Hakkinen flies to first pole

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For agonising moments it seemed a repeat of Mika Hakkinen's Austrian weekend was about to unravel as Jacques Villeneuve poured into his best qualifying effort. As the Canadian emerged from the first sector he was fractionally slower, but by the second he had dipped below Hakkinen's comparable time and again the West McLaren-Mercedes driver's chance of securing the first pole position of his Formula One career was in jeopardy. But this time when Villeneuve's Rothmans Williams-Renault crossed the line the advantage had slipped away and Hakkinen's lap of 1 min 16.602sec remained good enough by nine-hundredths of a second.

Villeneuve hid any disappointment well, content that the Williams-Renault challengeseems to be back on the rails after his Austrian victory moved him to within one point of arch-rival Michael Schumacher. "In Austria I did the perfect lap to get the pole," he said, "but here I made some small mistakes, and they cost me."

Hakkinen, never at his best in the limelight of press conferences, admitted that he had endured some anxious moments. "I took my last qualifying run too early so I was extremely nervous as I had to stand and watch Jacques' effort because I knew there was absolutely nothing else I could do."

His face its customary wan pallor, he brushed his blond hair out of his eyes and appeared completely underwhelmed by the whole thing, rather like Gerhard Berger used to be when he fell under Ron Dennis' grey spell of media gagging during his McLaren days. Some years back the Metropolitan Police ran a recruiting ad campaign with the line "Dull it isn't", and it sprang to mind that McLaren has successfully reversed that when it comes to the occasions on which it is obliged to release its personnel to media attention.

Of course the achievement meant much to the likeable Finn, but this is a man to whom the Fates have frequently been cruel and one can forgive a fellow who is due a big payday sometime soon. After his years of loyalty to McLaren, patiently awaiting a competitive car, he has seen David Coulthard score the team's two comeback victories this season. Earlier this year he lost the British GP to engine failure. In Belgium and Italy other problems intervened. And then last week his great start to the Austrian GP was rendered academic when his Mercedes-Benz engine failed again, this time as he was leading at the end of the first lap. "There is no point going to a race expecting to be stopped by mechanical failure," he said philosophically. "If it happens, it happens. There is nothing to do."

Despite its title, the Grand Prix of Luxembourg is firmly rooted in Germany, Schumacher country. And the fans have turned out in their droves and their red Dekra caps to cheer on their man in his 100th Grand Prix. Last week the best his Ferrari could offer was ninth place on the grid, and a passing move under the yellow flag cost him the chance of second place and left his points lead exposed to Villeneuve's thrust.

This weekend the story looks brighter, with the former champion in fifth place alongside Coulthard, but separated from Villeneuve by Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the second Williams-Renault and the continually impressive Italian rookie Giancarlo Fisichella in the Jordan-Peugeot.

That Schumacher can overtake anyone he likes, pretty much wherever he likes, is not a matter for dispute, but he is likely to exercise circumspection where fellow countryman Frentzen is concerned. Mere seconds after Schumacher had passed him in Austria last weekend, Frentzen's voice came on the radio to say: "Those are the easiest 10 seconds I will ever take off Michael." After deliberately backing off at the scene of the Alesi/Irvine accident, where the yellow flags were waved the previous lap, Frentzen had suckered Schumacher into an illegal pass that cost him a ten-second stop-and-go penalty, and which may, in retrospect, also cost him a third crown. There is no doubt that he will be on his mettle in more ways than one.

Gerhard Berger, Ralf Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello and Jean Alesi rounded out the top ten on the weekend in which Benetton welcomed its new manager, David Richards, head of the World Championship-winning Prodrive rally team. And right behind them Olivier Panis made a comfortable return for Prost, in place of Austrian GP sensation Jarno Trulli, after recovering from his leg-breaking accident in Canada in June.

Alesi won his first Grand Prix, in Canada 1995, on the day he turned 31, a fact which was drawn to Hakkinen's attention. Today is, after all, his 29th birthday. At the 94th try it's about time he struck gold.