the pits, emerging 2 seconds behind his rival, and the Albon/Leclerc fight was now prime time, at the front of the pack. Leclerc clearly had the better car, but a moment of wildness when he tried to go around the outside of Albon at turn 4 but instead got airborne off the huge new kerbs would have worried his team, advising him to bring a halt to the war to make sure his car was still intact.
It wasn’t long before they re-engaged, with Leclerc muscling his way past at turn 2 after Albon braked slightly early at the corner before, but the fight had come with a price: Rowland was only 10 seconds behind and closing, leaving the pair with no way to pit and return before the Englishman and his entourage were through and gone.
And so it proved, with the prime strategy demonstrating its worth, but good fortune was to smile on Leclerc once again: re-emerging in P11 behind Robert Visoiu and Sergio Canamasas, the pair came together at turn 1 to promote the Monegasque driver by 2 places and prompt a safety car, bringing all of his rivals together in front of him just as his tyres were at their best. At the restart he passed 3 of his rivals at turn 1, and he could smell the fear as the others tried to stay away.
Out in front Markelov had been biding his time, and he thought it had arrived at last: on better tyres he launched up the inside of Rowland out of the final turn and was closing fast, with the Briton seeing the threat in his mirrors and closing the door, leaving the Russian no choice but to brake heavily and get swamped or to keep going and hope. Markelov kept his foot down, found the grass at the pit exit and jumped the kerb before launching across the track and into the wall at turn 1.
Latifi saw a chance and went for it, but Rowland had just enough tyres left to guide his teammate wide at turn 2 before the safety car came out, staying there until the final corner for a DAMS 1-2 ahead of De Vries, who’d made a great start before staying away from everyone, with Leclerc promoted to P4.
All the talk in the press conference was about Markelov’s huge shunt, which was still under investigation by the stewards, but Rowland was satisfied with his part in it, with the stewards agreeing with his perspective: “He got a pretty good run out of the last corner, and I was struggling a bit with my tyres: he got a good run up the inside, I defended, and I’m not sure where he was going to go.
“I went all the way to the inside, and I guess he was expecting me to maybe leave a car [width] but there was nothing there, and he went on the grass. I think the rule is if there is any part of the car is alongside you’ve got to leave a car, but he was still behind me when I closed the gap. He had quite a lot of momentum when he committed to it I think, and he went on the grass: he couldn’t go left at that moment.
“But we’ve been on the podium consistently since Monaco, and I think the qualifying recently has been extremely positive: we came second here, only Charles was better than me, so I’m quite happy. I’m second in the championship, I’ve closed the gap a little bit to Charles, but we’ve still got a bit of work to do on qualifying. As a team and a car the result of the 1-2 shows we’ve come a long way, and done a good job.”
Sunday’s track was marginally cooler due to starting earlier, but it made no difference to Nobuharu Matsushita, who made a stunning getaway from P4, running inside and around Norman Nato and stealing a match on poleman and teammate Albon, who was soon squeezed between Luca Ghiotto and De Vries, with the pair running down the hill behind the Japanese driver and in front of Rowland, hungry for more and looking to steal anything he can for his title fight.
With tyre management uppermost in everyone’s mind it was a while before anyone was willing to chance their arm, with De Vries finally spotting a chink Ghiotto’s armour and pouncing at turn 2, leaving the Italian in the clutches of Rowland: the Briton recalled a move Daniil Kyvat had made on him a few years back and sliced inside Ghiotto at turn 6, albeit not hitting him as the Russian had, and leaving a line through for Leclerc to use too.
A VSC period gave everyone a breather after Visoiu slid into the side of Nabil Jeffri and retirement, but at the restart the Malaysian ran over the turn 4 kerb and was launched into Canamasas, with the Spaniard spinning into retirement and another VSC period opening to remove his car from turn 5, with the restart being less eventful this time around. On the penultimate lap Rowland was able to use his superior tyres to run around the outside of De Vries for P2 but Matsushita was gone, and the top 3 were once again trailed across the line by championship leader Leclerc.
“I always have confidence with the start,” Matsushita noted afterwards, “and today I knew it would be good because of the grip. This morning there was a GP3 race so I put down more power, and it was a good start! We’ve had some difficult weekends after Monaco, where we always had the pace but I couldn’t make it work, but I think Spa and Monza are our favourite tracks, we were quite quick there last year, and I hope it will be another podium like these guys and we can continue like that.
“I want to be in the top 3 this year, so I will push!”
Rowland was unsurprisingly delighted with his weekend, having closed the gap to Leclerc in the title fight with a huge haul of points: “after Silverstone race 2 I was disappointed with myself as there were too many errors on my part, probably because it was my home race and I was enthusiastic. But it was starting to get to the stage where Charles was gone and that I was fighting for 2nd, and I didn’t want to believe that.
“Obviously anything can happen, and after this weekend we’re right back in there: we’re not quite with him but we’re closing, and if we keep this pace we can challenge him to the end of the year.”
It was a good moment for the Briton, and great for the championship to close the fight at the front, but Leclerc still managed to finish P4 twice from the back of the grid: if normal service resumes in Spa-Francorchamps it’s likely that he’ll start a little higher next time out.