Hakkinen back at wheel

Motor racing

Mika Hakkinen returned to a Formula One cockpit yesterday for the first time since crashing during practice for last November's Australian Grand Prix.

The Finn, who fractured his skull in Adelaide, successfully completed a number of short runs in one of last year's McLarens at the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France.

"Mika has made a remarkable recovery and this is a test just to see how he feels about driving," a McLaren official said. "If it goes well he could test the new car in Portugal next week."

Hakkinen will make his first public appearance since the accident at the launch of the Mercedes-powered MP4/11, at Estoril in Portugal on Sunday.

Grand Prix rivals Benetton launched their defence of the world constructors' championship when they unveiled their B196 Renault-powered car in Taormina, Sicily.

Flavio Briatore, their team manager, said that the loss of world champion Michael Schumacher to Ferrari had motivated Benetton to mount a powerful defence of the title. "This has fired the team up and we want to make a very strong start again this year," he said.

The B196 car, powered by a new Renault V10 engine, features a seven-speed longitudinal gearbox and revised rear aerodynamics. It also has a new suspension system and cockpit surrounds, in line with the stricter regulations for the 1996 season.