Hakkinen on recovery road

David Tremayne in Adelaide watches a sport cope with potential tragedy
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The Independent Online
THE remarkable progress made by the Finnish racing driver Mika Hakkinen after an alarming accident here on Friday brought a much-needed lightening of the atmosphere as Formula One prepared to race for the last time in the City of Churches.

As if thousands of South Australians finally realised what they will be losing to Melbourne in 1996, a record crowd boosted the gate, but the celebrations palled when Hakkinen's McLaren spun at the Malt House Corner and slammed at 200kph into a concrete wall protected only by a row of old tyres. The first qualifying session was red-flagged as doctors fought to save his life, performing an emergency tracheotomy before he went to the Royal Adelaide Hospital with head injuries.

Qualifying resumed with Damon Hill boosting his battered morale by securing provisional pole from his Williams team-mate David Coulthard, ahead of Gerhard Berger's Ferrari and Michael Schumacher's Benetton (though Schumacher would overtake Berger on Saturday), but it was a joyless afternoon as a tight-knit fraternity was left to ponder the cruelty of the fate that appeared to have befallen the man who not a fortnight before had spearheaded McLaren's overdue revival in Japan.

Overnight, however, the story blossomed of a miraculous deliverance. Though heavily sedated Hakkinen awoke while he was being washed by nurses. Later he spoke, drank and reacted to questions. His recovery was, McLaren's chief Ron Dennis rightly suggested, astonishing.

"The specialists have said the speed of it has been remarkable. He was truly, and still is, in a pretty poor condition. Being conscious and being able to talk is a mighty step forward, but there is still some possibility of brain swelling and the specialist considers that the appropriate expression is severe concussion, and not brain damage. But Mika is able to move all his limbs, and he is making a much faster recovery than they anticipated."

By Saturday evening Hakkinen was out of intensive care. "The first step is that he recovers and is able to lead a normal life," said Dennis, a man who identifies very closely with his drivers. "Driving and racing are certainly not uppermost in our thoughts." Yet, amazingly, the neuro- surgeon offered the opinion that he could see no neurological reason why the protege of the 1982 World Champion, Keke Rosberg, could not race again.

Hakkinen gave a lop-sided smile when told his team did not expect that of him this weekend. "While it sounds flippant," Dennis said, "that requires the brain to respond and therefore the half-smile was an extremely strong indication that he comprehended a series of words as opposed to a series of instructions."

The cause of Hakkinen's accident has been traced to explosive failure of the left rear tyre after running over debris on the track. "Something created a four inch long diagonal cut that penetrated about three inches through the canvas, an almost surgical incision," Dennis said. That, and other factors, raised concern among Hakkinen's peers. Hill, who survived a scare of his own at the corner on Saturday afternoon, said: "I've got to say I was surprised there was only one layer of tyres protecting the wall at that point on Friday. It's a very quick corner, and one layer just isn't enough to absorb that kind of energy." Overnight, at the drivers' request, more tyres were added.

Dennis praised the medical services: "It is without doubt that their behaviour and performance, assisted by Professor Sid Watkins, saved Mika's life, and avoided any brain damage through oxygen starvation. I've seen many accidents during my time, and I have never seen such disciplined procedures adhered to." But he would not join the fresh debate on safety. "It is wholly inappropriate for a Formula One team to have a view about a circuit directly sanctioned by the governing body."

Next season regulations will be introduced to enhance protection of drivers in the cockpit, which some teams have already been working on this season. "In combination with Michael [Schumacher], what we came up with was not too restrictive for the drivers and seemed to offer a reasonable degree of cushion," said Benetton's technical director, Ross Brawn. "I think what we've got is pretty significant, and I think what is being introduced next year, between the FIA and the teams, is going to be even more significant. What we are trying to do is decelerate the driver's head in an accident, as gently but as practically as we can."

While preparing for the final 1995 showdown with his nemesis Schumacher, Hill spoke for all the drivers when he said: "We don't turn into an inhuman thing when we get into the car after something like this, but the only way you can deal with it is to keep your mind on the driving." As 25 of his rivals left the grid today, Mika Hakkinen was already setting records in his own, very different kind of race.