Photo: wikipedia

Lewis Hamilton back on track for Hungarian Grand Prix

British driver Lewis Hamilton goes into the Hungarian Grand Prix on August 1 with more wins in the race than any other driver, eight, plus he is sitting on a hat-trick of victories in 2018, 2019 and 2020. But the current seven-times world champion has not been having a particularly good 2021 as he attempts to win his eighth title, which would take him clear of the record he shares with Germany’s retired Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s below-par 2021 season took a turn for the better at the most recent Formula One race, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on July 18, in which he recovered from a ten-second penalty to hunt down Charles Leclerc of Monaco, who led for the majority of the race, and overtake him on lap 50 of 52. The win brought Hamilton up to second on 177 points in the world championship standings, which are led by Dutchman Max Verstappen on 185 points.

Verstappen held pole position at Silverstone, and he and Hamilton sparred spectacularly throughout the first half lap until they clipped cars, knocking out Verstappen completely after he clouted the wall with a heavy hit and causing a restart. Hamilton’s damaged Mercedes was repaired during the stoppage but on lap five it was announced that he had been given the ten-second penalty because of the collision.

Going into Silverstone, Hamilton had been on a five-race losing streak that left him lagging on 152 points to Verstappen’s 185, but the latter’s DNF (did not finish) in 20th, last place, and Hamilton’s 25 points for the win took him to 177. So the current standings see the Dutch driver holding a narrow lead after five wins and eight podiums for 2021 compared with Hamilton’s four wins and seven podiums, as the world championship moves to the Hungaroring.

Hamilton’s Grand Prix wins there came in 2007, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020. This is a shared record for the most wins at a single circuit. Michael Schumacher won eight French Grands Prix at Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours during his career. Hamilton now has eight British Grand Prix wins at Silverstone. His seven world championships were in 2008, 2014, 2015, and the last four from 2017 to 2020. Schumacher’s seven were in 1994 and 1995, and five in a run from 2000 to 2004.

The Hungarian Grand Prix has been held annually at the twisty Mogyoród near Budapest since 1986. It was the first Formula One Grand Prix behind the Iron Curtain, and is now also the second-longest behind Monza, since 1981, to have continuously featured in the race calendar.

The first Hungarian Grand Prix was held on 21 June 1936 over a five-kilometre track laid out in the Népliget park in Budapest. The Mercedes-Benz, Auto Union and Alfa Romeo-equipped Ferrari teams all sent three cars and the event drew a very large crowd. However, politics and the ensuing world war meant the end of Grand Prix motor racing in the country for fifty years.

A major coup by Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone in 1986 has seen the Hungarian event become a mainstay of the racing calendar ever since. This was the culmination of his desire for the sport to venture beyond the Iron Curtain. After considering Moscow, the initial Hungarian plan was for a race to be held on the streets of Budapest.

In the end, the communist authorities decided to construct a purpose-built track 19 kilometres outside the capital. The Hungaroring circuit was completed in just eight months and the first race drew an estimated 200 000 fans from all over the Eastern Bloc, although tickets were expensive at the time.

The tight, twisty Hungaroring circuit is in a valley, which provides excellent visibility. From higher vantage points it’s possible to see around 80 per cent of the circuit. At 4.381 kilometres, the Hungaroring is the third-shortest Formula 1 circuit on the current calendar and the second slowest after Monaco.

The tight layout of the circuit makes overtaking difficult, and the event is associated with processional races, with sometimes many cars following one another, unable to pass. Thierry Boutsen of Belgium demonstrated this in 1990, keeping his slower Williams car in front of championship leader Ayrton Senna of Brazil, unable to find a way past.

This is one reason why many drivers and fans don’t rate the track highly. The race is held each year at the height of the European summer, often in stifling heat. It was the only current Grand Prix venue that had never seen a wet race up until the 2006 event, and rain has only fallen during the event three times, in 2006, 2011 and 2014; while the 2020 race began in damp conditions. The track is often dusty because of under-use. Pit strategy is often crucial; in 1998, Schumaker’s Ferrari team changed his strategy mid-race before the German built up a winning margin after all the stops had been made.

Although passing is a rarity, the 1989 race saw a bullish performance from Nigel Mansell of Britain in a Ferrari, who started from 12th on the grid and passed car after car, finally taking the lead when Senna was baulked by a slower runner. Jenson Button of Britain took his first F1 victory at the wet 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix, winning from 14th on the grid. This and Mansell’s achievement are the only two times where the race has been won from further back than fourth on the grid. The circuit was modified slightly in 2003 in an attempt to allow more passing.

Other notable occasions in Budapest include first Grand Prix wins for Damon Hill of Britain (in 1993), Fernando Alonso (in 2003, the first Grand Prix winner from Spain, and the youngest ever Grand Prix winner at the time), Button (in the incident-packed race in 2006) and Heikki Kovalainen of Finland (in 2008, who also became the 100th winner of a World Championship race).

In 1997, Hill came close to winning in the technically inferior Arrows-Yamaha but his car lost drive on the last lap causing him to coast in second place. In 2014, Hamilton finished in third, six seconds behind winner Italian-Australian Daniel Ricciardo, despite starting the race from the pit lane.

In 2001, Schumacher’s win equalled Alain Prost’s then-record 51 Grand Prix wins, in the drive that also secured his fourth Drivers’ Championship which also matched the career tally of France’s Prost. Mansell and Schumacher are the only drivers to have claimed a World Championship in Hungary. Mansell took his only title at the track in 1992.

Zsolt Baumgartner is the only Hungarian driver to have competed in the Hungarian Grand Prix since it joined the F1 calendar in 1986.

At the 2013 Hungarian Grand Prix, it was confirmed that the country would continue to host a Formula 1 race until 2021. The track was completely resurfaced for the first time in early 2016 and it was announced the Grand Prix deal would be extended for a further five years, until 2026. In 2020 the contract was also extended one year further to 2027, due to the 2020 race being held without spectators. Formula One has a commitment to move to 100 per cent sustainable fuels in 2025/2026.

Hamilton is the sole black driver in Formula One, in which one per cent of employees are from black backgrounds. Will Hungarian motor racing fans – like some of their football-loving counterparts – boo him if the Black Lives Matter advocate follows his usual practice and “takes a knee” before the big race?

Tickets for the Hungarian Grand Prix are available here

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