Race day at the Hungaroring is one of my favourite days of the entire Formula 1 season.

It’s got little to do with the circuit (it still needs big renovations) or the fact there’s a race coming later in the day, even one to the superb standard of Sunday’s affair.

No, it’s because it is the closest thing we get to the ‘last day of school’ feeling as we all prepare to embark on our summer breaks. With the sun shining, temperatures running high and – new for 2019 – a paddling pool, deckchairs and inflatable shark all in the paddock, it was hard not to feel cheery.

But not everyone would have shared such a sunny disposition upon leaving the track on Sunday night. For some drivers in the field, Hungary was a low point that will leave them feeling anything but relaxed as they head off for their summer breaks.

The obvious starting point is Valtteri Bottas. Already under pressure following his crash while running fourth and in contention for a podium finish in Germany, the Mercedes driver looked to have found some of the ‘Bottas 2.0’ spark from the early part of the year when he qualified on the front row, finishing just 0.018 seconds shy of pole-sitter Max Verstappen.

But that would be as good as things would get for Bottas in Hungary. A messy opening lap saw him lock up at both Turn 1 and Turn 2, the second mistake allowing Lewis Hamilton to get on the inside for Turn 3 and cut across his nose. The glance may not have caused any damage to his front wing, but it did enough to drop Bottas into the clutches of Charles Leclerc behind, whose post-Austria aggression resulted in the pair touching.

Bottas tried to live with the front wing damage, but was forced to pit after a few laps and take repairs that dropped him to last position. Mercedes informed him that sixth place was likely if he could fight back, but struggles late on when running the two-stop strategy meant the Finn was limited to eighth place.

While there was definitely an element of misfortune in Bottas’ Hungaroring demise, it does little to ease the uncertainty regarding his future. Even with his superb start to the season, Mercedes chief Toto Wolff said he is “wrestling” over what to do, knowing that passing on Esteban Ocon for a 2020 seat would probably result in losing the Frenchman altogether.

The unfortunate thing for Bottas is that his dip in form has coincided not only with Hamilton himself stepping up a gear, but also with Verstappen hitting his stride and moving to within seven points in the drivers’ standings. Three weeks ago, he’d been in control at Silverstone prior to the Safety Car period; he’d led Mercedes’ charge in Austria two weeks before that, and come home second to Hamilton another week before that in France. Alas, short memories are common in F1…

Bottas said after the race he did not think his Hungary disappointment would change much regarding his future. “I’m not really nervous, but for sure it would be nice to hear some news from the team, to know what they want to do as well”, he said, adding: “I don’t think one race is going to change anything.”

The bleaker outlook at the front of the pack lies with Pierre Gasly at Red Bull. Silverstone had looked like a real turning point for the Frenchman after a tough start to the year, only for his error late on in Germany to cost him a decent points finish. While he returned to the top 10 in Hungary, it was not without finishing eight-tenths of a second off pole-sitting teammate Verstappen in qualifying and then one lap down in the race, trailing McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, who is now just five points behind in the drivers’ standings despite his inferior car.

Gasly was even identified as the weak link by Lewis Hamilton in the post-race press conference in response to a question about whether Fernando Alonso could return to F1. Hamilton said there was “at least a seat available” to win races with before telling Verstappen: “You’re the one with the extra seat.” Verstappen replied: “I didn’t say that.”

Were Red Bull firmly sitting as the third-fastest team this year, the steep learning curve Gasly is currently contending with would not be so immediately troubling for the team. But given Verstappen’s recent run of form and Ferrari’s failure to win a race this year, Red Bull has every right to be setting its sights on P2 in the constructors’ championship. It currently sits 44 points behind Ferrari, and Gasly is 118 points off Verstappen.

“I think he really needs to take some time out during the summer break, reflect on the first half of the season and take the lessons from that into the second half of the year,” Red Bull chief Christian Horner said of Gasly.

“It’s vital for us if we are to stand any chance of catching Ferrari that we have him finishing further ahead.”

He added: “Our intention is to leave him the car until the end of the year. But we desperately need to see him realising more of the potential of the car.”

Like Bottas, Gasly’s struggles have come at a bad time, coinciding not only with Verstappen hitting the front but also with Daniil Kvyat’s recent success. The podium finish for Toro Rosso at Hockenheim added fuel to the fire suggesting he could return to the team that binned him off three years ago, completing the redemption arc. Two clean races post-Silverstone would have eased the pressure on Gasly’s shoulders. Now? It’s greater than ever.

Bottas and Gasly may face the nerviest summer breaks, but they are not alone in being uncertain where they stand moving forward. The recent clashes at Haas have made it increasingly likely there will be a change for 2020, with Romain Grosjean seemingly more at risk than Kevin Magnussen. Neither managed to make a major breakthrough with the troublesome Haas VF-19 car in Hungary, continuing the team’s headache going to Spa.

Nico Hulkenberg is another driver who has been off the boil lately, most notable being the mistake when in podium contention at Hockenheim that meant his race ended in the wall. If Ocon becomes available, might Renault decide it is time for a change?

Antonio Giovinazzi will also be feeling a bit of extra pressure after a difficult weekend in Hungary, but can take solace in that a) he was technically P8 in Germany before the Alfa-triggered penalty, and b) there aren’t any Ferrari juniors who seem ready to displace him. Mick Schumacher may have one win on the board now in Formula 2, but barring a charge similar to his second half of the season in Formula 3 last year, a move up to F1 for next year appears to be too early.

And then there is Robert Kubica, who finally got the chance to race in front of his army of supporters that had made the trip from Poland to Hungary, with a reported figure of 40,000. He may have scored Williams’ only point this year, but Hungary proved more than ever that George Russell is the top dog at the team.

Nicholas Latifi looks bound for enough Super Licence points through F2 this year, and will have the budget to step up should Kubica be jettisoned for 2020. But given how deadpan and droll Kubica has been about the team’s fortunes this year, it’s unlikely he’ll lose much sleep over the summer thinking about his future.

F1 may enter summer shutdown soon, but these could prove to be the most important few weeks of the year – or even their careers – for some.

 

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