Formula 1

Hungary – An F1 Mainstay to be Celebrated?

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Whilst watching Jenson Button claim an excellent win during last weekend's enthralling Hungarian Grand Prix it is very unlikely that anyone would have stopped and questioned how this track has remained on an increasingly crowded F1 calendar over recent years.

But whilst France, Austria and San Marino have all lost their races, Germany has cut down to just one grand prix a season, and the British and Belgium events have seemed almost constantly under threat in recent years, Hungary has been one of the few races that seems to have avoided any questions over its future inclusion in the calendar.

At a glance, this may seem a little strange. The first Hungarian Grand Prix was held in 1986, and so the Hungaroring cannot exactly boast the motor racing legacy of tracks like Monaco, Silverstone or Monza, but neither is it one of these new state-of-the-art modern circuits like those around Asia and the Middle-East (i.e., Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, China, Korea, Malaysia etc.) who receive tens of millions of pounds in government subsidies and use their grand prix as a statement of success or an advert for that country.

Hungary cannot even claim to be a source of great drivers. Zsolt Baumgartner, the country’s one and only representative in Formula 1, competed in 20 grand prix – 2 races for Jordan in 2003, and then the entire 2004 season for Minardi. He scored just one point in that time after finishing eighth in the 2004 USA Grand Prix.

Yet the Hungarian Grand Prix has been a fixture on the calendar for 26 seasons, and has a contract to stage a race until at least 2016. Bernie Ecclestone fought hard to get a race in the former-Soviet Union back in the mid-80s, and is clearly still very happy with the race organisers. Hungary obviously continues to pay the FOM fees, and so race remains on the calendar.

And for that, F1 fans should be grateful, as Hungary provides something a bit different. The tight and twisty nature of the track, combined with the usually hot weather, presents a unique techinical challenge for the drivers. There is no other permanent race track on the calendar that can claim to be anything like the Hungaroring and, although it is often compared to street circuits like Monaco, still has a completely different feel to it.

The race also attracts a crowd of which circuits like China and Malaysia can only dream about. Sunday's race was not quite a sell-out, but most of the grandstands were packed full of enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans, unperturbed by the rain or unseasonably cold weather.

Obviously Hungary's proximity with Germany and Austria is useful for attracting the majority of fans, but walking around this weekend one would have encountered plenty of Brits, Finns, Spaniards, Italians and even the odd Russian. The central European location is ideal for a large proportion of the F1 fan base to get together and watch an F1 race together. If Robert Kubica had been in the car, his presence would have encouraged a number of Poles to cross the border into Budapest and further bolster the crowd.

It is also a grand prix that the city embraces. Walk around Budapest on Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening of the race weekend and everywhere you look there are fans dressed in the colours of various teams, all enjoying a reasonably priced Hungarian beer and chatting or partying with one another. Restaurants and hotels also get into the spirit of the weekend, offering special F1 promotions.

This is a far cry from some cities that host grand prix. Walk through the centre of Shanghai during the race weekend and you would not know that anything special was happening. Turn up at the track, and you find that most of the locals have shunned the event, either because they are not interested or because the tickets are too expensive. A few well-travelled fans rattling around a state-of-the-art facility built for PR purposes does not create an atmosphere, but the legions of fans packed into the Hungaroring do, even if the weather is determined to dampen their spirits.


Behind the grandstands fans begin to file out of the circuit after watching Jenson Button win an enthralling Hungarian Grand Prix last weekend


Hungary is often criticised for producing processional races, and that the narrow track is not conducive to overtaking. The combination of rain and Pirelli tyres fixed this problem on Sunday, but even if they hadn't, the occasional race where overtaking is difficult provides an important test for pit crews and team strategists, and the calculated battles between the different pit walls can be as entertaining as those on track. In fact, one of Michael Schumacher's greatest victories came at this circuit in 1998 when Ross Brawn switched the then double world champion to a three-stop strategy mid-race. Schumacher was given a lap time that he had to sustain over a period of laps if he was to win the race and he delivered.

European purpose-built circuits are coming under increasing threat of the axe according to this week's Autosport Magazine. Spa reportedly has financial problems and its contract to host a race expires at the end of 2012, Hockenheim's contract also expires next year and the Nürburgring is out of contract already and seeking a new 'cut-price' deal. Barcelona is out of contract and needs new pits and track upgrades and the unpopular Valencia street circuit may become Spain's only race. Only Monaco, Silverstone, Hungary and Italy have secure long term contracts in place.

Again, look at that list of secure European circuits, and Hungary sticks out like a sore thumb from the legendary venues. However, if F1 is going to stay true to its European roots, and allow the most hard-core of fans to continue attending grand prix close to home, then the fact that Hungary remains a mainstay of the calendar is something to be celebrated. (Sadly, it is unlikely to be celebrated on the BBC next season as it coincides with the opening weekend of the olympics and this is bound to be one of the races that is shown exclusively on Sky in 2012.)


Jenson Button, a two-time winner in Hungary, would definitely give the venue a thumbs-up

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David is an occasional contributer to the site on matters related to Formula 1. You can follow him on twitter at @Dr_Bean.
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