There are races, and then there are races. And this weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix, ladies and gents, was the latter.
Instead of the usual parade of high-tech machinery proceeding in procession, sapping the excitement out of the sport – or worse yet, lamentable team orders sullying the day – this latest round in the Formula One World Championship was packed with fate-altering, nail-biting action – and rivalries both old and new – from start to finish. A fitting way, then, to sign off before the season takes a nearly month-long summer break.
Care to see what we mean? Follow the jump to read on.
Saturday's qualifying sessions held little in the way of surprises for race fans who've been following along this season. That, of course, meant Red Bull on pole – just as it has been for every race but one so far this year – with Sebastian Vettel pipping his arch-rival/team-mate Mark Webber to the top slot this time around, the "not-bad-for-number-two" driver lining up beside him in second position. Behind them this time, however, were the Ferrari pairing of Alonso and Massa, fresh from their controversial one-two finish last week in Germany. Lewis Hamilton qualified fifth – far better than his defending champion team-mate Jenson Button in eleventh – with Nico Rosberg (Mercerdes), Vitaly Petrov and Robert Kubica (Renault), Pedro de la Rosa (Sauber), and Nico Hulkenberg (Williams) sandwiched between to round out the remaining top ten. HRT's rookie driver Sakon Yamamoto was relegated to the back of the grid after failing to report to the FIA-mandated scales, but that hardly affected anything since his qualifying time placed him at the back anyway.
The formation lap got away without a hitch as usual, with all the cars starting clean to return to the grid. But once the race got underway in earnest, all bets were off. Fernando Alonso, starting on the second row on the "clean" side of the track, squeezed past Webber to take second position behind Vettel, who within two laps was already opening a two-second lead in a revised chassis that was already emerging as a marked improvement. Farther adrift of the resulting Red Bull-Ferrari-Red Bull-Ferrari locomotive, Button was fairing even worse than in qualifying, dropping from 11th to 15th. Meanwhile Michael Schumacher, whose race-starting prowess has proven better than his qualifying times, skipped from 14th to 13th, while Hamilton lost ground to both Rosberg and Petrov – positions which he'd soon regain. Worse fortunes, however, befell Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari, who blew his engine on only the third lap and retired to the pits.
After the opening few laps settled into place, Vettel remained in what seemed like an unassailable lead, a solid four seconds ahead of Alonso, who was followed in one-second intervals by Webber, Massa and Hamilton. A strong-running Petrov trailed a few seconds behind in sixth, followed by Rosberg, Kubica, Barrichello and Hulkenberg in the top ten points positions, with de la Rosa, Sutil, Schumacher, Button, Kobayashi, Liuzzi, Buemi Trulli, di Grassi, Kovalainen, Glock, Senna and Yamamoto trailing behind.
And so the race might have continued straight to the finish line were it not for a startling turn of events as the lap-counter rounded through the teens. With the safety car deployed under a yellow flag due to debris on the track, the field began heading into the pits for the first round of stops. The tightly-packed pit lane at the Hungaroring, however, proved incapable of handling the mass of cars heading in simultaneously. First Nico Rosberg, exiting from the Mercedes pit box, lost a wheel, which narrowly missed hitting any of the mechanics scrambling from the garages. Then Renault released Kubica a touch early, sending him into Adrian Sutil's Force India car. Rosberg was out, Sutil was out, and while Kubica managed to recover and rejoin in last place – further saddled with a stop-start penalty for the Sutil collision – nine laps later he'd call it a day, too.
One of the few drivers to escape the pit-lane melee was Mark Webber. While nearly everyone else took advantage of the safety car to perform the mandatory stop, Webber stayed out, leapfrogging both Vettel and Alonso to take the lead. Surely he'd have to stop as well, but for exactly how long Red Bull would tempt fate remained to be seen.
While things were looking good for Red Bull, its drivers jockeying for the lead, and for Ferrari, poised to capitalize on the slightest Red Bull mistake, over at McLaren the skies looked decidedly darker. With Button languishing at the back, Hamilton was sidelined with mechanical problems on lap 24, the former world champion ditching his car trackside to end his race.
Back up front with the red and blue dogfight, Webber remained in the lead, trailed by Alonso with Vettel closing in fast. But the young German's chances of regaining the top position suddenly vanished into the exhaust fumes when the race stewards handed him a frustrating penalty. Apparently the rules stipulate that, when the safety car is deployed, the cars must follow within ten car-lengths of each other. Vettel, it would seem, failed to do so, and was subsequently burdened with a drive-through penalty. He took the blow quickly, but not well, visibly demonstrating his frustration as he cruised through the pit lane.
Tempers aside, the penalty didn't appear to immediately affect Vettel's position, only arguably his prospects for advancing past a slower Alonso as he rejoined still in third position, sandwiched between the Ferraris. And within a couple dozen laps, he was dogging Alonso for second place once again.
The double-champ in the crimson, meanwhile, did his best to keep the pace while waiting for Webber to pit from pole. But by the time he did, the Australian had opened up such a lead over the trailing Ferrari that the quick business which the Red Bull pit crew made of his stop saw him return still in the lead, with fresh tires and a clear path to the finish line.
Another dozen laps on, one of the few remaining drivers yet to have pitted was Rubens Barrichello in the Williams-Cosworth, who was holding on valiantly to fifth place after his solid fourth and fifth place finishes at the European and British grands prix, respectively. The veteran Brazilian rejoined in eleventh place behind his old team-mate Schumacher, setting the stage for an epic battle for the last points position in the field. Four laps later Barrichello was filling Schumacher's mirrors with Williams, just waiting for the opportunity to pass.
As the BBC pundits remarked, Schumacher had become less of a threat and more of a trophy, passing drivers paying homage but passing nonetheless. The seven-time world champion, however, wasn't going to give up this position without a fight, and after several nostalgic laps of follow-the-leader, as Barrichello moved to pass down the front straight, Schumi nearly put him in the wall. An investigation was launched by the race stewards that would in all likelihood penalize Schumacher for the most unsportsmanly conduct by the time you read these words.
Rubens got by in the end, taking that tenth-place points finish home for Williams, behind Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber/9th), Button (McLaren/8th), de la Rossa (Sauber/7th), Hulkenberg (Williams/6th), Petrov (Renault/5th) and Massa (Ferrari/4th). Vettel in the end had to be satisfied with a podium finish in third, behind Alonso who grinned as wide as he managed to make his car in fending off Vettel's advances, while Mark Webber scored yet another brilliantly-orchestrated and well-deserved victory, his fourth this season (more than any other driver) and catapulting both himself and his team into the lead for both titles. Not bad for the number two driver indeed, only this time it went without saying.
Join us again on August 29 for our post-race coverage of the Belgian Grand Prix from the vaunted Spa-Francorchamps circuit.