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An overtaking-free zone?
Not quite…

No fast corners, no point on the track where an F1 car could truly be let off the leash on the extreme border of adhesion that separates the mere drivers from the champions. But that’s just how the traditional venue for the Hungarian Grand Prix is. In total, there are basically 4.381 metres of corners with just one real straight parallel to the pits. Then a gradual rise all the way to the top of the hill, followed by a non-stop succession of bends. All of them are slow corners though – or slow to medium corners, more or less guaranteeing a procession where overtaking is tricky to say the least. This is exacerbated by the fact that, particularly in hot conditions, the racing line becomes extremely narrow. Placing a wheel off that line – which quickly turns dirty and slippery – makes the whole exercise a game of chance. This has characterised the entire history of the Hungarian Grand Prix. By starting in front, half the job of winning the race is already done: limited overtaking opportunities and results decided by pit stops have more or less been the tale of all the races run since 1986 right up to the present day. More or less of course, because there have been some notable exceptions.

The first happened straight away: in the very first year of the race. Ayrton Senna was on pole position, with his Lotus propelled by Renault’s six-cylinder turbo engine, which at the time was right up there in terms of maximum power, even if it left something to be desired in the way that the power was delivered. Alongside him on the first row was Nelson Piquet, in the Williams-Honda. As expected, they proceeded in single file for 32 of the 76 scheduled laps: Senna in front, taking advantage of all the corners to maintain his advantage by sticking religiously to the racing line, despite rivals equipped with a potentially more effective package. Then, on the straight, the sheer grunt of the Renault was enough to keep everything under control. Behind him though, Piquet was pushing as hard as possible. His Williams had the upper hand when it came to both chassis and aerodynamics. Piquet was definitely in a position to be quicker than Senna, but he simply couldn’t find the space to mount a concerted attack.

Then it all happened at the end of lap 31. Piquet finally managed to get a great tow heading downhill onto the start-finish straight. When it came to the braking area at the end of it he made his move – but not down the inside of the right-hander following the straight, as you would expect. Instead he went to the outside of the corner. So late was his braking that the Williams was nearly pitched into a spin, while Senna, on the inside, managed to hold onto the lead. It all seemed to be over then: Piquet by some miracle managed to save the car from the near-spin, while Senna seemed to be even more comfortable out in front. But just one lap later Piquet tried exactly the same move all over again: same braking point, same near-disaster. This time, however, Piquet simply kept his foot in: he negotiated the entire outside of the corner on the sort of opposite lock normally seen in rallying, but somehow kept a semblance of control to finally get past Senna – who could hardly believe what he was seeing. The rest of the race was run in single file once more, but in the opposite order to the way it had been earlier. The superior chassis of the Williams allowed Piquet to stay in front for the remaining 44 laps and claim the win by more than 17 seconds. It was a day in which the privileged spectators witnessed a driving master class, with the driver going beyond the limits of what was technically possible.

Another legendary overtaking move was showcased just three years later. Senna was on the front row again, having qualified second behind the Williams of Riccardo Patrese, but well aware of the advantage he had thanks to the prodigious capabilities of the McLaren-Honda: the dominant car in the championship. Back on the seventh row was the Ferrari of Nigel Mansell, by all accounts out of contention. But once again, the driver would transcend the circumstances. When Patrese retired on lap 52 with mechanical problems, having led from the start, Senna assumed control. Only to soon find himself with Mansell right behind, having mounted a magnificent fightback from the midfield, thanks to a series of overtaking moves at various points around the circuit where it really should not have been possible. The Ferrari was on a mission, but Senna just followed the racing line, in the near-certainty that he would be able to maintain his advantage to the end. Mansell didn’t quite see it that way. After closing up to the gearbox of the McLaren, the Englishman soon realised that without Senna encountering a problem or making a mistake, he didn’t really have much of a chance. So he started darting about in the Brazilian’s mirrors, serving notice of intent. Climbing the hill behind the pit straight, Mansell saw the slower Onyx of Stefan Johansson ahead of them. As they closed towards it, Senna tucked in behind the Onyx to gain a tow. Then Senna moved to the right to pass him – only to find Mansell already there, who had been lining up exactly the same manoeuvre from much further back. The Brazilian had to lift off to stop himself from running into either of them and give way to Mansell, who delighted the tifosi with the second win of the year for Ferrari.

It was another awesome move that owed more to the man than his machine. There have been other feats of overtaking pulled off since then, but not with quite the same degree of virtuosity exhibited in those early years. The Hungaroring remains a fascinating circuit, but one where it’s almost impossible to pass. Because of those very circumstances, it provides an opportunity for drivers to occasionally do something quite extraordinary. Which maybe we’ll see again on Sunday 30 July. 

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