Ferrari heads to the tenth round of the 2009 championship on the back of an encouraging third place podium finish for Felipe Massa in Germany. However, this season, every race weekend seems to have its own story, often bearing little relation to what has gone before.
In theory, the F60 should be well suited to the characteristics and demands of Budapest's Hungaroring, as this is the circuit that has the most in common with the tight and twisty streets of Monaco. Back in May, it was there, on the streets of the Principality that Ferrari looked at its most competitive this season. The low speed nature of the track and the performance of the two softest tyres Bridgestone has on offer this year will again be factors in the Maranello outfit's favour, possibly enhanced this weekend by the fact we can expect higher temperatures than in Monte Carlo. Development on the car has moved forward since then and in Budapest, the F60 will see further updates with the introduction of new aerodynamic components (changes on the floor and the rear wing) and a revised rear suspension.
Just like Monaco, a good grid position is vital, not just because of the tight track layout, but also because the Hungaroring is notoriously slippery off the racing line, in part due to the sand and dust blown onto it from the surrounding land and also down to the rubber 'marbles' that build up from the tyres during the course of the race. Saturday afternoon's qualifying session will therefore be a stern test of driver nerve and team strategy. Being near the front of the grid is vital, but so is being on the clean side, because past history shows that drivers who qualify with an even-number start slot can often lose position within seconds of the lights going out at the start. The main straight was lengthened a few years ago, which should favour teams, who like Ferrari, are still using KERS.
It is a cliché that Hungary produces dull racing, but that is not always the case: Nigel Mansell, who often defied convention, proved it is possible to win here from a seemingly hopeless position and in 1989, he came through from twelfth on the grid, pulling off a stunning pass on Ayrton Senna on his way to a memorable Ferrari victory, the first of five for the Scuderia at this event. If that victory was typical of the Englishman's hard charging approach, the next Ferrari win, in 1998 was a classic example of Michael Schumacher's more clinical style and two stints run at qualifying pace, working in perfect harmony with an inspired strategy call from pit wall, as the German snatched the win with a then unheard of three stop strategy. In fact, this year, since the pit lane speed limit has been raised to 100 km/h, the three-stopper could well be a more generally popular choice.
In past years, the dust and dirt has meant that Friday morning's practice session at the Hungaroring has not provided the fans with much track action to keep them entertained. However, this year, with the ban on testing, the three hours of free practice on the first day serve not only to set up the cars and prepare for qualifying and the race, but also to evaluate components and ideas that might only be used later in the season. For this reason, dirty or not, the first practice day could be busier than usual this weekend. Another reason for plenty of laps is that this winter will be the first time testing is banned in the last two months of the year and with work now well underway throughout the grid on the 2010 cars, evaluation of ideas for next year can also find room on the day's job sheet, as was already the case for the Scuderia and other teams two weeks ago at the Nurburgring. The test ban has forced teams to introduce development components onto the cars based purely on the results from the Wind Tunnel, Computational Fluid Dynamics and simulation programmes and, for Ferrari, this has involved a major change in culture, given that, as the first team to have had its own test facility at Fiorano for decades now, much of its development work has been based on results from the test track.
Another reason to cram in as much work as possible this weekend is that we are heading for the first ever official F1 "shutdown" when the Gestione Sportiva will cease all work from 3rd to 16th August. The new rules ban all teams from carrying out any work on the technical, R and D or manufacturing side of the team, as part of the new age of F1, following proposals by the teams within FOTA. In the past, while there might have been a break in the calendar, work at the factories continued full pelt throughout the summer months, so this year, the staff and their families should be able to enjoy a proper summer break. The downside of this magnanimous gesture is that one loses two weeks work at a critical point in the development of next year's car, but the rules are the same for everyone.
As mentioned before, Michael Schumacher won in 1998 and the German also took two more wins here at the wheel of a Prancing Horse car, while Rubens Barrichello was also victorious. Current driver Kimi Raikkonen has also stood on the top step of the podium, receiving a huge welcome from the crowd, which, at the height of the holiday season, usually sees hordes of Finns making the trip to turn this into something of a home race for Kimi and his Finnish F1 predecessors. His win did not come in red, although he finished second and third for the Scuderia in 2007 and '08 respectively. As for Felipe Massa, this race has not been kind to him with seventh his best finish. Particularly tough on the Brazilian was last year's event when he was just a handful of kilometres from a comfortable win, having dominated the race, when a con-rod let go, leading to engine failure. He will be hoping to make up for that this weekend as indeed will be the whole team in pursuit of its realistic target of moving up to third place in the Constructors' Championship.