MIKA HAKKINEN could not stem the flow of tears after he and McLaren- Mercedes team-mate, David Coulthard, crushed their opposition in yesterday's Australian Grand Prix.
A little over two years ago, the 29-year-old Finn lay close to death after crashing during practice for this same race; yesterday he savoured the most satisfying moment of a career that has finally begun to realise its ample promise.
"When you have been trying so hard for so many years, and you hear your national anthem on the podium," he said, "of course you get very emotional. Maybe some time I will get used to it, then I won't cry."
On yesterday's form both McLaren drivers may get used to victory the way that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost did when the British team won 15 out of the 16 races in 1988.
In a race of only nine finishers, Hakkinen and Coulthard finished a lap clear of the field. After setting the fastest times in qualifying, the closest they got to losing the premier positions in the race was when Coulthard edged a wheel on to the dirt exiting the first corner and had to fight off a challenge from Michael Schumacher's Ferrari.
After 20 laps the McLarens were separated by three seconds and Villeneuve's Williams, now third, was more than a minute in arrears. For McLaren, Mercedes and the Japanese tyremakers Bridgestone it was a dream come true and fulfilment of pre-season promise; for the opposition it was a nightmare realised.
On the morning of the race the two McLaren drivers had reached a gentleman's agreement that, all things being equal, whoever led into the first corner would win the race. However, both were distracted when the starter kept the field on the grid for longer than usual. Coulthard, the best getaway driver in the business, was particularly disappointed. "I made a bad start because I was distracted by steam from my radiators as we were held on the grid for so long. I wasn't as focused as usual and made a very average start."
Everyone went to the start line concerned about tyre longevity and brake wear. The new, narrow, grooved tyres put less rubber on the road but have softer compounds to compensate and wear faster. The Albert Park circuit also places high demands on brakes, and Williams in particular had cause to remember how a shattered brake disc had cost Heinz-Harald Frentzen his chance of last year's race. Decisions on pit stop strategy were thus critical.
When Hakkinen stopped on the 24th lap it became clear that McLaren planned a two-stop strategy, but he regained the lead when Coulthard stopped a lap later. On the 30th lap Hakkinen's lead was seriously eroded as he came up to lap Alexander Wurz in the second Benetton. From just under five seconds the gap shrank to less than two as Coulthard closed in. Then Villeneuve suffered the ultimate indignity when Hakkinen came thrusting up to lap him on the 34th lap. In a display of churlish driving, the world champion refused to surrender without a pointless fight. Within moments the two silver cars were nose-to-tail again and it was notable that the Canadian offered Coulthard no challenge whatsoever.
"I was extremely surprised by Jacques' behaviour," Hakkinen said, but his most serious problem lay ahead when he came in for his second stop on the 36th lap. "I was sure that I heard a call on the radio to stop for fuel and tyres," he said. "I cannot express the frustration I felt when I arrived and nobody was ready for me! It was just a communication problem."
Now Coulthard led again, and to outsiders unaware of his agreement with Hakkinen the stage appeared set for a dramatic climax to an otherwise crushingly dull event. Bit by bit the gap came down, until suddenly Hakkinen slipped ahead of the Scot on the pit straight on the 56th of the 58 laps. It was not, however, what it seemed.
"Fifteen laps from the end our team manager, Davy Ryan, told me what had happened to Mika," Coulthard said. "I thought about it for a while, then I said, `OK, no problem.' You make an agreement with someone, that's it. I regarded this as part of that agreement."
There was an outcry after the European Grand Prix at Jerez last October when McLaren and Williams were accused of colluding to influence the result, but Coulthard hit back angrily at suggestions that his agreement with Hakkinen had denied fans a proper race.
"As far as I'm concerned Mika was in front and would have remained there had it not been for the pit stop misunderstanding with the team, which is also my team. At this time of year it is important to think of points and finishing, and if we had raced 110 per cent we might well not have finished."
The opposition fervently wished they had not. Schumacher's race ended after only five laps when his Ferrari's engine broke, while Villeneuve had Johnny Herbert's Sauber-Petronas glued to its gearbox all afternoon. Either could have finished third but for technical delays. Villeneuve's Williams had a gearbox problem, while Herbert was delayed in his sole fuel stop when his car could not take on its final 12 litres of fuel. He thus had to conserve fuel for the rest of the race, but still finished less than half a second behind Villeneuve after another impressive performance.
It was thus left to Frentzen to ease through to salvage something for Williams and Goodyear with a distant third place, not far ahead of Eddie Irvine's cleanly driven Ferrari.
"The little I saw of the McLarens they seemed to be quite fast in the corners," Frentzen said with deliberate irony. "Perhaps more important, they seem very stable on parts of the circuit where my car was quite nervous."
Both McLaren drivers felt they would really start to open up the gap in the next race in Brazil. It was a comment hardly calculated to instil optimism in rivals left stunned in their wake.
Australian Grand Prix
1 Mika Hakkinen (Fin) 10pts
(McLaren-Mercedes) 1hr 31min 45.996sec, av speed 124.961 mph/201.101kph.
2 David Coulthard (GB) 6pts
3 Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) 4pts
(Williams-Mecachrome) +1 lap.
4 Eddie Irvine (GB) 3pts
(Ferrari) +1 lap.
5 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 2pts
(Williams-Mecachrome) +1 lap.
6 Johnny Herbert (GB) 1pt
(Sauber-Petronas) +1 lap.
7 Alexander Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Mecachrome+1 lap; 8 Damon Hill (GB) Jordan- Mugen-Honda +1 lap; 9 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot +1 lap.
Not classified (did not finish):
10 Giancarlo Fisichella (It) Benetton-Mecachrome 43 laps completed; 11 Jean Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 41 laps; 12 Jarno Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 26 laps; 13 Ricardo Rosset (Bra) Tyrrell-Ford 25 laps; 14 Mika Salo (Fin) Arrows-Yamaha 23 laps; 15 Esteban Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford 22 laps; 16 Shinji Nakano (Japan) Minardi-Ford 8 laps;17 Michael Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 5 laps; 18 Pedro Diniz (Bra) Arrows-Yamaha 2 laps; 19 Ralf Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1 lap; 20 Jan Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 1 lap; 21 Toro Takagi (Japan) Tyrrell-Ford 1 lap; 22 Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 0 laps.
Fastest Lap: Hakkinen 1min 31.649sec (124.981mph/208.303 kph).