As we head east to Hungary for the first of back-to-back races over the next fortnight, there are a few drivers on the grid who will be feeling the pressure. Whether it be on track performances, or off track negotiations as the driver merry-go-round rumours reach silly season, here are the top five drivers who will be looking to let their feet do the talking for them this Sunday.
The heat is on Nico now, there’s no denying it. Four wins in five races for Hamilton has cut the gap to a measly point at the top. The Hungaroring is one of his teammates strongest tracks (a win this weekend for Hamilton gives him the outright record for most victories there with five), which means Nico is more than likely to head to his home GP having relinquished the title lead and effectively blown the 43 point lead he had after race five. If he is to have any chance of wrestling the World Championship away from Hamilton, he must break this run and show he’s capable of fighting back against a competitive challenger. The best place to do that is in Hungary, where upsetting the odds to take his first victory would be a pivotal step. Back that up with a win on home turf the week after, and he could strike a huge chord in this back and forth title battle.
The Hungaroring should once again suit the Red Bull car, and the 2014 winner Ricciardo should have no reason not to expect a strong performance this weekend. However, he’ll be acutely aware of the fact that since Max Verstappen has stepped up to the primary team, Ricciardo has been beaten by his team mate in four of the six races, and has only scored one podium to Max’s three. Whilst Daniel’s drive is considered one of the safest on the grid, and it’s highly unlikely that a seat at a larger team is going to be available, Ricciardo will not want to slip to being seen as the weaker driver behind Verstappen, as that will cause a huge dent in his hopes of winning a title either at Red Bull or elsewhere.
Talking of the Red Bull/Toro Rosso driver switch, fate and form have not been kind to Kvyat since the changeover. Only two points in his six races for the sister team is a damning indictment of how off the boil Daniil has been this year, and the hugely impressive form of Sainz in the same car is a further kick. From being the second driver with a huge future ahead of him, he’s now the fourth driver with a massive target on his back for those waiting in the wings of the impressive Red Bull Drivers Programme. Most people reckon Kvyat is already one foot out of the door at Red Bull, and it wouldn’t surprise if Daniil agreed. If he wants a place on the grid with anyone next year, he simply has to start performing far better than he has done. On the plus side, he achieved a career best finish of second in Hungary last year, so he knows he can perform if everything goes his way.
So we move onto the person who might be considered the lynchpin of this seasons merry go round. There’s huge debate over where, and indeed if, Button will be on the grid next season. McLaren have been very non-committal, saying nothing will be decided until September at the earliest, yet the indications for Button staying are not that good. Jenson himself has said he doesn’t want to hang around at the back of the grid, which is only a barely veiled attack on two years of Honda powered underperformance. The team themselves know they’ve got a ready made (and certainly far cheaper) replacement sat waiting in Stoffel Vandoorne, and the temptation to use him lest they lose him is big. For Button, he needs to continue to show he still has the ability to compete with the established top ten drivers, and not just scrap for those lowly points going spare. His performance in Austria shows that on his day he can do it, but Silverstone was an all too frequent reminder that strategy and lack of initial pace can ruin his weekend before Saturday is out. Like Kvyat, Button can look back on some good performances at the Hungaroring, even last season when the McLaren was dog-awful he still finished ninth. He’ll also remember he has two wins here, in 2011 for McLaren, and his maiden victory in 2006 when he took a surprise victory in an unfancied Honda. Asking lighting to strike for a third time is probably too much, but a good performance here could be enough to remind a few teams on the grid what they could possibly have. It’s no secret that Claire Williams has been paying close attention.
Of course, if Williams do want to make a move for Button, it’s certainly Massa who would have to make way. After an impressive start to the season, the results have tailed away for Massa, with his two points in the last five races a poor return compared to his compatriot Bottas’ return of 25. Although a year younger than Button, there are probably more people in the paddock who consider Massa to be coming to the end of his career than Jenson. So long as Bottas is outscoring him, those views are not going to change. Alas Felipe doesn’t have the same pedigree around the Hungaroring as others on this list do, with fourth being his best finish, 12 months after his horrific accident that affected his career so greatly here. He certainly needs to start pushing for podium spaces like his teammate can if he wants to enjoy another year on the grid.