Lewis Hamilton flew to Budapest on the crest of a heat wave with his sights firmly set on taking over as leader of the World Championship at this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix.
As temperatures climbed into the high thirties ahead of the European summer’s hottest event, the defending world champion was aiming for a decisive victory on one of his favourite tracks, the dusty, tight and twisty Hungaroring, 20 kilometres north of the capital.
But the defending three-time World Champion admitted he faces a sweaty scrap for glory with not only his championship-leading Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, but also Ferrari and a potentially-rampant Red Bull team led by former winner, Australian, Daniel Ricciardo.
The 31-year-old Briton, who is also aiming to complete a hat-trick of successive wins after triumphs in Austria and his home British event, can overhaul German Rosberg’s one-point lead in the title race with his first win in Hungary since 2013.
He knows that the swelteringly hot Hungaroring circuit has not been kind to him, or Mercedes, in recent years as he bids for a record fifth success.
He currently shares the record for most wins with seven-time champion German Michael Schumacher. Both have won four times.
“The past couple of years, I haven't had the smoothest of weekends at Budapest,” said Hamilton. “But I know I've got the pace, so I'm gunning to turn that around this time.
“I have incredible support there so I can’t wait to get out the track. Ever since the low of Barcelona this year, I have been able to cultivate this really strong mental attitude.
“I’m feeling fresh, powerful and confident. I’m feeling that fire inside me.”
Rosberg, who endured a torrid weekend at the British Grand Prix, where he was penalised for a radio-communications infringement and saw his once-comfortable lead cut to a single point, is still putting on a brave face despite his lost momentum since the Spanish race in May.
In six races since the F1® circus arrived at the Circuit de Catalunya, Rosberg has won only once while Hamilton has collected four wins to release his team-mate’s grip on the championship.
Rosberg led by 43 points in May and goes into this race seeking his first win at a track that this weekend’s celebrates the 30th anniversary of the first Hungarian race and the first behind what was then known as ‘the Iron Curtain’.
Last year he finished eighth, but he remained defiant ahead of the 11th racing this year’s 21-race calendar – the turning point of the season and the year.
“The battle is on with Lewis and I’m feeling great in myself and great in the car,” said Rosberg. “So, bring it on.”
Both men, however, are mindful that their duel for the crown could be shoved into the shade by rivals Red Bull who are expected to be fast and highly-competitive on the dusty track set in rolling countryside about 20 kms north of the capital.
“We will need to be flawless to come out on top this weekend,” said Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff. “This track plays to the strength of our rivals.
“The Red Bull car, for example, functions well where high drag isn’t penalised as much as at other circuits. They are a major threat.”
The Hungaroring, where an estimated 200,000 crowd attended the inaugural race three decades ago, may also be good for Ferrari who triumphed last year when four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel was in masterful form.
The Italian team, however, appears to be struggling for consistency and reliability – notably with gearboxes – and has reportedly approached former technical chief Briton, Ross Brawn to return as a consultant. The Englishman, who guided Schumacher to five titles with the scarlet scuderia, has so far rejected all advances.
Ricciardo won for Red Bull the previous year, 2014, the first season of the current ‘turbo era’ and would dearly love to grab his first win of 2016. “I’ve won in pretty much every category there, so I’ve always enjoyed it,” he said. “The track is fun and busy… You have to find a good rhythm and then it is great.
“And Budapest is a fun city too. It’s the summertime, so it’s hot and has a good feeling – and some great restaurants. You feel like the holidays are just around the corner!”
“It’s a tough circuit,” admitted Rosberg. “It really tests you as a driver and it is a challenge that I enjoy. So I’m looking forward to an exciting weekend.”
Hamilton, who revelled in his home win at Silverstone, said he is still feeling the excitement.
“Winning in front of your home crowd is a wonderful feeling and I am still buzzing,” he said. “Of course, I have good days and bad days like everyone else, but right now I am able to turn negatives into positives when it counts.
“And, for some reason, this is a track that has always suited my style...”