The Hungarian Grand Prix this weekend marks the eleventh of 18 rounds on the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship calendar - and a pivotal stage during the season as the title battle teeters on a knife-edge.

The race - around the Hungaroring close to the capital of Budapest - has been a regular fixture on the grand prix calendar since 1986, and has smiled on British drivers on a number of occasions.

Most notable have been Nigel Mansell's victory from twelfth on the grid for Ferrari back in 1989, Jenson Button's breakthrough triumph in the top flight in an unusually wet encounter in 2006 and Lewis Hamilton's lights-to-flag glory to secure only the third success of his F1 career this time twelve months ago.

In the past 22 years, the race has been won by McLaren seven times and Ferrari five, and indeed it is the former who appear to be in much the better shape as the weekend approaches, on the back of Lewis Hamilton's second dominant performance in as many outings in the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim just under a fortnight ago.

Resulting from that, the young Stevenage ace has opened up a four-point advantage in the drivers' standings over the pursuing Felipe Massa, and sits seven points clear of the Brazilian's Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen.

Hamilton would certainly seem to be the form man as the 2008 campaign races into its second half, and will have fond memories of his maiden Hungarian Grand Prix last year - or race day, at least, following a highly-publicised tit-for-tat spat with then team-mate Fernando Alonso during qualifying that saw the Spaniard demoted five grid positions, and the pair's already brittle relationship reach a new low.

This time around, there is a far more harmonious atmosphere inside the Woking-based outfit, with Heikki Kovalainen providing the perfect foil to Hamilton's brilliance. The young Finn will be no doubt buoyed by the renewal of his McLaren contract for another season [see separate story - click here], and finished inside the points following a strong performance on his debut in the race in 2007.

Whilst seeking to insist that there is no reason to panic over its recent slump in fortunes - having registered just a single victory in the last five races to McLaren's five, and having been out-scored by the Silver Arrows over the same period by 44 points to 42 - Ferrari does acknowledge that much work needs to be done if the Scuderia is to rediscover its imperious early-season form, with both Massa and Raikkonen slipping ever-further adrift in the battle for the drivers' crown.

Whilst the defending F1 World Champion is a former winner in Hungary - ironically for McLaren - and has ascended the rostrum on a further two occasions, his team-mate has scored just two points there from five previous starts, and is well aware that he must do significantly better than that this year if he is to further his claim to be Maranello's principal title hope.

Behind the top two teams, BMW-Sauber are increasingly finding themselves in no-man's-land as the season progresses, not quite close enough to challenge for victory again yet similarly comfortably clear of the hotly-fought midfield scrap behind.

Nick Heidfeld seems to have re-found his form in recent weeks - narrowly missing out on adding to his Silverstone podium on home turf at Hockenheim - and has finished up on the rostrum for both of the past two years at the Hungaroring, whilst team-mate Robert Kubica made his F1 debut at the track back in 2006, sensationally finishing inside the points in eighth position, only to subsequently be disqualified when his car was found to be underweight. Neither can be discounted from contention for a top three spot this weekend.

Though Red Bull Racing, Toyota and Renault have closed the gap separating them from BMW over the past couple of months, none of the three have been able to consistently threaten the Munich machines, with Toyota shining courtesy of Jarno Trulli's podium at Magny-Cours, Red Bull achieving their first-ever front row grid slot thanks to Mark Webber's scintillating effort at Silverstone and Nelsinho Piquet stunning everyone to finish in second place to former GP2 Series sparring partner Hamilton at Hockenheim.

The three teams are currently separated by a scant two points in the constructors' rankings, and all keenly have their eye on claiming the coveted fourth position in the championship come season's end. Experienced hands Webber and Trulli in particular are on fine form in 2008 - and can usually be counted upon to bring their cars home inside the points - while Timo Glock will be eager to bounce back from his second heavy shunt of the season in front of his home crowd last time out by securing his second points-scoring result of the campaign in Budapest.

The German result will also have done wonders for Piquet's burgeoning confidence, the young Brazilian having finished ahead of double world champion team-mate Alonso in two of the last three races and having run ahead of him in the third.

Williams has slipped somewhat off the pace of its immediate rivals after a strong start to the year, and though the Grove-based concern is tied with McLaren as the most successful team in terms of wins in Hungarian Grand Prix history, with neither Nico Rosberg nor Kazuki Nakajima having made the top ten on the grid since Canada back in June, even a repeat of the former's rostrum finish in Melbourne would look to be out of reach five months on.

Honda and Scuderia Toro Rosso are waging their own private battle just behind Williams - though it is arguable that in recent weeks STR has moved ahead of the former multiple world champions, with Sebastian Vettel in particular shining at the wheel of the small Faenza-based squad's steadily-improving STR3.

For all that Button may be one of just five drivers in the current F1 field to have prevailed in Hungary before - in company with Honda team-mate Rubens Barrichello - both the Briton and his Brazilian team-mate will likely be happy with a points finish in the 2008 edition of the race, as the Brackley-based concern looks ahead to what it hopes will be happier days around the corner with the sport's impending regulation changes in 2009.

Bringing up the rear, finally, it is difficult to see Force India anywhere but at the back of the grid, modifications to the VJM01 notwithstanding. Both Giancarlo Fisichella - who has never had much luck around the Hungaroring, scoring just twice in eleven starts - and Adrian Sutil have displayed flashes of inspiration over the opening half of the campaign, but sadly points for the talented duo in 2008 still seem to be as far away as ever...

by Russell Atkins