F1 Grand Prix of Hungary

F1 2014 mid-season report: Grading the drivers so far

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Following on from our review of the teams’ performances in the first half of the 2014 Formula 1 season, we now move onto the drivers that have competed in a race so far this year.

Of course, the runaway leaders have been Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. The Mercedes drivers have been in a class of their own at the front of the field with the W05 Hybrid car, and their tussle for the title is set to continue for the rest of the season.

Further back, we have seen a number of breakout performances and results for some of the younger drivers, whilst some have underperformed and struggled to make much of an impact. Here are our rankings for the year so far.

Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – Grade: A+
He may not lead the championship, but Lewis Hamilton is certainly giving it his all to secure a second world title this year. Five wins and two incredible comebacks in Germany and Hungary leave him just eleven points behind Rosberg at the top.
Highlight so far: His monster defence to keep Rosberg back in Bahrain.

Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) – Grade: A+
When Daniel joined Red Bull, few gave him a hope in hell of beating Sebastian Vettel. However, after half a season, he has won two races and is 43 points clear of his four-time world champion of a teammate. Quickly proving himself to be the real deal at Red Bull.
Highlight so far: His moves on Hamilton and Alonso to win in Hungary.

Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) – Grade: A
Like Lewis, Nico Rosberg has excelled with the W05 Hybrid, but he hasn’t quite had that killer instinct his teammate has shown. Nevertheless, he leads the world championship with eight races to go and is in the box seat to win a first world title.
Highlight so far: Winning on home soil (twice) in Monaco and Germany.

Valtteri Bottas (Williams) – Grade: A
Maybe we’re being generous with the A grades here, but Bottas deserves one just as much as the others. The flying Finn has led Williams’ charge in 2014, and is quickly establishing himself to be a star for the future.
Highlight so far: Charging from a Q1 dropout to second place at Silverstone.

Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) – Grade: B+
This might be a bit harsh to grade Alonso like this, but B+ is still a great score given the state of the F14 T car. He continues to fight on his own, dragging the car to two podium finishes and enjoying some awesome battles on the way.
Highlight so far: Nearly winning the Hungarian GP with a genius strategy; eventually came home second.

Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) – Grade: B+
Yet again in 2014, Nico Hulkenberg is proving to the bigger teams that he deserves a seat with them. He has led Force India’s charge, scoring points in all but one race, and surely must score that overdue podium finish in the second half of the year.
Highlight so far: Battle with Perez for the podium in Bahrain, even if he did come fifth in the end.

Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) – Grade: B
Seb didn’t stand much chance of defending his world title with the troublesome Renault power unit, so the real marker is his teammate. The fact that he is trailing Ricciardo and wasn’t the man to score both of the team’s wins proves that he is struggling in 2014 (if you were in need of proof…).
Highlight so far: Keeping Rosberg in sight in Malaysia before finishing third.

Felipe Massa (Williams) – Grade: B
The popular Brazilian has looked like a new man since leaving Ferrari. With Williams, he is happy and he is quick. He has suffered some rotten luck this year, and would otherwise be higher than ninth in the standings.
Highlight so far: Shock pole position in Austria ahead of Bottas and the Mercedes cars.

Jules Bianchi (Marussia) – Grade: B
As we said in the teams’ review, it’s difficult to grade the backmarkers. However, Bianchi has been a revelation for Marussia, scoring its first ever points in F1 at the Monaco Grand Prix. A successful test with Ferrari has also helped his stock to rise, but will a bigger team come calling for 2015?
Highlight so far: Points in Monaco, a remarkable result for all at Marussia.

Jenson Button (McLaren) – Grade: B
It’s been an okay season so far for Jenson Button. 2013 was a disaster, and although 2014 started with a podium-by-default in Australia, the Briton hasn’t done a great deal more. Some good one-off results, but lacks the spark of his earlier years with McLaren.
Highlight so far: Coming so close to the podium at the British GP as Silverstone turned Pink for Papa.

Kevin Magnussen (McLaren) – Grade: B-
It has been a similar story on the other side of the McLaren garage. Magnussen hasn’t done a great deal of note since his podium in Australia, but has been consistent if not spectacular. Again, his abilities seem to be masked by the MP4-29 car.
Highlight so far: Second place on debut in Australia after Ricciardo’s DSQ.

Sergio Perez (Force India) – Grade: B-
A good start to the season for Perez following his McLaren sacking, with the podium finish in Bahrain being Force India’s first since 2009. However, we have seen a few mistakes cost him big results (Canada for example). A good start to 2014 all the same.
Highlight so far: Third place in Bahrain after seeing off the Williams drivers and Hulkenberg.

Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) – Grade: C+
Not a bad start to life in Formula 1. With a bit more luck, Kvyat may have scored more than his current haul of six points. Appears to have had the edge on Vergne despite his relative inexperience and has been strong in qualifying, but will want more points in the final eight races.
Highlight so far: P9 on debut in Australia; qualifying in Austria another good result.

Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) – Grade: C
Vergne leads Toro Rosso’s charge with eleven points to Kvyat’s six, but he hasn’t done a huge amount to prove to the team he is worth keeping for 2015. Will need more races like the one in Hungary to stand a chance of staying on for next season.
Highlight so far: Running second in Hungary and keeping the Mercedes cars at bay; finished ninth.

Romain Grosjean (Lotus) – Grade: C
RoGro has transformed himself from a crash kid into a star for the future over the past year, and eight points is a commendable haul given the torture that the E22 car has given Lotus. He is doing very well to keep the team’s flag flying this year.
Highlight so far: Eighth in Spain after qualifying fifth for Lotus.

Adrian Sutil (Sauber) – Grade: C-
In a terrible year for Sauber, Adrian Sutil has struggled to even get close to the top ten. When he has looked to be in with a chance, mistakes have been made (such as the spin in Germany). A very average season so far from the German driver.
Highlight so far: 11th in Hungary when the car didn’t look as bad.

Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) – Grade: D+
If Sauber is the most disappointing team of the season so far, then Kimi Raikkonen is the most disappointing driver. The so-called ‘superteam’ he formed with Alonso at Ferrari hasn’t delivered – or, more accurately, he hasn’t delivered. 27 points and a best finish of sixth is just embarrassing.
Highlight so far: Sixth in Hungary, and still he remained anonymous for much of the race.

Max Chilton (Marussia) – Grade: D
Perhaps the most average driver out there, Chilton hasn’t done a huge amount to set the world on fire in 2014. He did enjoy the measure on Bianchi to begin with, but has since fallen back behind. Most notable moment was taking his teammate out in Canada.
Highlight so far: 13th in Bahrain. Not really much more to add.

Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) – Grade: D
Just like Sutil, Gutierrez has struggled with the Sauber C33 car, but he too has made some costly errors. In Monaco, points were on the cards until he spun the car and couldn’t get it back going, and otherwise the Mexican has been very quiet all season. Needs a change soon.
Highlight so far: Hungarian GP weekend when points looked possible; sidelined by a problem on the car.

Kamui Kobayashi (Caterham) – Grade: D
It’s been a tough year for Caterham, but Kobayashi hasn’t set the world on fire with his performances. Brought in for his experience, the signs are that it could be him who gets the chop if a pay driver comes knocking. Nothing really of note for the popular Japanese racer.
Highlight so far: His reaction to a question about the World Cup in a press conference, saying “I don’t care!” and claiming that Japan are rubbish at football.

Pastor Maldonado (Lotus) – Grade: E
The jokes about Pastor Maldonado this season have only continued. Crashes in qualifying for the Chinese and Spanish Grands Prix didn’t do him much good, nor has the fact that he hasn’t matched Grosjean for pace when the car has been going.
Highlight so far: Confirmation of a seat with the team for 2015. Yes, really.

Marcus Ericsson (Caterham) – Grade: E
Put Ericsson in the same box as Chilton marked “average”. Nothing special this year, has rarely looked like scoring points even if he did come close in Monaco. Unlikely to stick around for 2015 if bigger bucks can be found by the new owners.
Highlight so far: P11 in Monaco.

Graham Rahal able to ‘tame the beast’ of Texas ghosts with win

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda speaks at a media conference after winning the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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FORT WORTH – Graham Rahal swears he didn’t give the final 177 laps of the Firestone 600 a single thought between June 12 and Aug. 27.

“I haven’t thought about it at all until this week,” said Rahal, who was now thinking about nothing else after winning said race by .008 seconds over James Hinchcliffe, a Texas Motor Speedway record.

Rahal and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series have been busy since June, competing in –  and actually finishing – five races since the Firestone 600 was postponed 77 days for rain after reaching Lap 71.

After visiting Road America, Iowa Speedway, Toronto, his home track of Mid-Ohio and Pocono, the 1.5-mile track in North Texas finally, surreally, came back around.

“It’s a very strange thing actually,” Rahal said, still wearing the 10-gallon Cowboy hat awarded to race winners by track president Eddie Gossage. “We came down here this morning, and I don’t know, it was just a weird day to kind of get into the groove of it. It was like, we landed so early, we had so much time to kill, then such a short practice, and then we just go racing.”

