Red Bull domination is over
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel is absolutely determined not to use his big points advantage to simply cruise to the title; nevertheless, it looks like his most dominant part of the season is now over.
The patterns of performance between the three leading cars over the last three races suggest that they are all going to be winning races between now and the end of the year, according to circumstance of weather and track layout.
On Mark Webber's out-lap for his final qualifying run in Hungary, the Red Bull driver was thwarted from getting his tyres up to temperature by encountering Jenson Button.
The stark contrast in preparation technique between the Red Bull and McLaren drivers illustrated perfectly one of the key performance parameters that has been shaping recent races.
As Webber explained: "Jenson was needing to do a much slower out-lap to prepare his tyres than me.
"I recognised straight away what he was doing because it was exactly the way I used to have to prepare during my Jaguar days when we had a car that was hard on its tyres but which could therefore switch them on pretty much immediately.
"The trick was to not take too much out of them on the out-lap and that's how it looks for the McLarens at the moment.
"On the other hand, we have to push pretty hard on the out-lap in order to have the tyres up to temperature at the beginning of the lap. Jenson wouldn't let me by and I don't blame him for that - I wouldn't have done in his position."
The McLaren's ability to generate tyre temperature more quickly than the Red Bull - and way more quickly than the Ferrari - has played a crucial part in McLaren's two consecutive grand prix victories.
The cold damp of the Nurburgring and the warmer but damper Hungaroring placed a lot of positive emphasis on that trait.
In the cool of Germany it played its part in getting Lewis Hamilton onto the front row and in his instant speed at the start and early in the stints.
In Hungary - as well as helping the McLarens' qualifying and allowing Hamilton to pass and pull away from early leader Vettel - it was also why Button was able to pull out an early margin on Vettel once he had passed the German at the beginning of the second stint.
Even when Vettel later came back at him, as the McLarens were delayed by Hamilton's spin at the chicane on lap 47, Button was able to pull out the necessary margin on the Red Bull all over again. At this phase of the race the rain had increased, which was bad news for both
Button and Vettel were each on the harder prime tyre. Generally, the harder the compound of tyre, the less temperature it generates - and maintaining decent tyre temperature largely determines if you have any wet-track grip.
During that rain phase Button increased his advantage over Vettel from 0.8secs to seven seconds in just four laps, a stark demonstration of the advantage bought by this particular trait of the McLaren.
The other extreme is the Ferrari.
Although much improved in this respect since its Silverstone upgrade, the car is still reluctant to generate instant tyre temperature.
“If we could go to Suzuka with everyone's cars as they are now, we would walk it. I'm convinced of that”
Chassis director Pat Fry has identified that as the number one priority in developing the car further. It was felt that the 0.2secs deficit from pole suffered in both Germany and Hungary was entirely due to tyre temperatures not being at their peak for one flying lap.
While it is possible to do more than one lap, it still compromises the lap time in that you cannot access the combination of peak new tyre grip - the 'golden lap' that new rubber gives - with the correct tyre temperature.
The easy way the Ferrari has with rubber enabled it to be the fastest of all at the end of the stints in both Silverstone and Germany, though this was not apparent in Hungary.
The Red Bull sits somewhere between these two extremes.
"I think if we'd had a fully dry race, we would have been able to beat McLaren by being faster at the end of the stints," said team principal Christian Horner on Sunday.
Maybe, but perhaps the Ferrari could have beaten them both for the same reason.
The question mark about McLaren must now be what happens when we return to the hotter tracks. The last hot race - Valencia - saw McLaren struggle badly with overheating rear tyres.
"We're pretty confident we've nailed that," says the team's technical director Paddy Lowe, "but I cannot say definitively until we actually get into that situation."
Earlier in the season - notably in Spain and Monaco - the McLaren was faster than the Red Bull on a hot race day because it was easier on its rear tyres. Now it appears to be harder on them.
It suggests the team has changed the characteristics of the car since then, perhaps to give them the qualifying pace they were lacking - and that this has given a double whammy recently because of the cooler than forecast tracks at the Nurburgring and Hungaroring.
Looking ahead, Spa is next, where the track temperature could be anything from 10-35C such is the mercurial nature of the valley's weather.
Traditionally it has not been a good Red Bull track because of the emphasis it places on outright horsepower. Ditto Monza.
Depending on the temperatures, Spa and Monza could be great news for either Ferrari or McLaren. McLaren are hoping for cool, Ferrari for warm.
Next the hotter races: Singapore, Japan, Korea, India, Abu Dhabi, Brazil. It's a mix that makes for an intriguing prospect.
Certainly Ferrari are very upbeat about their prospects in Suzuka, a track that places huge demands on the tyres.
"If we could go to Suzuka with everyone's cars as they are now," says one Ferrari insider, "we would walk it. I'm convinced of that."
Whichever way it pans out, Vettel's route to the title is probably not going to involve the sort of domination he imposed during the season's first half.
Although it is difficult to envisage him losing the championship, a couple of non-finishes from him in combination with the likely see-sawing competitive picture would certainly liven things up.