Motor racing: Champion in cruise control

David Tremayne finds that a new inner confidence is helping Hakkinen to the top
MIKA Hakkinen's laugh has the carefree ring of a man who believes he has his life's ambition in sight. "If this crazy world was paradise, I would already be world champion this year, but it's not," he said as he prepares for the weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix. "But the situation we are living in at the moment is very exciting. I had a good lead in the championship at one point, but when it went there was no point talking about it."

Far from being demoralised by Michael Schumacher's run of three consecutive mid-season victories, the 29-year-old Finn remained confident - even before he dominated the recent Austrian and German races to rebuild his commanding advantage. "It's not a perfect world, there will always be some problems: incidents, mechanical problems, team mistakes. These are part of the business. There are still plenty of races to go, and anything can happen. It can happen to me, it can happen to Michael."

Hakkinen radiates a tremendous inner confidence, borne not just from the six victories he has scored this year, but from an increasingly calm maturity. "I think a lot of it is to do with that all the experiences I have had, sure. I have seen so many difficulties in my career. There have been some good results, but there have been some bad ones too. I have learned to understand what this is all about, and that pressure is normal in F1. You have to learn to handle it. I am confident at the moment. One factor is our speed, and I think that we have seen in Austria and Germany that we are miles quicker than anybody else. That is the reality that gives me confidence." As well it might.

Back in 1995, when he crashed during practice for the Australian GP in Adelaide, Hakkinen very nearly died. An emergency tracheotomy, performed by the side of the track, saved him. Those who have had such a brush with death tend to walk away regarding every new day as a bonus. Hakkinen is remarkably candid about the feelings he experienced. Less than three months after the accident, he drove a McLaren again. People at the Paul Ricard circuit said he looked just like the old Mika, with the same old brio. "I didn't really try to overdrive the first time. I didn't really get too excited. I told myself it was just a car. But then when I drove it for the first couple of laps, it was fantastic again. But it wasn't very easy. After a long break like that, it was difficult to come back."

He worried what people in the team would think, whether they might think him scared, no longer be able to do it. It had happened before to others. "I was worried in the first place, yeah, but things changed back to normal when they saw that the speed was still there."

It's the big difference between Hakkinen and Schumacher: one has peered over the edge, one hasn't. Hakkinen has paid his dues, waiting quietly for the right car, always believing that it would come along. "If you look at last year I was on pole position in Austria and quick elsewhere. But many people don't see that until you are winning. Winning is everything; second is nothing," he said.

Schumacher is his principal opponent, of course. "We are both fighting for the championship, and there is a certain electricity there all the time when we are on the track," he admitted. Team-mate David Coulthard is less likely to stymie his aspirations, but Hakkinen has some interesting views on driver relationships. "I'm always surprised when people are asking questions such as `how is the relation with such and such driver?' You sometimes see two guys who are not smiling too much, they are concentrating and working. They walk past each other and don't smile, hardly say hello. And people start wondering why they aren't friends. But the situation is that drivers rarely are friends.

"David and I are people who are working together very closely. There is nothing negative between me and him. It's just that we are so bloody hungry, both of us, to win. I don't think there are many drivers who are friends with each other. We are so full of our own talent and speed and confidence, that there is always a difficulty to accept such things in other drivers. That's the way it goes. But I think that David and I have done fantastic work together with the team, and we definitely complement each other. David is an extremely good, fast driver. Everybody has seen how good he is, there's no doubt about it."

McLaren is a cornerstone of his confidence. "They just don't stop developing," Hakkinen said. "They're the coolest team. They are working flat-out in the factory and so are Mercedes. And what people see now is only the start. So I just plan to keep winning over the remaining races. This is absolutely a fantastic year for me, no doubt about it. I have been waiting for it so long, and maybe that's why I am so calm about it. This is it."

Hakkinen jumps up. "OK? Got everything you want?" The conversation is politely terminated. Time to lay another brick in a World Championship wall.