The 2012 Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix race weekend started with an interesting set of results and developments on Friday - a day that saw the continuing threat of rain playing spoilsport for, incredibly, the third race in a row, and the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button storming to the top of both of the day's Free Practice sessions.
The day's action was not just confined to on-track events from the first and second Free Practice sessions though. Concerns over the weather played a part in the teams' planning for Saturday and Sunday after the second session was hit by a spell of heavy rain that lasted for more than 45 minutes, forcing all testing to a halt. Saturday is expected to be a clearer day but given the way in which the rain gods have been haunting Formula 1 sessions of late, don't be surprised if there are showers during the third Free Practice or qualifying sessions.
Friday Free Practice - Sessions One and Two
On track, Hamilton was in supreme form over both sessions, comfortably topping the timesheets in the first and second sessions. The 2008 world champion lapped in 1:22.821 in the first session - 0.101s ahead of team mate Button and 0.576s ahead of championship leader Fernando Alonso in his Ferrari. The second session was tighter but the British driver managed to retain his top spot, with a time of 1:21.995 enough to beat Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen (1:22.180) and Williams' Bruno Senna (1:22.253). It appears, for now at least, the heavily revised MP4-27 has finally put a lack of outright pace to bed. Both drivers indicated the car was definitely better balanced than in previous races.
The Red Bull duo of defending world champion Sebastian Vettel and team mate Mark Webber endured difficult opening sessions, managing only 13th (Webber; 1:24.546) and 15th (Vettel; 1:24.608), leading to speculation that FIA-enforced changes to engine torque mapping details had adversely affected the car's performance. The changes were forced after a technical working committee investigated the results of the German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring and found the system exerted unfair aerodynamic influence over the rear end of the car. Red Bull played down speculation the change could harm their title chances but based on the Free Practice form so far, they might be wrong.
"Obviously, if you look at the cars this year they are different to last year in terms of regulations, and the way you are forced to put your exhaust in a certain position. But it is not as if the car does not work now any more. I am quite confident that nothing will change," Vettel explained. The defending champions' second session times were marginally better. Vettel improved to eighth with 1:22.824 but Webber dropped one place to 14th, even though he bettered his morning time by 0.732s.
Meanwhile, the Ferraris of Alonso and Felipe Massa continued to show steady improvement after a slow start to the season. Alonso has won two of the last three races and finished on the podium on the third occasion. Massa struggled a little bit in the morning session, finishing seventh (1:23.904) to Alonso's third place but recovered to better his team mate in the second session, by 0.165s.
Former Ferrari ace and seven time world champion Michael Schumacher continued his own mini-recovery, after being criticised earlier in the season. The German was faster than team mate and compatriot Nico Rosberg in the second session and only 0.217s off his pace in the first. Schumacher suffered an off-track excursion when the rain was heaviest in the second session but both he and the car emerged relatively unscathed.
Final Free Practice and Qualifying
The third and final Free Practice session will give teams one last chance to fine tune settings and balance the car ahead of the qualifying session later in the day. The Hungaroring is by nature a relatively slower track than some others on the Formula 1 calendar (click for an IBTimes UK analysis of the track), with a preponderance of slow and medium speed corners leading quickly into one another and balanced by a 700m start-finish straight. Aerodynamic emphasis, therefore, will be on increased levels of downforce, similar to that for the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. In addition, the slow nature of the track combined with the sequence of tight corners - such as the stretch from Turn Five to Turn Eleven at the far end of the circuit makes overtaking a very difficult proposition. Qualifying, therefore, assumes as much importance as it would in Monaco.
"Overtaking here is difficult, so qualifying and track positioning will be of paramount importance. Some drivers may do longer runs, some may do shorter runs [in the race]. It's a drivers' circuit, with real character to it - lovely off-camber corners, nice ups and downs - and those elements combine to make it great fun to drive. It just flows," Hamilton was quoted as saying by the official Formula 1 Web site.
The sentiment was echoed by the Ferrari team, who, while continuing to be cautiously optimistic of their chances, stressed they needed a "perfect" weekend to take the win.
"We did a hundred laps between our two drivers, but much less than half of them were really significant in terms of evaluating the performance of the F2012 on this track. We picked up a raft of data which we now need to analyse, both on the track and back in Maranello, to decide not only the configuration of the car for the rest of the weekend, but also to continue our development work for the second part of the season," Pat Fry, the team's technical director, was quoted as saying by Ferrari's official Web site.
What Happened Last Year
The 2011 Hungarian Grand Prix was by a hard-charging Jenson Button, who finished 3.5s ahead of Vettel; the pair were a dominant 19.8s ahead of Alonso in third, who, in turn, was more than 30s ahead of Hamilton in fourth. It bodes well for McLaren's 2012 hopes that last year too Hamilton was fastest in the first and second Free Practice sessions, finishing 0.214s ahead of Vettel and 0.241s in front of Alonso on the Friday.
Saturday practice and pole position was all about Vettel and the Red Bull, though, with the German pipping Hamilton to pole by 0.163s. Button made it a near-perfect grid for the McLaren team by taking third, while Massa managed to out-qualify Alonso for fourth.
Incidentally, the weather was decidedly wet last year too and the race started with teams struggling to decide between intermediates and dry weather tyres for a track that although wet, was not really soaked enough for extreme weather rubbers.
Where to Watch Live
You can catch all the action of qualifying for the 2012 Formula 1 Grand Prix live, from 5.25 pm BST to 8 pm BST on Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports F1 HD. Remember to catch the highlights of the action on BBC Two, from 5.15 pm BST to 6.30 pm BST. You can also follow the action live, via real-time text updates, at the Formula1.com Web site's Live Timing section.