Ferrari emerge as Red Bull’s closest rival but new tyre rule clouds the picture

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 When the so-called ‘Alternative Tyre Allocation’ format was first announced well over a year ago, it was emphasised again and again that environmental sustainability was the driving force behind it – not any attempt to shake up ‘the show’.

And yet, while there’s no reason to doubt this was the intention, it seems that fans have the ATA to thank for leaving them more in the dark about how the 10 teams are positioned at the end of the first day of running than they are for a typical race weekend.

Usually, each driver has the luxury of 13 sets of slick tyres available – eight of the designated soft compound, three of the mediums and just two of the hardest compound for that weekend. But in Hungary, they only have half the usual number of softs with extra sets of the two harder tyres to make up for it.

This weekend’s test of the ATA was slightly compromised by a sudden and heavy rain shower just minutes into the opening session of the day. While some drivers did benefit from getting laps in on intermediate tyres near the end of the session, first practice was, ultimately, largely meaningless. Except for Sergio Perez, who threw his Red Bull off the road and into the barriers on his first flying lap of the day, giving his mechanics a problem to solve before the second session and heaping more pressure on himself in the process.

Despite new rule, almost as many laps were covered as last year

Therefore, the second hour of practice was the only representative running teams had all day – and even that did not offer an image that was truly reflective of the field’s standing.

For a start, many big names were well outside the top ten at the chequered flag. Namely the two Red Bulls drivers – Max Verstappen and Perez – and the two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell. Of that formidable quartet, Verstappen only used softs and the Mercedes drivers confined their running to the medium compound.

Verstappen and Hamilton were quick to offer negative feedback about the ATA, with both champions bemoaning the limited running they had done in an effort to save their tyres. But while Hamilton suggested that the new format meant fans missed out on enjoying the same amount of running they otherwise would have seen, the numbers don’t quite seem to back that up. In 2022, the field combined for 557 total laps in Friday’s second practice session. This time, they logged a total of 531 laps – just under 5% less.

But as McLaren’s Lando Norris pointed out, teams were likely making up for the lack of dry running from the opening session in the second hour of the day. “I think we were lucky it rained,” Norris said. “Otherwise pretty much no one would have done anything in P1.”

At the end of that hour, Charles Leclerc put Ferrari on the top of the times, just as they had been on Friday at the Hungaroring a year ago. But Leclerc was only a matter of milliseconds quicker than Norris’s McLaren after the pair both set their best laps of the day on the soft compound, with Leclerc admitting he expected Red Bull to be the “strongest team” heading into Saturday.

“It’s very difficult to read into today’s free practice,” Leclerc said. “I think it’s something we expected, being the first weekend on this format with this allocation. Everybody’s trying different things, but it’s nice, because I think we will go into qualifying not really knowing where we are.”

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Hungaroring, 2023
Gallery: 2023 Hungarian Grand Prix practice in pictures

After McLaren’s major upgrades package thrust them into the fight for the win at Silverstone, the team’s drivers had been cautious about their prospects around a low-downforce circuit like the Hungaroring. But despite finishing the day down in 19th after suffering minor floor damage when running wide at turn 11, Oscar Piastri was left in an optimistic mood by how McLaren had performed in second practice.

“We looked pretty good,” Piastri said. “Our pace looked promising and I think the runs and the laps I actually did seemed very comparable. So I think we’re in a good place.”

But while McLaren were feeling positive, Hamilton was anything but. The Mercedes pair only used a single set of mediums during the day and Hamilton ended the second session down in 16th position, while team mate George Russell ranked at the very bottom.


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