BUDAPEST, Hungary -- The Hungarian Grand Prix will be a one-stop race in normal circumstances, but with the top three drivers in the championship starting from the top three places in reverse order, strategy, and how its deployed will be fascinating.
The top six drivers on the grid will all start on the medium compound after using it in the second part of qualifying, with the option of either swapping to the hard or the soft at their single stop. With very little dry running on Friday, there is no way of knowing which strategy will be faster, but with overtaking difficult at the Hungaroring drivers will look to their strategists to either undercut or overcut their opponents.
The pit stop window for switching to hards is open from lap 21 to 30 and will give any driver tucked up behind a rival the opportunity to put new tyres on their car and attempt to undercut their rival by setting quick lap times on fresh rubber. The counter strategy -- often referred to as the offset -- will see drivers go long on the first stint and make a switch to softs between lap 35 and 44.
The two strategy options make things interesting for Mercedes. Starting second and third on the grid, Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton can effectively work as a team and take one of the strategies each to leave Verstappen vulnerable. If, for example, Bottas pits first from second place on lap 21, he will put the pressure on Verstappen to pit too to combat the undercut, while Hamilton can go long on the offset strategy to try and unleash the pace of the Mercedes pass the Red Bull with an overcut or just guarantee softer, fresher tyres at the end of the race to attack.
"We're in a good position in terms of working as a team tomorrow," Hamilton said after qualifying. "We're in a fortunate position, potentially, if we can hold on to Max to be able to work together to pull him closer to us and give him a bit of a run for his money.
"It's a little bit harder when you're on your own at the front in the team, because you can come under attack from undercuts and all this sort of thing. We'll see how that plays out but we've got a long run down to turn one so hopefully we will have a nice long battle down there and then after that it's down to team tactics."
However, with incomplete knowledge of the tyres, there is no knowing which strategy will be faster and by putting one driver on an offset, Mercedes run the risk of inadvertently favouring one championship rival over the other.
"On the one hand, as you say, it's a huge advantage as you can play two strategies," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. "But also one could be disadvantaged because you've got to hunt him down, and we can do that with two cars, but it means that one could be affected in terms of strategy, not on purpose, but simply because you could be running out of tyre at the end or you stop too late."
After Silverstone, where Hamilton benefitted from a Safety Car on an offset strategy and Bottas lost out, Mercedes may be wary of splitting their drivers. Yet as a team, they exist to win and if one of the two strategies offers that opportunity but happens to favour a driver, their defence will likely be that they were simply chasing the best team result. Either way, pure race pace is likely to make the difference and if one of Verstappen, Bottas or Hamilton is simply faster on the day, then it could be enough to come out on top regardless of strategy.
Further down the grid, drivers starting on the soft tyres could pit as early as lap 16 or as late as lap 28, depending on what they are trying to achieve. First practice on Friday suggested the soft tyre is prone to graining on the front left tyre, but the conditions were cooler and the track had less rubber down. The evolution of the circuit over the last two days should help combat that graining, although blistering could become an issue if drivers overheat their tyres.
The constant series of corners and relatively short straights at the Hungaroring mean tyre temperature is not really a problem, helping the likes of Haas and Ferrari, but aggressive racing while following a car for several laps can expedite thermal degradation and result in a loss of performance. Hopefully those on the mediums will be able to push the more robust compound slightly harder and go wheel-to-wheel in the first stint of the race.