Hakkinen powers past the procession

Hungarian Grand Prix: Schumacher stays on the track but surrenders championship lead at first bend as Finn closes on a third successive title
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The Independent Online

Formula One reverted to more routine, processional type here yesterday and it suited Mika Hakkinen just fine.

Formula One reverted to more routine, processional type here yesterday and it suited Mika Hakkinen just fine.

The Finn, champion for the past two years, gained the advantage in the world drivers' championship for the first time this season with an ominously emphatic victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Hakkinen, driving a McLaren-Mercedes, held his ground and his nerve at the first corner to deny Michael Schumacher, the pole position holder, the lead and with it the initiative in the title contest. That manoeuvre may prove to be the defining incident in the entire campaign.

Schumacher, at the head of the championship since the opening grand prix, was grateful to protect second place from the hounding David Coulthard in the other McLaren. The Ferrari was unable to compete with the pace of the McLaren on a circuit that should have suited it.

With five races remaining, three of them on fast circuits that traditionally favour McLaren, Ferrari must fear their wait for a world champion will extend into a 22nd year. Hakkinen is two points in front of his German adversary and McLaren have nudged one point ahead of Ferrari in the constructors' championship.

Coulthard is four points adrift of Schumacher after this hot afternoon on a winding track that offered scant encouragement for overtaking.

Schumacher, who was 22 points clear of the then second-placed Coulthard just four races ago, has been the chief victim of this eventful summer and, after coming to grief at the first corner in each of the last two grands prix, he was understandably circumspect when Hakkinen propelled his McLaren from third on the grid to the inside line when the lights went out.

The two cars were almost touching but Schumacher accepted Hakkinen's momentum could not be safely challenged and gave way. Coulthard was as assertive as his team-mate to fend off the other Schumacher, Ralf, driving a Williams-BMW, and the first three places were effectively settled.

Rubens Barrichello, the emotional winner of the German Grand Prix a fortnight ago, was virtually anonymous here, bringing home his Ferrari in fourth place. The younger Schumacher finished fifth and another German, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, was sixth in a Jordan-Mugen-Honda.

Hakkinen, written off in some quarters when he struggled for form earlier in the summer, had the luxury of a gentle cruise in the closing stages, secure in the knowledge he could not be threatened. He climbed from his cockpit into the warm embrace of the McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis, and then stood to have a bucket of cold water poured over his head.

On the podium he conducted the singing of the Finnish national anthem by an estimated 20,000 of his countrymen, many of them suitably regaled in barmy army gear. And then he sat to take a champagne shower, courtesy of Schumacher and Coulthard. All the hard work had been done in that original assault and through the early laps, which confirmed his superiority and forced Schumacher to resign himself to no better than second place.

Hakkinen, who launched himself from fourth to first at the start of the German Grand Prix, had to revise his statement of that day. He explained: "I said at Hockenheim that you make a start like that once in a year, but it's not true. It's twice a year. I had a fantastic start. It was very close with Michael in the first corner but that's what racing should be and we came through in one piece."

Schumacher acknowledged he could not resist Hakkinen. "Mika went inside and I had to open the door finally," he said.

Of greater concern to the German was the speed of the McLaren, once it had negotiated that dipping, sweeping right-hander. His first points since the Canadian Grand Prix, two months ago, were a mixed blessing. He was comfortably fastest in qualifying, yet ill-equipped to contain Hakkinen's McLaren in the race.

"I'm not excited to be second because I thought I was going to win," Schumacher said. "But the car was not fast enough so I have to be happy. If Mika had not overtaken me at the first corner he probably would have done so later because he was the fastest on the circuit. There was nothing I could do about him."

Hakkinen put the overnight improvement in his car down to changes made by the team, although he declined to be more specific. Schumacher said: "I believe what Mika says. He sorted out his car, we stayed where we were. We have some ideas and areas that we have to work on.

"At least I have some experience of being the hunter. It should be a concern that they have been quicker recently but we can turn it around at the next grand prix [Belgium]."

If the balance of power has shifted, Hakkinen is reluctant to say so. Just as he was reluctant to own up to any loss of hunger earlier in the season.

He said: "This definitely gives me more confidence but all the way through the season people have talked about different things and the situation is always changing. I'll think about the championship at the end."

Coulthard is still a contender but could not translate his car advantage into another place here. He failed to jump ahead of Schumacher by a matter of metres as he came out from his second pit stop and was not helped by the Minardi pair, who managed to appear in front of the Scot at the most inconvenient times. However, he spent plenty of time within touching distance of the Ferrari and, significantly, Schumacher maintained he never felt his position was in peril.

Eddie Irvine toiled for eighth place in the Jaguar while Jensen Button's hopes of another place in the points were dashed by an engine problem on his Williams-BMW.

Johnny Herbert, in the other Jaguar, was dogged by gearbox problems and called it a day after a couple of spins. Had he been stranded much longer in the middle of the track the safety car would have been sent out and perhaps made a spectacle of it.

We were denied that but Hakkinen will have no complaints. He is all for a quiet life.