Hungarian Grand Prix preview: Three-way fight in Budapest?

Focus on… Can Ferrari strike back?

Mercedes heads to Hungary in fine form, having won three of the past four races. After an inconsistent start, the Silver Arrows appear to have had the edge over a Ferrari team that has not tasted the winners champagne since May’s Monaco Grand Prix. More alarmingly for the Scuderia, Mercedes has now recorded twice as many victories this season as the outfit clad in all red.

Is this a sign that Mercedes understands the issues it faced with its complex W08 earlier in the year and has now stolen a march on its rivals in the development race? Or has the German manufacturer’s upturn in results been down to a run of circuits that suits its 2017 challenger better than Ferrari’s?

It has likely been a case of both. Having repeatedly claimed that Ferrari had the best car earlier in the year, Lewis Hamilton said the teams were level on performance following his British Grand Prix triumph. On the other hand, Sebastian Vettel believes Mercedes still holds an advantage due to its qualifying engine modes, which has seen the team power to eight pole positions compared to Ferrari’s two. The reigning world champions seem to have found a work-around for its longer wheelbase design — which hurt the team in Monaco — as well as warm-up-related issues regarding tyre performance, specifically with getting Pirellis softest compound, the ultra-soft, into the optimal working range on both front and rear axles.

Mercedes dominated at Silverstone last time out as Ferrari destroyed its tyres, which will be a cause for concern for the Italian outfit, especially as its late tyre drama allowed Hamilton to close to within a single point of Vettel in the championship. Despite Mercedes’ impressive form of late, Toto Wolff has warned his team against becoming complacent, and fully expects a resurgence from its main rival this weekend. Hungary’s high ambient temperatures and nature of the Hungaroring’s layout means overheating can become a common problem in Budapest, while the tight and twisty sectors of the circuit might better suit Ferrari’s shorter, lighter, and more nimble SF70-H. Hungary could well provide Ferrari with the chance to end its two-month absence from the top step of the podium.

Red Bull in the mix

Another factor in the destination of this year’s title fight comes in the shape of Red Bull. Having lagged behind rivals Ferrari and Mercedes at the beginning of the season after failing to crack 2017’s aerodynamic regulation changes, the Milton Keynes-based outfit has been encouraged by its performances at recent grands prix. While it could be argued Red Bull somewhat lucked into its first victory of the year in Baku, the team showed further promising signs in Austria and Britain. Ricciardo finished just six seconds behind leading duo Bottas and Vettel at the Red Bull Ring — a track which the team has notably struggled at since its return to the calendar in 2014.

While its performance at Silverstone was not as impressive as in Spielberg, it was skewed by Ricciardo’s car failure in qualifying and gearbox penalty, which left the Australian at the very back of the grid. Ricciardo showed stellar pace on Sunday, however, as he recovered from the back not once but twice to finish fifth, one place behind teammate Max Verstappen, who had to make a late pit stop to avoid a tyre failure. Red Bull has closed the gap to Ferrari and Mercedes significantly as the season has progressed and an expected upgrade this weekend should help improve downforce levels at a circuit which traditionally plays to Red Bull’s strengths. If it can continue to make positive strides in the second half of the year, Red Bull could well be mixing it up at the front.

In need of a win

Championship leader Vettel saw his healthy 20-point advantage at the top of the drivers’ standings pre-Silverstone reduced to just a single point at the British Grand Prix, which marked the half-way stage of the 2017 campaign. Hamilton dominated to score a record-equalling victory and enjoy a 19-point swing in his favour, aided by Ferrari’s late tyre troubles. Since gracing the top step of the podium at the Monaco Grand Prix in May, Vettel has scored just 48 points compared to Bottas’ 79 and Hamilton’s 72, while Ricciardo has also outscored the German by 17 points. Vettel will be desperate to return to winning ways and restore his advantage over Hamilton in the championship ahead of the summer break.

In need of points

Jolyon Palmer finds himself here for the third race running. Once again the Englishman arrives at a grand prix weekend under heaps of pressure, while speculation over his future refuses to go away. Palmer was desperately unlucky not to be able to even attempt to capitalise on his joint-best qualifying of the season, thanks to a hydraulics leak on the formation of the British Grand Prix. Luckless Sunday aside, and despite showing glimpses of promise in recent weekends, Palmer has to start bringing home the results soon — with Renault stating that a double points finish in Hungary is “critical”. And to add to the pressure, Robert Kubica will test Palmer’s car on Wednesday as Renault analyse whether he has the potential to make a full-time return.