It’s funny how some things get under your skin, isn’t it?
Back in 1986, when we all arrived in Eastern Bloc Budapest for the very first Hungarian Grand Prix, we weren’t really sure what we were getting into.
Even back then, the F1 circus moved quickly. We’d already seen the resurrection of the Spanish Grand Prix – after a five-year hiatus – at the brand new, dusty and half-finished Jerez de la Frontera circuit. Later that same year, Formula 1 would return to Mexico – this time after a 16-year hiatus – at the refurbished, dusty and half-finished Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
So, it was pretty much par for the course when we turned up in the middle of season, during a typically scorching summer on the baking plains of eastern Europe, at a brand new, dusty and half-finished circuit called the Hungaroring.
Little did we know it then, but this was the very start of Formula 1’s migration towards more sanitised autodromes – a trend that, in more recent years, has been led by the Hermann Tilke-isation of Formula 1 across the world. It’s hard to believe, but I’m reliably informed that the Hungaroring was Formula 1’s first-ever purpose-built circuit.
Of course, tracks like Monza, Silverstone and Zandvoort had already been around for decades, most of them spent hosting F1 grands prix, but they’d been built as racetracks, not purposely brought to life as venues for Formula 1. Nowadays, perversely, the opposite seems to be true: venues are solely created for Formula 1, and are rarely used for any of this so-called racing nonsense that happens at other times throughout the year.
So we turned up at the Hungaroring, in our rusted Trabants, still clutching our passports and precious visas, with our eyes wide, not really expecting to see a grand prix circuit, let alone an impressive, modern facility. Yet, there it was: built as it was in rural scrubland, the track was dusty, but, as far as we could tell, finished. In the paddock, the local cleaning ladies were out in force with their buckets and mops, and, most importantly, there were Formula 1 cars sat in the garages awaiting the off.
Our first visit to the Hungaroring still felt a little antiseptic. After all, back in those days we were still accustomed to visiting places like Brands Hatch, the Osterreichring, Imola and the old Hockenheim - those high and mighty circuits of old.
Fast forward 28 years, however, and the Hungaroring’s unbroken run has gradually earned it the respect and, dare I say it, love of the Formula 1 paddock. Like Sepang in Malaysia, the years have certainly been kind to it.
Somehow, Hungarian Grand Prix earned itself a place in our affections – and I think that’s due to two things.
The first of those is that, almost uniquely, the race organisers listened to criticism of their track and worked to improve the place. First they ironed out the tight and niggly esses that used to sit between Turns Three and Four. Then, for 2003, they dramatically re-profiled the first corner, turning it from a rather anodyne perfect semi-circle into a far tighter hairpin. The new layout not only encouraged overtaking into the corner, but also encouraged racing at the exit – forcing drivers to vary their entry and exits, they were compromising their exit speeds and leaving themselves vulnerable.
Secondly, the venue has always been a place that’s encouraged the trade of the ‘scrapper’ – by that, I mean it’s become a showcase for the skills of those with a more, shall we say, pugnacious character.
If you asked me to pick an archetypal Hungarian Grand Prix moment, I’d instantly plump for Nelson Piquet’s ridiculously ballsy overtaking attempts to overtake Ayrton Senna for the lead in that very first race back in ’86.
Nelson, in the Williams-Honda FW11, had the benefit of a power advantage, but, Ayrton, in his beautiful black and gold Lotus-Renault 98T, had the lead – and, just as importantly, the advantage of the racing line.
Nelson was undeterred: he was trying to win a world championship and was clambering all over the back of the unflappable Senna.
Into the closing stages, Nelson had a practice run: as they barreled down toward the first corner, Nelson threw his car up the inside – the move almost stuck, but he ran wide, allowing Senna to calmly continue on the racing line and maintain the lead.
A lap later, Nelson was back absolutely glued to his countryman’s tail. This time, he took the outside line, running his two left-side wheels onto the grass before heaving the heavy turbo machine into the corner. At first, the car refused to bite, sliding lazily across the dusty Tarmac, but – in true rally-drive style – Nelson gave the steering a couple of hefty yanks – and the front tyres dug in, allowing Nelson to skate across the arc of the turn in a brilliantly controlled drift, tucking his car back on-line before Ayrton was able to fight back.
That was how you overtook Ayrton – by overwhelming and out-fumbling him; in a fair fight, he’d always come out on top, so you had to topple the odds to be in with a shout.
Nelson is a grand prix driver that the history books these days tend to overlook. Unfairly, in my view; he was good company and a fantastic racer. And that overtake on Ayrton is deservedly, I think, the circuit’s most emblematic moment.
Another little scrapper with more fight in him than he necessarily always needed, was Fernando Alonso. In 2006, he was particularly wound-up, having been unfairly (in his view) relegated in qualifying for a footling indiscretion during practice. He lined up 15th – on a cold, grey and wet day, that’s just what you don’t need.
Ordinarily, that would be the beginning and end of it – you might expect Fernando to pass a few cars and then settle down on the fringes of the top 10. But the young and feisty Spaniard never got that message.
Off the line, Fernando has the throttle nailed hard open. The car hurtles into a grey fug of spray. Rain lights blink from the murk, and still Alonso presses on, two wheels on the grass as he dives into the braking zone.
His progress is swift: he isn’t simply out-braking cars – he’s passing them at the exits of corners, he’s edging alongside at corner entry, braving it out as they both swing for the apex. At one point, he’s intimated by a Ferrari, who runs out wide to try and push him back, and he doesn’t mind running two wheels along the pit entry road, before charging flat-out into river-like puddles.
Hunt the race down on YouTube – it is one of the most intense and mesmerising pieces of onboard footage that you’ll ever see.
Any motor racing history book will go to great lengths to tell you how spectacular was Ayrton Senna’s opening lap at the 1993 European Grand Prix. Senna started fourth, dropped to fifth, then battled back to pass four cars and lead at the end of the first lap.
Starting so far down the field on that day in 2006 doesn’t allow us to be so precise; and, truth be told, it’s hard to be precise in all that chaos, but the lapchart records that Fernando started in 15th, and crossed the line sixth at the end of that incredible opening lap.
Four laps later, he was in the top three. He was leading by lap 18, and would have won had it not been for an incorrectly fitted wheel at his last pitstop.
Of course, one door opens as another one closes, and Fernando’s failure firmly left the door ajar for Jenson Button to squeeze through and record his first-ever grand prix win. Jenson’s drive, too, was worthy of victory. Like Fernando, he had also suffered in practice – an engine failure robbing him of 10 grid places and relegating him to 14th on the grid. He too drove like a champion, running in the top four by lap seven, then calmly picking off his rivals as he made best use of the changing track conditions.
His wide-eyed delight at taking victory, and finally getting the monkey off his back, was another of those emblematic Hungarian Grand Prix moments.
And, to add to my thesis that this is a race that favours the fighter, take a cursory look at Jenson’s brilliant victory there in 2011. It was his 200th grand prix, and he was well up for the fight, taking on allcomers and sweeping home imperiously.
With mixed conditions forecast for the weekend, will my theory once again hold true?
Let’s hope so!