It is going to take something special for anyone to beat Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel this weekend in Budapest. The reigning champion topped the time sheets in both the morning and afternoon sessions, ahead of team mate Mark Webber as Red Bull demonstrated superiority in both single lap and long run pace.
But it was close in the afternoon; Webber was 4/100ths off his team mate on a single lap qualifying simulation, with Romain Grosjean and Fernando Alonso all within 0.16s of Vettel’s time.
However on the long runs the Red Bull looked ominously fast with both the soft and medium compound tyres, with track temperatures reaching 46˚c this afternoon. Higher temperatures are forecast for Sunday and teams are concerned not just with overheating the medium tyre (which has the lower working range of the two) but also of their cars in general.
Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg was practising new techniques aimed at allowing the engine run lower revs and therefore cooler in the long runs this afternoon.
The Hungaroring is one of only two current tracks (along with Austin) that Red Bull and Vettel have yet to register a race victory, and with Vettel breaking his duck in the German GP, this weekend could leave them with only Austin as an un-ticked box.
Although Vettel ended the session just a tenth and a half ahead of Grosjean, a rapid rise in track temperature following Vettel and Webber’s quickest time flatters those that set their fastest lap later in the session.
As usual, Red Bull spilt their strategy for the long stints in second half of the session as they sought data on both tyre compounds. They, along with Lotus, showed consistent pace especially on the soft tyre on which they will complete the first stint of Sunday’s GP. Lotus can arguably run longer on the soft tyre and if they can reproduce Grosjean’s single lap form of today in qualifying they have a chance to attack Red Bull on Sunday.
The second Lotus – in the hands of Kimi Raikkonen – was unable to match the single lap pace of the front-runners after being baulked by Jenson Button during his qualifying simulation but Lotus has strong race pace on both the soft and medium tyre.
With the pit-lane speed limit being set at 80kph from this weekend the teams have been given an extra variable when considering the number of pit-stops for the race. This slower speed will have engineers and strategists studying a likely two stop strategy, with two stints on the medium tyre. This will dictate qualifying strategy as team wanting to go that way will want to save new medium tyres in qualifying.
If the temperatures are as brutal as predicted, it may force many teams onto a three-stop race, but Lotus will be looking to make characteristically fewer stops in order to put themselves in the hunt for victory.
It look like it could be a weekend of damage limitation for Mercedes, with their lack of running on Pirelli’s new spec tyres proving crucial as they fell short of the Red Bull and Lotus pace. The Mercedes pair ended the day in sixth and seventh places, but with one lap pace being their forte so far in 2013 it could be a difficult weekend for the Brackley squad unless inspiration strikes tonight.
“Red Bull looked very, very good today. I don’t think we have the speed this weekend,” said Rosberg.
“Red Bull seems very quick and some other teams are also going to be quicker than us in the hot conditions of the race. We just need to make the most of it and get a lot of points.”
Ahead of the Mercedes pair are the two Ferraris, headed by Fernando Alonso in fourth place. Qualifying has been the team’s Achilles Heel this season, but this looks like a far more competitive showing.
“Here, more than at other tracks, starting from the front is extremely important and for this reason I believe that everyone will try and optimise their cars for qualifying, even if it means sacrificing a bit for the race,” said Alonso.
They have a strong chance of re-taking their place of second in the Constructors’ Championship as they sit just three points behind Mercedes.
Jenson Button has said that he believes McLaren are set for a more positive result this weekend, and the Briton ended the day within a second of Vettel in ninth place, perhaps not as big a step as they had hoped given the amount of updates on the car and the fact that historically this has been a strong McLaren track. They have won five of the last six Hungarian Grands Prix.
HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX, Budapest, Free Practice
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m21.264s 34
2. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m21.308s +0.044s 42
3. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m21.417s +0.153s 40
4. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m21.426s +0.162s 34
5. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m21.544s +0.280s 37
6. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m21.802s +0.538s 42
7. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m21.991s +0.727s 40
8. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m22.011s +0.747s 32
9. Jenson Button McLaren 1m22.180s +0.916s 41
10. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m22.304s +1.040s 41
11. Paul di Resta Force India 1m22.526s +1.262s 39
12. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m22.529s +1.265s 37
13. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m22.781s +1.517s 36
14. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m22.837s +1.573s 42
15. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1m22.841s +1.577s 39
16. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m23.369s +2.105s 34
17. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m23.411s +2.147s 41
18. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m23.646s +2.382s 34
19. Charles Pic Caterham 1m24.325s +3.061s 38
20. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m25.065s +3.801s 36
21. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m25.143s +3.879s 39
22. Max Chilton Marussia 1m26.647s +5.383s 33