As the 2007 title fight increasingly hots up - with the smallest gap at the top of the drivers' standings since Monaco back in May - the Formula 1 circus gets set to return this weekend to the scene of what was undoubtedly last year's most exciting and unpredictable race - the Hungaroring.

A regular fixture on the grand prix calendar since 1986, the Budapest-situated circuit was the location of the first grand prix to be held behind the Iron Curtain and was constructed in just eight months. Its tight, twisty and dusty nature does not naturally favour overtaking, but the track has nevertheless witnessed some thrilling grands prix in its 21-year history.

Duels such as those between Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell's victory charge from twelfth on the grid in 1989, Damon Hill's near-miss with Arrows eight years later and Jenson Button's maiden triumph last year in a race rendered chaotic by an extremely uncharacteristic and unseasonable downpour have all gone down in F1 folklore.

Although there are no Hungarian drivers on the F1 grid, the fans are nevertheless among the most enthusiastic in the world, and the weekend often sees a good number of Finns too make the pilgrimage to Budapest, as the nearest grand prix venue to their home country. Kimi Raikkonen is a past winner there, while the circuit also holds fond memories for Fernando Alonso being where he claimed his debut F1 success back in 2003. Lewis Hamilton will no doubt also be feeling confident, having overcome a troubled qualifying that left him plum last on the grid in GP2 last year to soar through the pack to second place in race two. Felipe Massa, meanwhile - the final one of the four championship contenders - has never finished higher than seventh in Hungary, a record he will doubtless be keen to change this time around.

FIA F1 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP NEWS

Despite the FIA World Motor Sport Council electing not to punish McLaren over the spy row drama that has engulfed the sport in recent weeks and threatened to overshadow the championship fight, the crisis has continued to rumble on. The Woking-based squad was found guilty of being in possession of confidential Ferrari documents, in breach of article 151c of the International Sporting Code, but escaped any penalty as the FIA deemed there was 'insufficient evidence that it had been used in such a way as to interfere improperly with the FIA Formula 1 World Championship'.

Unhappy with this verdict, Ferrari wrote to FIA President Max Mosley claiming the judgment set a 'dangerous precedent' for future 'dishonest behaviour' within the sport and asking for the matter to be referred to the FIA's International Court of Appeal. Mosley agreed to this request, and the case will likely be heard towards the end of August where it will be debated as to whether McLaren's cars gained any 'illegitimate advantage' from the information in their possession. Ferrari's sacked former head of performance development Nigel Stepney, meanwhile, claims he was the victim of a set-up within Maranello. The plot thickens.

Indeed, Stepney is not the only one to have found himself summarily dismissed during Formula 1's summer of discontent, as Scott Speed discovered to his cost less than a week before the Hungarian Grand Prix. The Californian, who had a very public verbal and physical bust-up with team principal Franz Tost in the aftermath of his premature retirement from the European Grand Prix, claiming that both the Austrian and Scuderia Toro Rosso co-owner Gerhard Berger were doing everything possible to undermine him and team-mate Tonio Liuzzi and that no amount of money in the world would convince him to race for Tost and Berger again. Just days later, it was announced he would be replaced by BMW test-driver Sebastian Vettel - who already made his grand prix debut in place of the recovering Robert Kubica in Indianapolis back in June, impressively finishing the race inside the points - with immediate effect.

Also shown the door last month was Spyker's Christijan Albers, and while Markus Winkelhock made a stunning impression by leading on his maiden appearance last time out at the N?rburgring in the Dutchman's place, the German DTM star was only ever a stop-gap measure as the team searched for someone with more available budget to complete the season. Despite the names of such as Christian Klien, Narain Karthikeyan and Adrian Valles being bandied about, the drive eventually went the way of former Super Aguri pilot Sakon Yamamoto. The Japanese began eleven races for Super Aguri last year, but has failed to shine in GP2 with BCN Competicion in 2007, and it will be interesting to see how he fares on his return alongside the talented Adrian Sutil.

NEWS FROM THE TEAMS:
McLaren - Fernando Alonso (#1), Lewis Hamilton (#2):

McLaren travels to Hungary in confident mood, following Fernando Alonso's imperious last-gasp triumph over Ferrari's Felipe Massa at the N?rburgring that stole Maranello's thunder on a weekend when the scarlet cars had looked nigh-on unbeatable.

