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Coletti wins thrilling wet-dry-wet sprint race

31 July 2011

There are few things you can rely on: a British summertime that will leave you shivering under cold, rain-filled skies; and a Hungary in late July that will be hot, sunny and dusty - there's only been one wet F1 Grand Prix here in 26 years.

But this week Budapest threw an almighty curveball, and presented us with a distinctly British version of mid-summer with the track wet from earlier rain and the skies promising more to come as teams tried to decide whether to start on wets or slicks for the Sunday morning sprint race at the Hungaroring in Budapest.

After testing the slicks on the formation lap, most drivers ran scared and settled for wet tyres; only Luca Filippi, Adam Carroll, Stefano Coletti, Jolyon Palmer, Esteban Gutierrez, Johnny Cecotto and Fairuz Fauzy opted to try and make it on slicks. The leaders - Christian Vietoris and Jules Bianchi on the front row - played safe.

Their caution seemed prudent when Vietoris eased away at the start, while Filippi once again struggled off the grid and then completely failed to correctly judge the braking point for slicks into turn 1, running deep into the run-off before rejoining well down the order. He wasn't alone in his excursion, Jules Bianchi soon running wide to allow Romain Grosjean up to fourth while Michael Herck was an early retiree from proceedings as he spun out on lap 2.

Vietoris meanwhile was looking imperious at the front, pulling out almost 2s a lap on the Barwa Addax duo of Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic over the opening five laps, with Romain Grosjean, Jules Bianchi and Fabio Leimer forming up the rest of the top six places.

The concern now was that the drivers on slick tyres were clearly faster where they weren't spinning, while the wet tyres were starting to overheat and lose their cohesion on the dry line that was appearing on the circuit even if a fine spray was still visible as the cars ran through damper parts of the Hungaroring. One by one - a trickle at first - drivers decided that they had to risk a throw of the dice and come in for a change to slicks before they missed the crucial tipping point.

Even though Luca Filippi spun on his slicks as they were making the call, Rodolfo Gonzalez, Max Chilton and Marcus Ericsson were all in on lap 7 and next time around pit lane saw visits from Charles Pic, Josef Kral, Dani Clos, Davide Valsecchi and Mikhail Aleshin; but the warning signs that it might still be too early for the switch soon came when Max Chilton spun on his outlap at turn 2 and stalled the car.

That brought out a safety car while a crane was brought onto the track to remove the stricken Carlin, and the opportunity forced the leaders' hands: now Vietoris led the remaining cars into pit lane for a switch to slicks while retaining track position, with the only cars to stay out exclusively comprising those who had started on slicks in the first place.

Vietoris kept the lead for the restart ahead of Van der Garde, Grosjean, Bianchi, Leimer and Luiz Razia, with Varhaug the highest-placed of those who hadn't pitted in seventh place and Charles Pic badly caught out by coming in under green a lap earlier now down in tenth.

That left most of the field in unfamiliar conditions at the restart - just how much grip would the slicks allow on the still fairly damp circuit? Some could cope - Vietoris had no problems in front - while others struggled, with van der Garde missing the apex of turn 1 and sliding wide allowing Grosjean through before the Barwa Addax then clipped Bianchi's front wing as the Lotus ART man tried to follow the Dams car through. Bianchi and van der Garde continued their battle up into turn 4, with van der Garde following the racing line and sweeping across to the right and appeared to barge Bianchi off onto the wet grass, which predictably left him spinning into the run-off area at the top of the hill and dropping him to a miserable 22nd place.

But there were better fortunes elsewhere, particularly for Trident's Stefano Coletti. He had started on slicks from 21st on the grid and already knew their limits; taking the restart on lap 12 from 13th place, he blasted his way up to fourth in the space of a lap and a half, helped along the way by Razia and Bird getting preoccupied with a fight between themselves ahead of him. Pic also had crucial extra experience of the conditions and was able to improve to 7th as others fell away.

