Hungarian Grand Prix is too close to call
At the Hungaroring
Fresh from the thrills of Germany's rollercoaster race, Formula 1's main protagonists are all steeling themselves for another intense fight for victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Just over half a second split the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso's Ferrari and the Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel during Friday practice at the Hungaroring.
Taking into account the fact that the rival teams all run different programmes during Friday's bedding-in sessions - and champions Red Bull rarely reveal their true pace - it was incredibly close.
Button, who was 0.3 seconds shy of team-mate Hamilton's leading time, predicted the race weekend ahead would definitely follow the same pattern.
"Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren are all looking very strong," said Button. "I wish we had a bit more of an advantage."
Alonso, a serious driver not necessarily famed for his positive outlook, gleefully branded it "good news" that "more than one or two cars can fight for victory".
In contrast, Red Bull's championship leader Vettel, who has a healthy 77-point lead to protect, displayed rare signs of anxiety saying: "We need to raise our game if we want to be at the front."
Red Bull blitzed last year's Hungarian race, with Webber taking the victory as Vettel finished third after he was penalised for breaking the rules when driving behind the safety-car.
The pair were in more cautious mood on Friday but, intriguingly, both Vettel and Webber showed consistent pace during their longer stints in the afternoon, which suggests they are able to eke steady performance out of their tyres.
Alonso stayed out on track for a maximum 10-lap run but also steadily ticked over similar lap times. In comparison, 13-lap stints for both Hamilton and Button were blotted by fluctuating times, although the pace of Hamilton, in particular, was especially impressive if you removed the anomalous laps.
With the soft and super-soft Pirelli tyres available this weekend, all the leading drivers agreed tyre management would be a decisive factor on the circuit's low-grip surface.
The unusually grey skies above the Hungaroring could have a significant effect on tyre performance, especially when it comes to getting them up to optimum temperature during qualifying.
Chilly conditions at the Nurburgring helped Hamilton beat his rivals to the flag, and while it is nowhere near as cold in Hungary, it is also some way from the hot and sunny conditions that prevailed last year.
Hamilton conceded the cooler climate had helped him set the pace on Friday but even if the sunny skies return McLaren are confident they have now solved the problems with their tyre management in hot conditions that hampered them in Valencia.
Separating the leading drivers in Hungary could well come down to their mental attitude going into the race weekend.
Those close to Hamilton said he simply looked "on it" all weekend in Germany, leading some to tell him he would win the race even when the 2008 champion was pouring water on his chances after practice.
Hamilton looks to be in a similarly upbeat frame of mind in Hungary and has been looking relaxed in the company of his brother Nicolas, while Button has also been sporting his trademark smile after two difficult races.
Aside from the distractions of celebrating his 30th birthday with an impromptu appearance from F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, Alonso was adamant he could squeeze more out of his Ferrari.
But there is one man on a definite mission in Hungary as Vettel is zoned in on his first win in three races. He insisted: "Here we want to be on top again."
BBC F1 commentator Martin Brundle summed up the champion team's chances, saying: "The tide is turning against Red Bull. If they are going to arrest that this is the perfect place to do it - but the early signs are that they've got their hands full."
UPDATE AT 1750 ON SATURDAY:
The fight for pole in Hungary was just as close as those involved in the battle predicted it would be, with just half a second separating the top five drivers.
After ending a three-race wait for a pole, it gave Vettel another chance to come out with his trademark line over the car radio: "Yes, yes, this is what I'm talking about."
But his hunt for a seventh win of the season at the Hungaroring might not be as straightforward.
Alonso, who starts in fifth, predicts Ferrari will be even more competitive than they were at the last race in Germany and he also backed his old rival and team-mate, McLaren's Hamilton, to have better race pace than Vettel's Red Bull.
Hamilton himself declared himself, "massively happy to be in the fight" even if he did just miss out on his first pole position in more than a year.
Webber, who started in sixth as a result of issues with his DRS overtaking device on his hot lap, described Red Bull's race pace as encouraging but stopped short of saying it was more than a match for the resurgence McLaren and Ferraris.
Red Bull know they are in for a tight battle on Sunday but they are confident they are up to the challenge.