Not only did the Spaniard's victory drive him right back into the hunt for end-of-season honours, just two points adrift of championship-leading team-mate Lewis Hamilton, it also extended McLaren's advantage over Ferrari to some 27 points in the constructors' standings with just seven races remaining. He is looking forward to returning to the scene of his maiden F1 victory, and one that made him the youngest driver ever to stand on the top step of the podium in the top flight less than a month after his 22nd birthday four years ago.

"It was great to take the win in Germany," the reigning double world champion enthused, "and I hope to achieve the same result in Hungary. I have some good memories from this track, as I took my first F1 victory in Hungary; however last year was not so good! It was a challenging race, with the time penalty that meant I started in 15th, making it up to take the lead and then dropping out. Despite this the track will always be special to me.

"I usually enjoy the race so am looking forward to racing there this year with McLaren. It is a very slow track but also tough physically because of the conditions, which are usually very hot. Also, because of all the corners, it is constant fighting with the steering wheel and you have to have great traction for the exit phase of the corners, which is where we can find the speed. A stable front end is also very important so the car feels completely under control in the slow, long corners and you can really push the car despite the slower speeds. The MP4-22 has performed well at this type of track so far this season, so I am feeling positive for the race."

Hamilton, for his part, endured a nightmare at the N?rburgring - an errant wheel in qualifying and spin and mistaken tyre choice in the race all conspiring to make it the first grand prix of his debut season in which the young Briton not only failed to finish on the rostrum, but indeed failed to finish inside the points at all. He is determined to make amends this coming weekend.

"We had a productive test in Jerez," the 22-year-old stated. "I was there for a day and spent the time focusing on set-up and development work for Hungary, in the hot and dusty conditions. Following a mistake on my out lap in qualifying, I started at the back of the grid in GP2 here last year. It was not a great start to the weekend, but I managed to work my way back up through the field, which was a good learning experience of the track, how to drive it and where it is possible to pass, which is notoriously difficult.

"I quite like the circuit; it is quite quick considering how tight it is. It is a real classic as well. You have gradient changes, some high and low-speed corners and a good chicane up the back. There is one bump right at the back, which is so easy to catch you out; that's what happened to me in qualifying last year. We have as good a chance as anyone in the race. We have a great car and it is important that I go with a clear mind and the same approach as normal, but there is no reason why we can't go there and win."

McLaren has tasted victory champagne at the Hungaroring on no fewer than six occasions - almost a one in three success rate - courtesy of Raikkonen, Mika Hakkinen and Ayrton Senna, and Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug is confident of adding to those laurels in the race's 22nd edition.

"The Budapest circuit's characteristics are totally different from those at the recent grand prix at the N?rburgring," the German remarked. "With an average speed per lap of almost 200km/h the track is the second slowest after Monaco. Traction and precise positioning at the entrances of the corners represent the crucial key; there are no extremely fast corners.

"Also because of the high amount of abrasion, there is only one possible line in the race what makes a top result in qualifying even more important. In the rain, however, the circuit can generate surprises; the race last August was a highlight of the season. Our target for Hungary is clear - if possible, we want to extend our leads in both world championships."

Renault - Giancarlo Fisichella (#3), Heikki Kovalainen (#4):

Following a series of disappointing outings at Magny-Cours, Silverstone and the N?rburgring - with just seven points to show for all its efforts in contrast to key rival BMW-Sauber's 22 - the French outfit is now bidding to fight back with a vengeance in Hungary, and confident its lacklustre recent showings have merely been a 'blip'.

"We go there feeling optimistic," confirmed the r?gie's executive director of engineering Pat Symonds. "The car was quick in high-downforce trim in Monaco and, since then, we have added performance to it. We experienced problems getting the tyres working properly in the cooler conditions at the N?rburgring, but this is unlikely to be a problem in the high temperatures we usually encounter in Hungary.

