Motor racing: Austrian dust is cloud on horizon

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The Independent Online
McLAREN-MERCEDES must have thought the dust had settled and they could resume with a clear view of their objective, but Mika Hakkinen effectively kicked it up again here yesterday.

For all the public shows and expressions of harmony after David Coulthard's calamity in Austria, Hakkinen feels the Scotsman should be instructed to support his world championship defence. Asked if he felt team orders should be invoked for Sunday's German Grand Prix, Hakkinen pondered for a moment then said: "I would much prefer to keep quiet about my views on that."

That clearly implies he is not at all content to toe the party line, as presented by the McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis, and the Mercedes Motorsport director, Norbert Haug. Both maintain their resistance to restrictions on drivers. Dennis insisted they were "a true grand prix team, not a sham of one". Haug suggested that Hakkinen would back up the team's philosophy.

Coulthard, too, contends nothing has changed, but he will attack again on Sunday in pursuit of his own ambition. However, the consequence of last Sunday's mistake by the Scotsman, spinning his team-mate out of contention for victory, is such that Hakkinen is now under serious threat from Ferrari's Eddie Irvine, who went on to take maximum points. The Finn's lead is reduced to a mere two points.

In another enigmatic response Hakkinen said: "In Formula One there are always team orders in some situations. At the moment we are both No 1s, with the same equipment and working to our maximum for the team."

And his relationship with Coulthard? "We are not happy. But we have discussed what happened in Austria. I understand. Things like that happen. Some other people in the team were extremely upset. But there's no point destroying all the work we've done over the years. We have to concentrate on the rest of the season."

Hakkinen may well be using recent events as additional leverage in his negotiations for a new contract. The team had hoped to confirm here that both drivers were being retained for next season. Haug now concedes: "We've not done the deal yet. It will take more time. I don't expect surprises but until the contracts are signed you cannot be sure."

Hakkinen would prefer to stay at McLaren but senses this is the opportunity to capitalise. He is said to be seeking pounds 8.5m a year. He is also anxious to secure another championship, a task which ought to have been simplified by Michael Schumacher's injury. Irvine's emergence as a genuine contender was not on the agenda. "Eddie is a danger," Hakkinen said. "It's a very serious threat."

Irvine appears to be coming to terms with his improbable role, one which may last longer than previously thought after Schumacher's manager, Willi Weber, said yesterday: "Our impression is still that Michael will not be driving in the next few weeks."

However, the Ulsterman did concede that the advantage is still with Hakkinen."Mika is still the favourite. He's been consistently faster. We need to step up a gear and be faster to have a chance, but I am a championship contender and I've got to start thinking like one. Obviously things have changed. Ferrari are relying on me.

"I didn't become better in Austria. I wasn't driving any differently. I just got a better engine and the team were focused on me. I'd not got Michael in the way with the pit-stops. I was able to go in later and that turned the race my way."