Due to what transpired over the those five races – not finishing better than fourth after a Road America podium and only leading two laps – Rahal was having very specific thoughts about Saturday night’s race.

“This week I knew, again, because of the year that we’ve had, it was an opportunity,” Rahal said. “I felt like in June we had a great race car, we just didn’t get to see it through and tonight obviously from the front, we went forward, and it was a great night.”

After restarting 12th in a car Rahal described after a brief practice session as a “f—ing rocket,” the No. 15 carved its way through the pack. By the final 25 laps it one of five cars on the lead lap, led by Hinchcliffe.

“I just thought if I could get there, we’d have a good chance, and then we went fighting at the end there,” Rahal said. “I had a lot of front tire degradation. I was having to take the early laps a bit slower to try to save that outside front. You could see Kanaan and (Scott) Dixon even a little bit quicker than me but 15 laps or so into the stint I closed back up because my car, I think, was better on the tires in the long run.”

Then, unlike Hinchcliffe, Rahal’s team decided to pit late for tires under caution. That decision set up an eight-lap sprint that will likely be considered the most thrilling of the season. With three and four-wide racing, it looked like the memorable Indy Racing League races at Texas of a decade ago.

On a night where TMS honored law enforcement, Rahal’s path through the field was oversaw by spotter Steve Turner, a retired police officer from Speedway, Indiana.

“Steve does a great job. But tonight I had to keep my eyes particularly peeled at all times to my mirrors, Rahal said. “I always trust the spotter but I want to make sure in a lot of cases that we gave ourselves a little extra room.”

In the closing laps, Rahal’s thoughts didn’t drift to those old “pack” races. They went to a more recent Texas visit in 2012. That year, Rahal led 27 laps at the climax of the race with Justin Wilson chasing him. With three laps left, Rahal bounced off the wall out of Turn 4, allowing Wilson to pass him and win.

It would be the last IndyCar win for Wilson, who died a year ago last week from injuries sustained at Pocono Raceway.

“You know what I was motivated by a little bit is I kept thinking about Justin there, because a couple years ago we had a great battle here,” Rahal said. “Quite honestly I was picturing him shooting those things off there the last couple of laps, just trying to get it done for ourselves here.”

That failure in 2012 came in the middle of seven winless seasons for the son of Bobby Rahal. Graham Rahal ended that last season with a win in another tense, hotly contested “pack race” at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s just nice to kind of tame the beast a little bit,” said Rahal, who has made nine starts at Texas, but only finished in the top 10 three times. “This place is a tough place to win … So it feels nice. To not go through this year winless is the biggest pressure I feel off my shoulders. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to get that over because not that it would have been a dry spell like last time, but I don’t want to have to hear the questions again, so it was nice to just get that.”

Even when Rahal got the win, he was afraid he has celebrated too soon. As his car neared the finish line, he raised his right hand in a celebratory fist before quickly dropping it down right as Hinchcliffe was pulling even with him.

“I was like, ‘make sure his roll hoop says two.’ Looked over and I could see it said two, and I knew I had it,” Rahal said. “Those LED panels that IndyCar started using are awesome.”

The win also gave Honda just its second win of 2016, a year after it earned five. After two months of not thinking about a race, Rahal won’t want to stop talking about it.

“It’s special for us to get a win for Honda for sure, and be able to call corporate on Monday and have a good talk,” Rahal said.

Hamilton gets extra five-place grid drop ahead of Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain drives the 4 Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 drivers’ championship leader Lewis Hamilton has been hit with an extra five-place grid drop ahead of Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix after Mercedes broke a seal on his gearbox overnight.

Hamilton was due to start the race from 21st place on the grid after being hit with a number of penalties for taking three new power units over the weekend.

Hamilton had a 55-place grid drop to serve that would see him start ahead only of Fernando Alonso, who had 60 places worth of penalties.

Hamilton told NBCSN on Saturday that he would rather not start from the pit lane, but the FIA stewards issued a document saying he would have to after Mercedes broke parc ferme conditions.

However, Mercedes now claims that the FIA stewards have issued an incorrect penalty, and that Hamilton will start from the grid after all, with his penalty being a five-place grid drop that takes his total up to 60.

“The stewards issued the incorrect penalty and have now issued a five-place grid penalty, taking us to 60 places in total,” a Mercedes spokesperson said.

“The gearbox seal was broken so that Lewis can take a fresh gearbox at the next event. He will start from the grid, not the pit lane.”

As Alonso failed to set a time in Q1 and technically didn’t qualify, Hamilton will still start ahead of the Spaniard.