And then suddenly it was clear that something had changed: mayhem broke out up and down the running order. Filippi - not enjoying these conditions from the start - had spun again, and this time stalled the car; Julian Leal and Dani Clos also spun out; Pal Varhaug went out after clipping his front wing on the back of Davide Valsecchi's AirAsia car, which sent him ploughing through a gravel trap until he beached the Dams car half-in, half-out; and then crucially the leader Christian Vietoris lost control and spun out of turn 6, damaging his front wing and almost collecting Romain Grosjean, as the Frenchman was reacted fast to go off-track and avoid a more serious collision. That allowed Coletti to pass them both, assuming the lead.

It seems that what the teams had apparently not seen during the earlier safety car pit stops- or failed to take sufficient note of in the frenzied activity - was the rain radar saying that further rain of significant intensity was moving in to the area. It had now arrived, and the slick tyres that had always been a marginal call in the first place now had no chance whatsoever.

An escalating number of drivers including Lotus ART duo Jules Bianchi and Esteban Gutierrez had already decided to gamble on an early change back to wet tyres; some, including leaders Stefano Coletti and Romain Grosjean, stubbornly refused to surrender their track position despite slipping and sliding all over the place. But finally a safety car was called as a result of Clos' stalled car needing to be recovered.

It was another wholesale shake-up of the running order, and as the safety car pulled in it was now Charles Pic still on slicks in the lead followed by Coletti, Valsecchi, Grosjean, Kral, Sam Bird, Aleshin, Gutierrez, and van der Garde, with Kevin Mirocha in tenth ahead of Jules Bianchi whose timely pit stop decision had allowed him to recover to eleventh.

The cars on wet tyres were all able to take turn 1 much more coherently on the better grip, but those who weren't - including Pic, Valsecchi and Aleshin - all struggled and immediately lost started to lose positions hand over fist. The best gainers from all this were Gutierrez and van der Garde who quickly moved up to third and fourth behind the now-leading pair of Coletti and Grosjean. Gutierrez' team mate Bianchi had also done well out of the whole affair and was now in sixth behind Sam Bird, but even on wet tyres Bianchi was still struggling in the worsening conditions and ran wide while trying to overtake Bird, lucky to keep it going in the right direction and not spin again.

The wet weather and multiple safety cars had slowed down the race to the point where a time-cap was now inevitable reducing the race from 28 to 23 laps in length, and with just two minutes to go before the chequered flag was invoked there was another spinner in the form of Jolyon Palmer. Rather than bring out a safety car to recover the inconveniently-located stalled car, the officials chose to handle it under local waved yellows so that the race could finish under green.

And just as well, too, because there was a thrilling battle developing between Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez for second place. Grosjean seemed to be really struggling, which had released Coletti off into the distance in the lead, and Gutierrez clearly quicker - but the championship leader was doing everything that he needed do to impede the Mexican and keep him behind him on the track for one final lap.

It almost worked, until the very last corner of the last lap of the race: Grosjean finally slid too deep into the corner, and the better handling of the Lotus ART allowed Gutierrez to stick to a tighter line through the apex and get a better slingshot out of the corner and onto the start-finish straight. Gutierrez floored it and took the chequered flag by a tenth of a second from Grosjean.

Grosjean will be disappointed to lose out on the position at the last minute, but he can't be too troubled: for the second weekend in succession he's been on both podiums of the weekend and finished ahead of his key rivals in the championship battle (in this case, Giedo van der Garde finished a place behind him in fourth) so that he extends his points lead in the title fight.

Adam Carroll's race was compromised early on by a drive-thru penalty for a clear jump start, while Marcus Ericsson fell foul of the stewards for a second race in succession when he was ruled to have the safety car during the second SC period and handed a late-race drive-thru that left him no time to fight back from his eventual 15th place.

But the real star of the show was Stefano Coletti, who showed stunning ability in the conditions first in keeping the Trident car on the road on slicks in the wet early laps, then seizing the opportunity to make up positions when everyone else was still getting used to new tyres, and then keeping a level head to press home his opportunity to a race win by a hugely impressive margin of 7.2s over that thrilling battle for second.

Hungary really should be cold and wet more often if that's what it needs to deliver such an exciting and entertaining race - at least for the benefit of the race, if not for the cold and damp teams, drivers and spectators.

Full race results and times available.


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