Not far from the banks of the Danube, Mika Hakkinen waltzed away from the rest of the field to win the Hungarian Grand Prix in some comfort.

The Finn hd hardly looked a competitive proposition after either qualifying or the race morning warm-up but, by the end of 77 gruelling laps in typically hot conditions, he had become only the second leader of the world championship this season.

With overtaking on the sinuous Hungaroring circuit at a premium, Hakkinen knew that it was imperative to get past front row starters Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard on the run to the first corner, or have to remain in contact with them until the first round of pit-stops.

Opting for the former, the Finn repeated his Hockenheim getaway to rocket down the inside of both his rivals headed for turn one, and squeezed into the lead by taking to the end of the pit-lane exit as he passed the pole-sitting Ferrari.

Although both Schumacher and Coulthard - who had to fend off a determined challenge from Ralf Schumacher rounding the first turn - stayed in touch initially, there was nothing either man could do about the leader, and Hakkinen quickly disappeared into the distance in the early stages.

Schumacher later admitted that, had Hakkinen not passed him where he did, he probably would have done so in short order, as the McLaren was clearly the fastest car on the circuit. One and a half seconds to the good as early as lap five, the Finn's advantage continued to grow so that, by the time the first pit-stops loomed, he was nine seconds clear of the field.

Such was the leader's pace that many expected him to be among the first to stop for fuel, as McLaren must surely have short-filled him in order to create the chance for a rapid opening stint. The illusion continued right up to the time that Schumacher appeared in pit-lane on lap 27, with Hakkinen not following suit for another four tours.

Having already set a scintillating pace in the first twenty laps - including a time of 1min 20.6 on lap 16 - Hakkinen set about repeating the dose as soon as he exited the pits. A 1min 20.0secs soon followed, and appeared to break the back of Schumacher's challenge.

*From then on, Hakkinen could cruise towards the chequered flag, with just his car's reliability and the occasional backmarker left to cause any hint of worry. Neither did, and Mika was home and dry.

Schumacher might have thought the same as he left the pits for the first time, but his second set of tyres were not well suited to the Ferrari, and Coulthard was able to close in quickly over the middle stint of the race. The Scot had made a very slow getaway from the dirtier side of the grid, and was lucky not to have swallowed up by both Ralf Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at the start, but was now breathing down the neck of second place.

On more than one occasion, the McLaren looked poised to challenge, only to fall back again as the pair carved their way through traffic. Twice in quick succession, Schumacher managed to find his way past the backmarkers at the easiest part of the circuit, leaving Coulthard bottled up for several more turns before he, too, had a clear road again.

The time loss proved decisive in determining the podium order, as Coulthard emerged from his second stop just yards behind the Ferrari. There he stayed right to the end, the dusty surface off-line preventing any meaningful move as both drivers aimed to cut their losses in the championship.

While pit strategy may not have worked for Coulthard, it certainly did further down the order. Barrichello, unable to match Schumacher Jr's start, despite being on the cleaner side of the road, found himself bottled up behind the German for most of the first stint, and only an early call from his crew managed to vault him ahead. By then, however, the Brazilian was already too far behind the Schumacher/Coulthard battle to do anything about a further improvement, and settled for a healthy dose of points.

It was a similar story in the rest of the top six as, having lost out in the stops, Schumacher maintained both a comfortable pace and fifth place to the end. Jordan's Heinz-Harald Frentzen was his closest challenger but still finished the race a lonely 28secs adrift.

The biggest loser in the opening round of stops was Jaguar's Eddie Irvine and, by the time the field made their second call for fuel and tyres, the gaps were too big for the Irishman to do anything. Irvine had made up one place at the start, despite being disadvantaged by tenth spot, and then gained a couple more when Giancarlo Fisichella spun off at turn one and caused eighth-placed Jenson Button to slow in avoidance. A slow stop, however, dropped the jaguar back to the tail of the top ten and only Button's late problems allowed him to make up any ground.

It was another mature performance from the Williams youngster, who ran comfortably in Fisichella's wake early on, avoided a potential accident when the Italian spun in front of him, and looked set for seventh for much of the race. Indeed, sixth may have been on the cards at mid-distance as he closed on Frentzen, but a sick BMW in the closing stages dropped him back behind both Irvine and eventual inheritor of seventh, Jarno Trulli. The Italian had gambled on a one-stop strategy lifting him into the points, but it was not to be as he found himself ensnared in the usual midfield train.

The top ten was completed by Mika Salo, who lost a lot of ground on his opening stint, and never recovered thereafter. He did manage to find a way past the remaining Benetton of Alex Wurz before the end, but was disappointed to have wasted a good qualifying performance. Sauber team-mate Pedro Diniz ran ahead of the Finn for much of the race, before retiring with an engine failure.

Salo was never likely to have had his tenth place threatened after the Brazilian's demise, for the rest of the field was well adrift of the Red Bull car. Twelfth fell to Jacques Villeneuve, as the Canadian demonstrated what might have been had he not hit the back of Pedro de la Rosa's Arrows on lap one and lost his front wing. Both cars stopped immediately for repairs, with Villeneuve finishing two laps down, but still two laps clear of his Spanish adversary.

Such was Hakkinen's pace at the front, however, that only the top six avoided the indignity of being lapped. Even then, Frentzen came close, being a minute and 18 down on the eventual winner. Asked if he was now the favourite for the title, Hakkinen remained non-committal, but there are many who believe that his stealthy pursuit of Schumacher and Coulthard this season will eventually reap its rewards.

Four races ago, the paddock was questioning Hakkinen's motivation. After his display in Budapest, there is no doubt that the Finn is Hungary again.