"While the timesheets placed us eleventh and twelfth in terms of fastest laps in Germany, I think our pace was actually much better than that suggested; the fact our strategy was somewhat out of synch with our competitors may have masked some of our pace. We made mistakes early in the race, and they cost us a very strong double points finish. It was made all the more frustrating because it was the type of race in which we normally excel. We are good at thinking on our feet and making the right decisions under pressure, but our mistakes seemed to compound themselves in Germany.

"Since then, we have conducted our usual analysis in even greater detail than normal to ensure we learn everything we can from the experience - and to make sure our mistakes remain one-offs. Everybody is very focused for the weekend ahead, and determined to demonstrate that although frustrating, the last race was nothing more than an extremely annoying blip in performance."

If the squad's fortunes have dipped somewhat of late, though, Heikki Kovalainen's have gone from strength-to-strength during his maiden campaign in the highest echelon. A shaky start has given way to a string of mature performances, and the young Finn has now registered points-scoring finishes in six out of the opening ten races this year.

"The Hungaroring is a fun track to drive" the 25-year-old enthused. "I found out in GP2 how difficult it is to overtake here, and it means like in Monaco it is absolutely essential to qualify well. If we can do that we will be in a position to run an aggressive race and try to score more points.

"It is a very demanding track physically for the drivers, because it can be very hot and there are no straights on which you can recover. The corners follow quickly one after the other, the track surface is quite bumpy and you have to maintain concentration over 70 laps. We all enjoy tackling challenges like that, feeling the car on the limit and trying to push a little bit more to go even faster. I think it's a circuit where the drivers can make a real difference, and that probably explains why we all enjoy it!

"We did three days' running in Jerez last week to prepare for the hot conditions we expect in Hungary and Turkey, and everybody is determined to have a strong race this weekend. There are some more new parts on the car for this race too, so I am looking forward to starting our work on Friday."

Team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella does not boast a strong record in terms of results in Hungary, and last year crashed out of contention while looking good for a podium finish, and is keen to make amends this time around.

"I have always enjoyed this race," the Italian asserted. "I like the track and I have been competitive here in the past. It's always a fun race with a relaxed atmosphere and lots of spectators in the stands. I crashed out of the race last year after making a mistake, but the conditions were very difficult indeed. We are expecting much hotter temperatures this year, which will be a very different challenge.

"Hungary is quite a selective circuit, and the very high temperatures often make things a bit more complicated, especially for the drivers and also the powertrain. To be quick here, you need an effective high downforce set-up, good grip and good traction out of the slow corners. Since the N?rburgring a lot of work has been done to understand where we went wrong, and to avoid repeating our mistakes. It is in the past now and we are fully-focused on the race ahead. We need to carry on moving forward."

Ferrari - Felipe Massa (#5), Kimi Raikkonen (#6):

Following its bitter defeat at the hands of arch-rivals McLaren in the European Grand Prix, Ferrari will be determined to redress the balance this weekend, and in the closest thing he has to a 'home' race, Kimi Raikkonen in particular is keen to make a strong impression.

"It is always a great pleasure to come to Hungary," enthused the 27-year-old, whose N?rburgring jinx struck again almost two weeks ago as a likely victory slipped through his hands for the third time in five years. "Very often the race here in Hungary has been nicknamed the 'Finnish Grand Prix'. Many of my fellow Finns fill the grandstands here at the Hungaroring, and it is really nice to see so many white flags with the blue cross in the wind. This time we will see them together with the red flags of Ferrari. Maybe the track is not one of the most fascinating ones, but it is really challenging and it's good to know that after this race we'll have a short holiday break.

"I have already won this race once. It's very hot here and the race is physically demanding. I archived the European Grand Prix already. What is for sure is that I will not come to Hungary as someone defeated.

"Everybody says McLaren has to be stronger than us here, but I don't think that will be the case. We have taken a big step forward since Monaco and it will be really interesting to see how competitive we are over the weekend. The Hungaroring is very slow and winding, so the two most important things are the right angle entry into the corners and the traction.

"Obviously it is very important to stay ahead in qualifying and if possible also stay clear of the dirty side of the track. Looking at the races this season you can see that starting on the clean side of the track is very important at the start."

The Finn is well aware that - now some 18 points adrift in the drivers' standings following his N?rburgring retirement - there is only one way in which he can claw his way back into the championship hunt over the remaining seven grands prix.

