Atlas F1 Reflections on
the Hungaroring

  by Roger Horton, England

After three races of high drama and surprises, a semblance of normality returned to the Formula One scene after 77 laps of sometimes tedious racing around this Hungarian 'dust bowl'. The McLarens won, the Ferraris were not quite good enough, the Jordans were the best of the rest, Alex Zanardi and Jacques Villeneuve retired, Jean Alesi quit his team in a huff, and a Minardi finished last.

Surprises? well, there were a few. Rubens Barrichello made a one stop routine work in his Stewart-Ford, David Coulthard didn't hit anyone, the Benettons looked better than they have all season, and Damon Hill drove like his appetite for racing had returned.

Just whether you consider Mika Salo's qualifying and race form in Hungary a surprise or not, depends, of course, on your opinion of his ability prior his call-up to drive the second best car in the field. His somewhat dry comment after Hockenheim, that he would sign one of the many contracts waved in his face before the Hungarian race, just in case he messed up, showed that Salo has a pretty shrewd grasp on Formula One reality and its fickle nature.

His performance shows clearly just to what extent drivers are at the mercy of mastering the all important "set-up" for any given race or qualifying session. Get it right and the plaudits flow; get it wrong, especially as wrong as Salo did in Hungary, and you are made to look like a total fool. Salo's future options may have narrowed somewhat after this unfortunate performance, but given the way the wind is now blowing from Maranello and just maybe a certain recuperating German driver may judge him to be the perfect teammate.

One can safely bet that Ron Dennis, the McLaren team chief, woke up from a sound sleep last Monday morning in a very happy frame of mind. Not only did they win, but they had the satisfaction of really blowing their opposition to the weeds. Best of all, they pushed Eddie Irvine into making a bad mistake under pressure, just when it seemed there just might have been some support for the outspoken Ulsterman growing in some sections of the Ferrari-Fiat hierarchy.

Ferrari's inability to match the McLarens in race trim came as something of a surprise, especially after Irvine's qualifying performance. With memories of Michael Schumacher's spellbinding drive in last year's race lurking in the subconscious, the suspicion that Ferrari somehow had an ace up their sleeve as Hakkinen stretched out his lead, continued right up until it became obvious that both teams were on a two stop routine. In a way, this performance from Irvine was about par for the course. He has never shown that he can match Hakkinen, although more often than not this season, he has had the measure of Coulthard.

For Ferrari, the manner of their defeat in Hungary must be worrying, even if it was not totally unexpected, and the team must be counting the days until Michael Schumacher's return. The dilemma no doubt facing Schumacher is just how much it is in his interest to assist Eddie Irvine win the championship he has set his heart on winning for himself. With the Hungarian result in the history books and perhaps another defeat for Irvine at Spa on the cards, a return by Schumacher at Monza that results in race wins for him ahead of Hakkinen's McLaren could still see him end the year with his reputation enhanced, especially if it assists Irvine to championship glory.

Whilst the '99 titles are now solely of interest to Formula One's 'big two', the focus for the other teams is now clearly shifting. For Jordan, their goal of a third place finish in the constructors' standing looks very achievable. Clearly Eddie Jordan's gamble in replacing long-time technical chief Gary Anderson with Mike Gascoyne is paying off. The cars are reliable, quick on most type of circuits, and they have managed to maintain the season long development so essential to mount a credible championship challenge.

For some of the other teams the end of the season just can't come soon enough. Williams clearly have their thoughts more on next year's programme with BMW, Arrows are performing more or less on auto-pilot, Prost is so mired in disputes and politics with engine "partner" Peugeot that the races must be a welcome distraction. For the British American Racing team failure has become the tradition, whilst Sauber is pretty much where it always has been, and things will never change until they find themselves an exclusive engine supplier.

For all the talk about the progress being made by the Stewart-Ford team they are still below two Supertec-engined teams in the constructors' table and it can be no surprise that the new owner - Ford - are keen to make changes. Clearly next year they will need more than just a new name and colour scheme to propel the team up the points table, and given the financial resources now available, expect a big-name new technical chief as well as a strengthened driver line up.

For Mika Hakkinen these happenings are of little interest. Firmly ensconced as the number one driver in the McLaren-Mercedes team he has clearly shown that given reliability, back to back titles are within his reach. For all his wins and pole positions over the last year and a half of racing, the quiet Finn is still under-rated in some quarters. Perhaps it is the lack of controversy that he raises as he goes about the business of dominating his opponents, or perhaps the total lack of drama as time after time he produces race-winning performances.

If Ferrari is Schumacher's team, then McLaren is surely Hakkinen's. Yet Hakkinen's ownership has been earned by dominating whichever teammate the team has chosen, and by showing that he could do the job better. If the championship is lost through the lack of team orders, then Mika Hakkinen is not diminished as a person or as a driver. Should he win against all comers, then his stature is enhanced.

As the title hopefuls left Hungary, Eddie Irvine still held a slender two point advantage. But there can be little doubt that the momentum is back with the men from Woking. Can anything stop it?

Roger Horton© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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