The F1 fraternity could do with a little respite; during a sweltering British summer, it’s been a relentless hustle from Silverstone, to the Nurburgring and now to the Hungaroring, the tightly turning autodrome just outside the old city of Budapest.
With that heatwave presently sweeping across much of Europe, it’s more than likely that next weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix will be staged in similarly sweltering conditions. And, believe me, when people report that it can be warm in Budapest, that’s a massive understatement; it’s a bit like describing the Titanic as damp. Since the Hungarian race was first staged, becoming F1’s first eastern bloc grand prix, the tight little track has more often than not staged a race in temperatures that would sit comfortably in the tropics.
I still tend to think of the Hungarian Grand Prix as something of a newcomer to the Formula 1 calendar. That’s a little misguided, of course, it’s been a staple on the itinerary since 1986 – a considerable 27-year wedge – and, during that time, the Hungarian race has earned a reputation as one of the most consistently grueling races on the calendar.
In many ways, the Hungaroring perfectly typifies the development of modern F1. First appearing in '86, it’s been a constant in the sport’s TV era, and thusly well reflects the course grand prix racing has taken as it grappled with the conundrum of balancing sporting purity and televisual spectacle.
That first race was chiefly memorable for Nelson Piquet’s tremendous ‘Scandinavian flick’ – the rare sight of a Formula 1 caught in a four-wheel drift as the Brazilian put one over his young countryman, Ayrton Senna, around the outside of Turn One, to take the lead and win the first-ever event.
Piquet’s move was mightily impressive, but representative of the difficult nature of the Hungaroring, which possessed but a single useful passing zone – and even calling it that was a bit of a stretch.
Over time, though, the Hungaroring has literally ironed out the creases – shedding a nonsensically tight and twisty section behind the pits after its first three editions, then, in 2003, the developers saw further sense, bulldozing the whole first-corner complex and re-profiling it with a much tighter hairpin, which encouraged aggressive lunges up the inside. All in the name of entertainment.
The sport reflected that creative need for change, too; in 2009, KERS Hybrid was introduced to Formula 1, and what better venue to showcase its benefits than in Hungary, where a little dab of extra boost was perfect for all those low-speed, high-traction corner exits.
That year, Lewis Hamilton memorably put the system to good use, picking off Mark Webber’s Red Bull with a perfectly timed pulse of the button to take a lead he would not relinquish. His win that afternoon was the first-ever in F1 for a KERS-equipped car, and also a massive fillip for the whole McLaren team, which had thus far struggled with the MP4-24.
Lewis has always gone well in Hungary, I recall: he won from pole there in 2007. And in 2012, too. Jenson Button scored one of his most assured grand prix victories there in 2011 – earning himself the distinction of winning his 200th grand prix. A fine day for all.
The Hungaroring is a circuit that rewards a precise eye, a patient right foot and a mind that is capable of calculating the odds before making a move. Tight and unforgiving, and lined not just by Armco barriers, but by a perilous carpet of off-line rubber marbles that make swift progress tricky, this is a circuit where progress is often slow and steady rather than spectacular.
So we should be naturally grateful that both the track and car regulations have improved the chances of the Hungarian race throwing up a useful spectacle for the millions of TV viewers who could otherwise be doing something else with their hard-earned Sunday afternoons.
It’s all too easy to look back on those so-called mythical golden eras while wearing rose-tinted spectacles. For the purists, it might be tempting to proclaim that Piquet’s drift past Senna in 1986 was emblematic of the age of turbo-powered titans. The truth, however, is rather more mundane: it was merely the 10-second highlight of a two-hour race with little else worth acknowledging.
Nowadays, people might look down frowningly on the three acronyms they feel have apparently blighted our sport – KERS, DRS and ADD (that’s Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems, Drag Reduction Systems and Attention Deficit Disorders for those not in the know) – but they’ve each given us plenty to cheer about.
And that’s what matters, really.
Ten years ago, a visit to the Hungaroring was never high on anybody’s ‘must-see’ lists, but the combination of a beautiful and vibrant eastern European city, the promise of brilliant sunshine, a racetrack that’s been well cultivated and curated throughout the modern era, and a cheery end-of-term vibe make a trip to Budapest one of the most looked-forward-to of the season.
It’s a fantastic stopping-off point for Formula 1’s ‘first-half’ – and, after the break, the prospect of returning with Spa and Monza makes this set to be an unforgettable summer.