Ferrari's difficult week got a little better yesterday in practice for the Hungarian Grand Prix but it was Red Bull who most enjoyed proceedings.
As controversy continues to swirl about the Italian team's victory at the German GP last week, Fernando Alonso had to settle for second and team-mate Felipe Massa fourth as Sebastian Vettel emphatically dominated practice here.
"That was pretty good – we got through everything we wanted," the German said. "The car ran faultlessly and the guys did a good job. But this afternoon it was tighter. The Ferraris seem very quick again here, on both the long and short runs. They will be quick again tomorrow and we also shouldn't forget the McLarens; they have proven many times this year that they can make a step forward from Friday to Saturday."
Down at McLaren, however, there was an air of resignation. The team are getting to grips with their blown diffuser, but the latest technological "must have" is now a flexible front wing. This droops over either end of the wing and thus generates a degree of extra downforce which further enhances grip and thus increases performance. Ferrari and Red Bull ran them yesterday.
The McLaren design engineer, Paddy Lowe, recently admitted that the team still has yet to understand and master the technique for replicating such a device, which means that they remain on their back foot.
Here their pioneering F-duct, which stalls the rear wing on the straights and thus helps to reduce drag and increase straight-line speed, is much less useful than, say, at Sepang in Malaysia or Barcelona. Both Red Bull and Ferrari have taken theirs off this weekend, leaving McLaren, Sauber and Williams to use the devices. "The car just isn't fast enough," Lewis Hamilton said.
Thus the problems that the championship leaders have this weekend are manifold. Of course Red Bull and Ferrari are flying, and, all things being equal, Vettel, his team-mate Mark Webber, Alonso and Massa will probably carve up the majority of the points on offer. But, such is their lack of speed, McLaren could also be threatened by Renault and Williams. The former have excellent mechanical grip on a track where that, and maximum aerodynamic downforce, are crucially important. Williams, meanwhile, have been coming on in leaps and bounds of late.
Meanwhile, Michael Schumacher's pace for Mercedes yesterday gave the German team some cautious hope, though they have a habit recently of fading in qualifying. If any of these challengers can separate McLaren from Ferrari and Red Bull, the leading championship positions could change dramatically yet again.
After running almost 1.3 seconds off Vettel's pace, and only sixth fastest overall, Hamilton expanded on his summation of the McLaren and admitted: "We're massively down – almost a whole second – in the middle sector, and then a couple of 10ths in the first sector and I think the last sector's almost half a second... We are pushing, and we're doing the best job we can. With the package we have, we're getting around the optimum from it. We're just trying to dial in the set-up, but there's only maybe a couple of 10ths in it.
"We've got a lot of work to do and I guess this weekend's just about scoring as many points as we can and hoping that the guys ahead have troubles," Hamilton added. "We'll just try and edge out as much as we can. I think being in the top five could be tricky this weekend."
Asked to put his finger on the over-riding problem, he said: "That's difficult. The car is the best I've ever had it around this track, and that's still not good enough. It feels great around the corners, and then you start to push more to try and close the gap to these guys, and then the car starts to be really on the ragged edge. But I think it's just the overall lack of downforce."
Team-mate Jenson Button was 1.6sec behind Vettel, and was equally unhappy in only ninth place. "It's going to be very tricky," he said. "The Red Bull is just so fast. They did a 1 minute 20.0 seconds. We didn't get near the low 1:21s. The car doesn't feel so good on the softer tyre. On the harder tyre, it feels good. I don't know where that time is. I feel reasonably happy with the balance of the car. There's still more to improve, but we're never going to find a second. We'll do the best that we can with what we have here.
"The guys are all working flat out to improve this car, as we need to at the moment, and I've got belief in them. But if we can get into the top five in qualifying, we should be very happy with that."
Practice: First Session: 1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1min 20.976sec; 2 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:21.106; 3 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:22.072; 4 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:22.444; 5 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:22.601; 6 P de la Rosa (Sp) Sauber 1:22.764; 7 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:22.772; 8 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:22.777; 9 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1:22.792; 10 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 1:22.966; 11 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:23.003; 12 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:23.007; 13 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:23.249; 14 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber 1:23.327; 15 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:23.520; 16 S Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso 1:23.780; 17 J Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso 1:23.868; 18 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:24.075; 19 J Trulli (It) Lotus 1:25.032; 20 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus 1:25.210; 21 T Glock (Ger) Virgin 1:25.990; 22 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin 1:26.686; 22 B Senna (Br) HRT 1:26.990; 24 S Yamamoto (Japan) HRT 1:28.157. Second Session: 1 Vettel 1min 20.087sec; 2 Alonso 1:20.584; 3 Webber 1:20.597; 4 Massa 1:20.986; 5 Petrov 1:21.195; 6 Hamilton 1:21.308; 7 Kubica 1:21.375; 8 Hulkenberg 1:21.623; 9 Button 1:21.730; 10 Schumacher 1:21.773; 11 De la Rosa 1:21.809; 12 Barrichello 1:21.844; 13 Rosberg 1:22.039; 14 Kobayashi 1:22.212; 15 Alguersuari 1:22.469; 16 Sutil 1:22.507; 17 Buemi 1:22.602; 18 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 1:23.138; 19 Trulli 1:24.553; 20 Glock 1:25.376; 21 Di Grassi 1:25.669; 22 Senna 1:26.745; 23 Yamamoto 1:26.798; 24 Kovalainen 1:27.705.Reuse content