Friday was an absolute scorcher at Hungary’s Hungaroring, the European summer in full swing with air temperatures comfortably about 30C and very little breeze. The weekend format reverted to its traditional order, after a successful first running of F1 Sprint last time out at Silverstone, with two one-hour practice sessions on Friday. So, after crunching the numbers and speaking to drivers and teams, what have we learned?
1. Mercedes lead the way after opening salvos
It was so hot for the drivers in their fireproof suits that reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton said he reckons he lost 3kg – the weight of an average new-born baby – during two hours on track and that the tyres were “melting”.
Everyone seemed to struggle with the very warm conditions, with track temperatures hitting a sizzling 60C, and thus you saw the cars sliding around as they searched for some grip.
It was Mercedes who seemed to cope best with the conditions, topping the timesheets in FP2 with around three tenths of a second margin over championship leader Max Verstappen.
But when the lap times are revised to account for fuel load and tyres, Mercedes’ advantage over Red Bull is just 0.01s – which in other words means it is too close to call.
Our data says the Silver Arrows have the edge in the slow and high speed corners with a comfortable speed advantage on the straights over Red Bull – with their rivals only quicker in the medium speed turns.
Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were close to their ideal laps, calculated by adding all their best mini sectors together, leaving just 0.064s and 0.012s on the table respectively, suggesting they did the best they could with the car and conditions they had.
And both drivers, plus trackside chief Andrew Shovlin, reckon they still have plenty of work to do. “We got off to a fairly difficult start on the hard tyre this morning as the grip and balance just weren’t there,” he said.
“As the day went on we seemed to improve in terms of the timesheets, although we’re still finding the balance quite tricky. It may be that it’s the same for everyone, the track is at 60C after all and the tyres are getting really hot which is making the long runs quite difficult.
“Overall, it is encouraging to see both cars at the top of the timesheets but with a risk of rain it may be a very difficult challenge tomorrow so we cannot take anything for granted.”
2. Red Bull giving Mercedes a run for their money, as Verstappen’s PU given all-clear
Max Verstappen was not a happy bunny in Friday practice, based on his team radio. In one message he said: “I’m boxing. It feels completely broken. Turn in, losing the rear.” To be fair to him, many were struggling with the tricky conditions.
But he did concede they have “a lot of things to look into” albeit “nothing shocking”. And he retained confidence that they can fight back saying the three-tenths gap on the timesheets to Mercedes is “nothing too big to overcome”.
Verstappen’s confidence in his team’s ability to get the job done this year has been unwavering – and that remains the case. He’ll be keen to flex his muscles this weekend to get his title charge back on track, having seen his title lead shrink by 25 points to eight.
And it seems things might not be as bad as the timesheets suggest. As mentioned already, the short run pace is only 0.01s slower than Mercedes and when it comes to race trim, Red Bull are ahead, albeit by just 0.02s (as you can see in the graph below). But that at least means they are very much in the fight.
There was more good news for Red Bull too, with Honda declaring that Verstappen’s power unit – the same one that had been in the back of the Dutchman’s RB16B when he suffered a 51G impact with the barriers at Silverstone – had passed muster after being run all through Friday, meaning Verstappen should be clear to use it for qualifying and the race.
3. Alpine edge the midfield in qualifying pace
Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso moved to play down their expectations this weekend, despite ensuring Alpine had two cars inside the top seven in FP2, with Ocon an impressive fourth, three-tenths quicker than his more decorated team mate.
That may be because Pierre Gasly in sixth down to Lance Stroll in 10th – with the bottom half of the top 10 featuring five different teams – are separated by just two-tenths. As has become the case in the last few years, it’s super close.
The short run data, though, looks very encouraging for the French team, who are locked in a battle with AlphaTauri and Aston Martin for fifth in the constructors’ championship, just eight points separating them. They are around 0.49s off the pace, but a quarter of a second clear of the midfield. And that bodes well on a track with limited passing opportunities.
They fall back in the race pace charts, with Alonso having said he wasn’t too happy with the balance yet, but they remain in the mix behind McLaren, Ferrari and ahead of Aston Martin and AlphaTauri with 0.35s separating the five teams – and may well have to get their defending boots on to protect what could be solid points.
4. McLaren and Ferrari in fight for best of the rest in race trim
McLaren were testing a host of upgrades on Friday, as they look to solidify their third place in the constructors’ championship. Combine that with the fact they rarely show their hand in the opening two practice sessions and tend to build up pace through a weekend, and it wasn’t a shock to see that Lando Norris was only ninth in FP2, with Daniel Ricciardo 13th.
But there are plenty of positives for fans of the papaya variety. First up, the initial feeling inside the team is that the upgrades have delivered a step forward. The second is that both their short and long run pace looks good. In the first metric, they are fourth overall, behind Alpine, but they leap up to third in the race charts, 0.64s off Red Bull but a fraction ahead of chief rivals Ferrari.
Both Ferrari drivers admitted that while the car felt okay, there’s definitely work to do, with Charles Leclerc pointing in particular to their qualifying pace.
That’s because according to our data, they are sixth in the pecking order, behind AlphaTauri and only 0.03s clear of Aston Martin. On a track where it is difficult to overtake, lacking the speed over one lap to get a good grid position is not ideal.
5. Weather conditions play their part in pecking order
It was cooler than usual when F1 visited Hungary last year, but conditions were back to their sweltering best this time around, with F1 paddock folk migrating towards the shade to get some respite.
The tyres could have done with some shade too, with thermal degradation a factor during the longer runs, particularly on the softs and on the rears – which explains why so many drivers were complaining about a car that was sliding around.
Mercifully, it’s set to cool as the weekend goes on, with a threat of thunderstorms on Saturday. Admittedly, multiple forecasts are suggesting the threat will ease as the day goes on, with less than 20% chance of rain in P3 and even less for qualifying.
But at the very least any rain overnight will wash the track clean of rubber and mean the search for grip will begin all over again. That’s why teams are being so cautious about their expectations for Saturday.
The dry conditions return on Sunday, though they will be around four or five degree cooler, which means tyre management should be easier for everyone involved and you’ll have more grip – which should make for happier drivers.