"Finishing ahead of the other three drivers competing for the title is the only way for me to make up ground," he acknowledged. "It's clear that I can't allow myself another race without points. I still believe that it's possible for me to win the title - just look at the last race and you can see anything can happen. A bad race for my competitors would be enough to immediately reduce the gap."

Honda - Jenson Button (#7), Rubens Barrichello (#8):

Honda may currently have but a single point on the scoreboard following a desultory start to the 2007 campaign, but the Japanese manufacturer also heads to Hungary as the defending race-winner, following Jenson Button's breakthrough F1 success there last year - Honda's first victory since 1992.

The Briton held his nerve and displayed his wet weather skills to perfection to triumph over both the competition and the elements twelve months ago, and while he knows a similar result is all-but out of the question this time around, he is nevertheless hopeful of creeping into the points should the squad be able to continue its recent forward momentum.

"The Hungaroring was never really one of my favourite races before," the 27-year-old admitted, "but for obvious reasons that all changed last year. It will always be a special place as the scene of my first win. Obviously it will be quite a different race for us this year but hopefully we can keep up the steady progress we have been making and take another step forward.

"It's a track with good rhythm and a good mix of slow-speed and high-speed turns, and a lap of the Hungaroring is quite tiring because there is no respite and no opportunity to relax your hands, so you are gripping the steering wheel hard the whole time. Although last year's race proved a rather wet exception, the Hungarian Grand Prix is typically a hot one and the relatively low average speed means the airflow over the driver is reduced, so you never really get the chance to cool down. It's quite a physical challenge to be honest."

Team-mate Rubens Barrichello has also enjoyed the taste of victory at the circuit, with three rostrum finishes and a fourth place there in 2006, the best result of his first season with Honda.

"This weekend is going to be a hot one," the Brazilian confirmed, "possibly one of the hottest Hungarian Grands Prix. Our test in Jerez this week was a good opportunity to acclimatise to those conditions, both personally and for the car.

"We have some new developments - aero and mechanical - which worked well at the test and we seem to have found a little more performance, so we will see how they translate to the Hungaroring. I have had some good races there, winning in 2002 and then a couple more podium finishes as well. I'm looking forward to it as it's a track I quite enjoy. I hope we can fight for a good result."

BMW Sauber - Nick Heidfeld (#9), Robert Kubica (#10):

BMW is also returning to a happy hunting ground, with Hungary having witnessed not only the squad's maiden podium finish as a constructor in its own right, but also Robert Kubica's stirring debut in the top flight.

In a topsy-turvy race last year Nick Heidfeld came home third, following a gutsy late-race move on Michael Schumacher's fading Ferrari, and the German is hoping for more of the same this time around at a circuit that has shone on him in years gone-by.

"My third place in Budapest was the first podium for our team," the 30-year-old said. "It was a chaotic race. Normally Budapest in August means very hot weather, but last year it was raining. The circuit was wet at the start of the race and it remained cool throughout the weekend.

"I have a lot of fond memories of the Hungaroring. It was there that I also secured an early title win in Formula 3000 back in 1999 - and celebrated in style. The city is beautiful. I love the old buildings, the bridges across the Danube and the whole atmosphere. In summer there's always a lot going on; it's a great place for going out at night.

"The circuit itself is short, twisty and usually very dirty at the start of the weekend. The races there are often pretty exhausting as there are no long straights where you can catch your breath, but I enjoy driving there and hope we will be as strong again as in 2006."

Kubica, for his part, is also aiming to emulate his performance from last year that saw him join an elite group of drivers by finishing inside the points on his F1 debut, though this time he hopes to be able to keep the result.

"It is good to be back in Hungary because I made my F1 debut there last year," the Pole enthused. "I feel my first full season will be completed. I am really looking forward to it, especially because it is close to my home country, so probably a lot of people will come. Last year I finished in the points, but we were disqualified.

"I like the track. It is special because nearly all the time you have some steering angle, so you never have a break and the straights are very short. I think it is a difficult track, but we performed very well in Monaco so I hope our performance in Hungary will be at least as good or even better. Last year we were testing for very hot conditions and it was under 20 degrees and raining, so anything can happen."

For more see Part 2 of our European Grand Prix preview...

 

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