BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Sebastian Vettel had never won in July before this year’s German Grand Prix. That box ticked, Red Bull’s triple Formula One champion now has a Hungary hoodoo to overcome on Sunday.
If the German can triumph for the first time in seven visits on what promises to be a sweltering weekend in Budapest then he will go into Formula One’s summer break well on the way to a fourth successive title.
This year has already seen the 26-year-old break new ground. He has won his home race for the first time, savored a first victory in North America and shown his ruthless streak in defying team orders.
Hungary is one of only two races remaining on the current calendar that Vettel has not won - the other being Austin, Texas - and a victory in the heat of the Hungaroring would mean he has won half of the season’s races so far.
“Hungary has some interesting memories for me,” he said this week, casting his mind back to only the second race of his F1 career when he joined Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso in 2007 after a debut as a stand-in with BMW-Sauber.
“It was my first race with the Red Bull family. Let’s hope I can add to my memories by winning there for the first time before I go on holiday.”
Ominously for Vettel’s rivals, on previous form he is likely to get even stronger in the second half of the season so every point they can take off him now could be vital.
The championship leader has hit his stride already, scoring 157 points from nine races compared to 100 last year, and won four races after taking just one by this stage in 2012. He is 34 points clear of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
And in the last three seasons, Vettel has come back refreshed after the summer break and put his foot down to win at least three more races - four last year and five in his most dominant 2011 campaign.
The introduction of new Pirelli tires this weekend, after a spate of blowouts at last month’s British Grand Prix led to emergency changes in Germany, could help him further.
Vettel was fastest in a test of the new tires, which marry the 2012 structure with 2013 compounds to produce less degradation, at Silverstone last week although his main race rivals were absent.
Mercedes, who were not allowed to test at Silverstone as punishment for a ‘secret’ test with Pirelli in June, will have to wait and see but their strength in qualifying up to now should stand them in good stead.
Lewis Hamilton is chasing his third pole in a row with Mercedes and has won three times in Hungary but that was with McLaren, who have won six times in the last eight years but are currently a long way from where they want to be.
“We have a number of challenges to overcome,” said Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff. “We will need to do extra homework on Friday to understand how the new tires work with our car.
“Then we will have to get to grips with the high temperatures, a demanding circuit and the soft and medium compound Pirelli tires.
“During the race at the Nuerburgring, we were overheating the tires and we want to minimize the chance of suffering a repeat problem in Hungary, where the track temperatures will also be high.”
Alonso - who took his first F1 win in Hungary with Renault in 2003 - and Lotus’s third placed Kimi Raikkonen will be hoping their cars’ gentle treatment of the tires can help them put pressure on Vettel.
“People say the characteristics of our car are not best suited to this circuit and that it will be tough for us to fight for the win here, but I am not sure this is an accurate assessment,” said Alonso’s team mate Felipe Massa.
“There have been other circuits where we expected our car to be very strong and it was not and vice-versa,” added the Brazilian, who suffered life-threatening head injuries in a freak accident at the track near Budapest in 2009.
“You need a car that is very stable and that is kind to the tires to avoid degradation. I think we can be competitive so I’m hoping our weekend goes in the opposite way to what people are expecting.”
McLaren’s Jenson Button is not expecting much but loves the circuit after taking his first F1 win there in 2006 and in 2011 with McLaren in his 200th race.
“Of course a win in 2013 is going to be difficult but I actually think the team is working very well right now,” said the 2009 world champion.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by John O'Brien