Mid-season Report: Damage limitation - but where?

The half-time whistle has blown, the players are having half an orange or a cup of tea and the boss is trying to tell them what they need to do in the second half.

But are they trying to win the game or merely avoid defeat?

The analogy applies to the four-wheeled, mechanised mayhem we know as Formula 1 because a number of teams find themselves in a position to improve or go backwards – the worst possible action in F1.

Let’s start at the top of the table – and what a surprise it is, after Hungary, to see Lewis Hamilton’s name up there on 202 points.

By his own admission the World Champion was ‘all over the place’ at the Hungaroring, yet he contrived to leave Budapest with a 21-point lead over Mercedes-Benz teammate Nico Rosberg, i.e. four more than he had before they went there.

Damage limitation was certainly the name of the game for Hamilton, but he also inflicted serious damage on Rosberg’s psyche – a crucial component in any sport.

After leading for so long yet finishing two places behind the Championship leader, Rosberg said: “At the moment I’m not looking forward to the summer break. I just want to be back in the car and racing again tomorrow.”

Well, alas for Nico, he has four weeks to stew over what might have been – and wonder if Hungary was the Big Chance that he let slip away.

As we’ve said before, in sport momentum is everything, and right now the momentum is coloured red. After a disappointing Silverstone, Ferrari roared back to form with victory for Sebastian Vettel in Hungary, marred only by the disappointment of Kimi Raikkonen’s retirement.

The psychological games continue here: former Ferrari star Niki Lauda, of all people, has accused the Scuderia of ‘mucking around with spaghetti’ instead of working harder to bridge the gap to the Silver Arrows.

Undeterred, Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene (who prefers pizza anyway) insists he and the team in red will be doing all they can to achieve victory number three – and that would be one more than he hoped for in 2015.

“I am sure we will try absolutely everything and try to make the impossible possible,” said Vettel after his 41st F1 win, although technical guru James Allison was more circumspect: “It’s unlikely we can have this level of performance in all the races to come,” he pointed out.

But with two of F1’s classic venues, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza, next in line, Ferrari fans can expect a big push from Maranello as Vettel – clearly their number one these days – looks to close the 21-point gap to Rosberg.

With Williams and Red Bull next in the standings, albeit a long way adrift, there is a clear top four that is unlikely to change in the nine races remaining.

Which leaves P5 in the Constructors’ Championship up for grabs.

As things stand, Force India lead that race on 39 points from Lotus on 35 and Toro Rosso on 31. The ‘other’ Red Bull team is the one with the bit between its teeth right now.

Max Verstappen scored a fine fourth place in Hungary, prompting team principal Franz Tost to refocus on his earlier ambition: “We have now closed the gap to our direct competitors and I think we are still in a position to achieve our goal, which is to finish the season in fifth,” opined the Austrian.

Sauber have re-signed Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr for 2016, so we can expect to see their focus switch to next season’s C35 – although a return to the points would be welcome this year.

“We have to make sure the updates we are bringing for the next races are working properly,” says Nasr. “This will be the first step to guide us into the right direction for 2016.”

For Force India, meanwhile, the time-frame is much shorter: damage limitation needs to be applied to their cars, not their chances, before Spa.

A free practice suspension failure pitched Sergio Perez into a frightening roll in Hungary, while Nico Hulkenberg was lucky to find a well-protected barrier waiting for him at the end of the main straight when his front wing simply fell off at top speed.

“Up until the accident,” said Nico, “things were looking very positive.”

“The good news,” insisted the German, “is that we have time over the next week to analyse what happened today and get the solutions in place before the summer break.”

The team had clearly made a performance step with the B-spec car – but did it come at the cost of the car’s integrity? No way, says deputy boss Bob Fernley: “We can expect a slight strengthening of the parts in different areas and then we will be fine,” he maintains.

If anyone needed to limit damage, it was McLaren Honda: the damage to their once-mighty reputation after a truly dismal first half of the year. But it’s amazing what a result can do.

“We’ve got two cars in the points for the first time, so our season has now really started,” claimed Honda’s Yasuhisa Arai, conveniently overlooking the mechanical carnage that helped Messrs Button and Alonso’s cause in Hungary.

“On the control side things are very good,” he went on, “so we will apply more power output for Spa and Monza.” If only it were that simple…

To close on our theme of damage limitation, let’s remember Manor: the damage they are trying to limit is to their collective heart and soul after the terrible loss of Jules Bianchi. And those are wounds that take far longer to fix…

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