F1 motor racing: Hakkinen's street car of desire

"WHAT I have to do this year is just have a very clean race," Mika Hakkinen said, and the cynics smiled knowingly.

When it comes to Monaco that may be easier said than done. He has only once been classified as a finisher in his six races here, with sixth place in 1995. In 1994 he tangled with Damon Hill at the start; in 1996 he wrote off a new McLaren while trying too hard in pre-race wet weather acclimatisation; last year he was again a first-lap casualty.

But that was then, and this is now. The Finn leads the world championship in his West McLaren Mercedes, and expectations are high. But there is much more than corporate glory at stake here. Monaco is Michael Schumacher's playground, and the two of them have a history together on street circuits which dates back to 1990 and the Formula Three Macau GP. That season Hakkinen was the favourite and only the cognoscenti had heard of Schumacher. Yet the German not only won, but forced Hakkinen into a humbling mistake.

Some years back, when McLaren was plumbing the depths, Hakkinen struggled for words to describe his feelings. "I'm not the guy to get pissed off unless it's a really bad situation like..." He searched momentarily for the right example. Like Macau 1990, perhaps? His eyes flickered briefly, but he was able to laugh. "Yeah. Exactly."

It still rankles. Beating Schumacher here in a straight fight would be icing on what is already a tasty cake for Hakkinen. He hated being gifted his first two races - Jerez last year, Melbourne this - espousing the view that if you haven't won from the front you haven't really won at all. But while his victories in Brazil and Spain were textbook domination stuff, there is still a point to prove. He has borne adversity with honour, and is ready now to reap the whirlwind. If you beat Schumacher in Monaco, there is nothing else to say.

Yet it goes deeper even than that. Ron Dennis recently admitted his interest in Schumacher when he said: "If you have the best car, you obviously want the best driver." Hakkinen knows that the German might be after his McLaren drive next year, and is probably aware of the rumour that the first tentative steps towards such a deal have already been taken.

Neither driver has had an easy time thus far this weekend. Schumacher crashed his Ferrari at Casino Square on Thursday afternoon. And while he fretted at the side of the track yesterday morning, the victim of driveshaft failure, Hakkinen clobbered the barrier by the swimming pool section only moments before his team-mate David Coulthard did a more comprehensive job.

Monaco rarely forgives driving errors. You push as hard as you can until you either go very fast, or hit something. It's like leaning as far as you can out of a high window; the art is in avoiding the fall.

Ultimately, Hakkinen leaned out farther in qualifying, rising to the impressive challenge of Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton and Coulthard. The Scot set the pace before the Italian recorded the fastest time. Hakkinen's initial response was thwarted right at the end of the lap by a slower car, then Coulthard retrieved McLaren honour. But it was Hakkinen who had the last word as he became the only driver to dip below 1min 20sec. Against the Bridgestone trio, Schumacher had to be content with fourth fastest time after wringing every ounce of speed from the Ferrari.

What makes Hakkinen's display the more impressive is the resolute manner in which he has shaken off the trauma of his near-fatal accident on the streets of Adelaide in 1995 when only an emergency tracheotomy, performed by the side of the track, saved him. To return to the cockpit and outwardly remain unaffected by such an experience is nothing short of remarkable. Time and again he has proved he has lost none of his speed.

"The accident made driving, and life, a bit more difficult because it hurts your confidence enormously. You cannot help it, it just does. Even though it was not my fault. Automatically, still in your mind, many times you just think..." He pauses reflectively, before continuing:"Yeah, it hurts your confidence. But your confidence comes back more and more every day."

Not three months after the accident, he drove a McLaren again. People at the Paul Ricard circuit said he looked just like the old Mika, full of brio, locking wheels and throwing the car at corners. "I didn't try to overdrive the first time. I didn't really get too excited. I told myself it was just a car. But when I drove it for the first couple of laps, it was fantastic again and I liked it. But it wasn't very easy, to be honest. After a long break like that, it was difficult to come back."

Since that fateful race in Macau, Schumacher and Hakkinen have enjoyed varying fortunes. But now the Finn's career is back on track. "I'm not naturally patient, but I am waiting very patiently," he said in the dark days. "And when I've got the car, I'm ready to win."

He may well do so again this afternoon, unless Coulthard makes one of his demon starts. But Schumacher, as ever, will be the bogeyman. Adverse odds have never bothered him before in Monte Carlo.