Motor Racing: Hakkinen back in the driving seat

Hungarian Grand Prix: A clean sweep for McLaren cuts Ferrari's lead to two points as Irvine loses his way
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The Independent Online
NORMALITY WRAPPED its cold hand around the Formula One World Championship here yesterday, shaking away all remnants of midsummer madness and restoring Mika Hakkinen to the position of favourite for the title.

Ferrari's Eddie Irvine still heads the table, but by a two- point margin rendered all the more vulnerable by the authority of Hakkinen and his McLaren-Mercedes team in the Hungarian Grand Prix.

This time McLaren's operations was faultless and the significant error was made by Irvine, who ran wide, 14 laps from the end, and ceded second place to McLaren's other driver, David Coulthard.

After the emotional turmoil endured by McLaren over the previous four races, they had reasserted their superiority in the most emphatic manner. The relief was evident as Hakkinen conducted a rendition of the Finnish national anthem by an 18,000-strong choir of his countrymen. It was palpable, too, as Ron Dennis and Norbert Haug, principles of McLaren and Mercedes Motorsport respectively, indulged in their own champagne fight.

Compared with the vintage of recent drama-congested grand prix this was a stale affair, confirmation that order had returned to Formula One. It ought to be this way every race for McLaren, especially with Ferrari's No 1, Michael Schumacher, indisposed, and if they can avoid serious problems in the five remaining rounds of the championship they should win both the drivers' and constructors' contests with something to spare.

However, a barrage of mishaps have given McLaren a healthy respect for fate and Hakkinen, who was fortunate to escape unhurt when he had a tyre blow out in Germany, a fortnight ago, was wary of another pernicious late twist here.

He had taken control at the first corner, making full use of pole position, and was never threatened by Irvine. The champion built up a credit account of more than half a minute and happily lived off it through the closing stages. He crossed the line less than 10 seconds ahead of Coulthard.

Hakkinen relishing his first win since Canada, two months ago, said: "It has been a while and this is fantastic. When there were 10 laps to go I was thinking that if something was going to go wrong then that was the time when I was going to stop.

"It was a vital race for me to win. Our team showed extremely good focus and there were no mistakes or problems. The car was so good I had to pinch myself to slow down and take no unnecessary risks.

"All the Finnish fans here made it even more fabulous. I think the whole of Finland came down."

Coulthard took another couple of points off Irvine after losing ground at the start, and dropping behind Giancarlo Fisichella and Heinz-Harald Frentzen to fifth.

A swift pit stop put him ahead of the Benetton and Jordan drivers, and he hoped the second round of stops would enable him to negotiate a way past Irvine. They came in together but, to Coulthard's frustration, the Ferrari nosed away still in front of him.

Coulthard was patently the quicker, yet on a track where overtaking even a considerably slower car is no straightforward task, he knew he had to rely on pressure and a mistake from Irvine. The Ferrari driver obliged and McLaren had their clean sweep.

It was a notch for Coulthard in their on-going squabble and he could not resist a little verbal snipe at the man who prides himself in speaking his mind.

"It didn't surprise me he went off, the amount of pressure I put him under," Coulthard said. "He's not so chirpy now."

Irvine was indeed subdued. This was a circuit where he expected his Ferrari to excel. In the hands of Schumacher it had done so earlier. The reality is that Irvine is no Schumacher.

"This is a disappointing result," Irvine said. "I was having problems with the front and rear of the car, which was jumping all over the road. I think we got a couple of things wrong which we will have to look at very carefully in the debrief. It is unusual for us not to be quick in the race.

"I lost control of the rear and ran wide. But he was quicker than me and I had to push hard because I didn't want him up my gear box. I was sure he would have got me."

To compound Ferrari's dismay Schumacher's deputy Mika Salo, heroic at Hockenheim, was a meek, peripheral figure here jammed at the back with the strugglers. He finished 12th, two laps down on his old nemesis Hakkinen. The other Finn said: "I had a terrible race. I got stuck behind slower cars and could not get past. To be honest, I am embarrassed by my performance and I feel I have let the team down."

McLaren now trail Ferrari by only four points in the constructors' championship and should be at the top of both tables come the end of the Belgian Grand Prix in a fortnight.

Jordan-Mugen reinforced their quest for third place in the team rankings with fourth and sixth places here, achieved by Frentzen and Damon Hill, respectively. Rubens Barrichello sustained his fine season with fifth place for Stewart-Ford. His team-mate, Johnny Herbert, was 11th.

Formula One veteran Jean Alesi says he will quit Sauber at the end of the season. The Frenchman said his retirement in Budapest is the last straw.

"This race made me decide I will not drive for the team next season," said 35-year-old Alesi, who has scored one point this year. "I will honour my contract for the remaining races, on some of my favourite circuits - but after that my life with Sauber is finished."


1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1hr 46min 23.536sec (average 172.524kph, 106.964mph)

2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +9.706sec

3 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari +27.228

4 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda +31.815

5 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford +43.808

6 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda +55.726

7 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Supertec +1min 01.012sec

8 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot +1 lap

9 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec +1 lap

10 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot +1 lap; 11 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford +1 lap; 12 M Salo (Fin) Ferrari +2 laps; 13 R Zonta (Bra) BAR-Supertec +2 laps; 14 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 2 laps; 15 P De la Rosa (Sp) Arrows +2 laps; 16 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas +3 laps; 17 M Gene (Sp) Minardi- Ford +3 laps.

Constructors' championship standings: 1 Ferrari 94pts; 2 McLaren-Mercedes 90; 3 Jordan-Mugen-Honda 42; 4 Williams-Supertec 22; 5 Benetton-Supertec 16; 6 Stewart-Ford 14; 7 Sauber-Petronas 4; 8 Prost-Peugeot 3; 9 Arrows 1.