What to watch for: Belgian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg will know that today’s Belgian Grand Prix is probably the best chance he’ll get to fight back into contention for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

After seeing his points advantage over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton disappear through July and turn into a 19-point deficit, the German could move back into the lead on Sunday at Spa.

Hamilton will start the race from the last row of the grid after being hit with a 55-place grid drop for taking three new power units over the weekend, as forced by issues earlier in the season.

Rosberg, meanwhile, had a relatively untroubled run to pole on Saturday, seeing off the challenges from Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen in Q3.

With the Mercedes drivers starting at either end of the grid, the race and title fight are finely-poised, which should make for a thrilling contest.

You can watch the Belgian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race.

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Can Nico handle the pressure?

Rosberg’s title bid in 2016 has largely been built on the run of four race wins at the start of the year, all of which came after calm and well-executed displays. His form since then has been a little more erratic, allowing Hamilton back into the title fight.

Without his biggest rival for company at the front of the grid, Rosberg knows that victory should be his for the taking. Strategy will be key at Spa, and with Rosberg starting on softs as opposed to the quicker super-soft tires, he may struggle early on.

Nevertheless, this really should be Rosberg’s race to lose. And if he leaves Spa more than 19 points behind Hamilton, it would surely be a crushing psychological defeat.

Max Mania set to reach new heights

Spa is expecting its biggest attendance since 2002 on Sunday, bucking the trend of falling crowd figures that most European circuits are experiencing. Much of it is down to the success of Max Verstappen, who hails from the nearby Netherlands and lives in Belgium.

Tens of thousands of fans have made the trip across the border to cheer on Verstappen, turning the grandstands a shade of orange. Their support was rewarded with a charge to second place on the grid in qualifying, making Verstappen F1’s youngest ever front-row starter.

Starting on super-softs, Verstappen should have a pace advantage early on at Spa. Rosberg said that Red Bull’s long-run pace was concerning on Friday – could Verstappen charge to a second F1 victory?

Damage limitation the aim for Hamilton

While the penalty system may have looked somewhat farcical, Lewis Hamilton won’t care much. He now has three new power units that should see him to the end of the season barring any unexpected problems.

Hamilton has fought his way from the back of the grid before, most notably in Germany and Hungary in 2014. This time around though, it may prove more difficult. Mercedes is no longer way off in the distance compared to other teams – as such, it won’t be easy pickings.

Throw in a safety car period or two, and Hamilton could get into contention at the front of the pack. Otherwise, he needs to stay out of trouble and limit the damage of this weekend’s penalty.

All eyes on tires, both strategy and pressures

Tires are always a talking point at Spa, but this year they are proving to be particularly troublesome. Teams have been required to raise their tire pressures to prevent blow-outs, something that Felipe Massa called a “joke” earlier in the week.

That, combined with the variety of strategies on offer, could shake up the pecking order today. A three-stop race is most likely barring any safety car periods, and with temperatures higher than expected (sun at Spa? What is this sorcery?), it’s going to be a tough day for the pit wall. Lots to be lost and gained.

Opportunity knocks for lower midfield

The summer breaks appears to have done wonders for many of the teams in F1’s lower-midfield. Haas, Renault, Sauber and Manor all impressed in qualifying with their pace, and will be hopeful of repeating that kind of display in the race on Sunday.

For Haas, being on the right tire at the right time has been its biggest strength so far this season, making Spa a race where opportunities should be plenty. For Manor, today will see Esteban Ocon make his F1 debut – can he and/or Pascal Wehrlein add to its points haul this year?

2016 Belgian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Max Verstappen Red Bull
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Sergio Perez Force India
7. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
8. Valtteri Bottas Williams
9. Jenson Button McLaren
10. Felipe Massa Williams
11. Romain Grosjean Haas
12. Kevin Magnussen Renault
13. Jolyon Palmer Renault
14. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
15. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
16. Felipe Nasr Sauber
17. Esteban Ocon Manor
18. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
19. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
20. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
21. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
22. Fernando Alonso McLaren

WATCH LIVE: Belgian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 makes its long-awaited return from the summer break today with the Belgian Grand Prix at the iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Nico Rosberg may have seen his points lead in the drivers’ championship turn into a 19-point deficit through July, but the German now has a perfect chance to strike back against Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton.

With Hamilton receiving a 55-place grid drop for taking three new power units over the weekend, the championship leader is resigned to the back row of the grid.

Rosberg capitalized on his teammate’s struggles to capture pole at Spa on Saturday, edging out Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen in Q3.

The pressure will now be on Rosberg to seal the deal and take his first win since the middle of June, while Hamilton will be focusing on damage limitation when fighting back from the rear of the grid.

You can watch the Belgian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Bob Varsha, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at Hockenheim providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.