After leaving the opposition trailing in his wake at Silverstone and Hockenheim, Lewis Hamilton arrives at the Hungaroring next week as firm favourite to make it three in a row. But after the ups-and-downs of his 2008 campaign, the British star is taking nothing for granted.
Ferrari left Germany scratching their heads with an agenda before the summer development freeze as long as the list of problems, mistakes and half-chances that have plagued their season to date.
It wasn’t that they had done anything wrong as such; McLaren had simply gone one better. The Woking squad, renowned for turning-out development options and implementing changes to their car quicker than anyone else over the course of a season, got the jump on their Italian rivals with a raft of mechanical and aerodynamic upgrades to the MP4-23.
Lewis Hamilton too is looking untouchable at the moment and has transformed from a blindingly quick driver, to a world champion in waiting.
As the Hamilton-McLaren machine arrive at Hungary – a track which caused so much pain last year after Fernando Alonso’s very public falling-out with the team over perceived favouritism – it is difficult to envisage anything other than a Silver car triumphing around the twisty 4.381km “dust-bowl”.
Team and driver are doing their best to cool expectations however. “I’m wary about making any strong predictions,” says Hamilton. “Yes, we were strong in the last two races, but we encountered difficulties in the two before that, so it’s impossible to call it this weekend.”
“All I can say is that our car feels fantastic at the moment and I’m really enjoying driving it: it feels like you can keep fine-tuning it to extract more performance from it, which is a fantastic feeling for any racing driver.”
“Hungary will present a different picture,” added Mercedes boss Norbert Haug. “We have no reason to expect a walk in the park.”
Questions will be asked should McLaren walk away from Hungary with anything other than first prize however. The MP4-23 is just too superior at the low-speed tracks, and we saw just how dominant Lewis Hamilton was in the twisty Stadium section at Hockenheim last week.
“The two circuits on the calendar that most resemble the characteristics of the Hungaroring are, bizarrely, Montreal, which is dusty and low-grip, and Monte Carlo, which requires a high-downforce set-up to cope with the minimal straights and numerous low-speed corners,” explains McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh.
“And the reality is that we were reasonably competitive at both those circuits. While it has been true to say that one of the key strengths of our car is its pace in high-speed corners, we’ve done a lot of work to the package to strengthen its weak spots.”
“At Silverstone, we were comfortable with our pace through the last sector, and at Hockenheim, we were comfortably quickest through the stadium section of the track, which is tight and reliant on good mechanical grip. We won in Hungary last season and travel to Budapest confident that we have strengthened the weaknesses of our package.”
“Nonetheless, we are fully prepared for a battle with our rivals, whom we can never under-estimate.”