Motor racing: Hakkinen basks in moment of glory

Japanese Grand Prix: Schumacher and Ferrari fans must wait another year as Finn's career turns the full circle
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The Independent Online
EVEN BEFORE he crossed the finish line, Mika Hakkinen began to indulge in uncharacteristic behaviour. He stuck a gloved fist out of the cockpit and waved it at the crowd. When he passed under the chequered flag, he popped his seat belts and waved some more.

A few hundred yards later he flipped up his visor and rubbed his eyes, which might have been moistened by something other than the wind. And on the back straight, after slowing to a crawl, he floored the throttle pedal and burned rubber in pure celebration. Ten minutes later he looked down from the podium as his wife, Erja, was hoisted on the shoulders of a mechanic. As they saluted each other, both Hakkinens were soaked in champagne.

Most of the time, exuberance is not Mika Hakkinen's style. The 27th man to hold the world driver's championship is probably the least known - to those inside as well as outside the paddock - since the first holder, Dr Giuseppe Farina, who refused all requests for inter- views after wrapping up the title in 1950. Not even eight years in the modern world of Formula One, where English is the lingua franca and self-presentation is a skill as vital as driving ability, have turned Hakkinen into anything other than a man who thinks before he speaks, and then does not say much.

All we know about him, essentially, are the bare bones of his career. He comes from modest circumstances - his father is a marine radio operator - and, like Michael Schumacher, he was given unstinted encouragement by his family, who financed his early experience in go-karts. He won the British Formula Three title in 1990, came into Formula One with Lotus the following year, switched to McLaren two seasons later, and was nearly killed by cranial injuries suffered in a horrendous accident in Australia three years ago. He is managed by Keke Rosberg, the first and, until yesterday, the only Finn to have won the world championship. Despite a reputation for demon speed, he had never won a grand prix until he swept to victory at Melbourne in March. Since then he has won seven more races, and now the greatest prize in motor sport.

His diffidence at yesterday's post-race interviews was extremely touching. He remembered the time, two years ago, when he finished third at Suzuka, and accompanied the winner and new champion, Damon Hill, to the press conference. "We walked back from the scrutineering area together and he said: 'One day you're going to do it.' Then I listened while he tried to tell people what he was feeling, but he couldn't find the words. Now I understand how he felt. It's such a big thing."

Hakkinen talked about getting up yesterday morning and living through the seven hours before the race. "I was very nervous, to be honest. I was just trying to focus my mind, trying to stay cool, not to get excited, not to tire myself, not to worry. I knew I needed only to finish second to win the title, but that made me uncomfortable. It felt weird, going out knowing that I didn't have to win. It's not what I'm used to."

He had been so keyed up that his McLaren was the only car to move when the lights, instead of going out to start the race, turned yellow to signal that another car - Jarno Trulli's Prost - had stalled. "The yellow light started flashing, but I was so hyped up that I still went for it." The McLaren jerked forward a few yards before Hakkinen's judgement overcame his racer's reflexes, and he halted the car.

The restart, of course, proved crucial to his fortunes, and to those of his rival for the title. As Eddie Irvine said, the Ferrari team had spent three days plotting all the tactical permutations presented by the combination of two Ferraris and two McLarens. "We'd been talking about the possibilities if Mika had been there, or Michael here, with me or David (Coulthard) somewhere else," the Irishman observed. "There must have been at least 10 or 15 different permutations to consider. But we hadn't worked on one with me at the front and Michael at the back. We missed that one. I'm not sure whether there would have been a tactic for that one, to be truthful."

Schumacher's removal to the back of the grid as a punishment for stalling his engine at the restart was perfectly justified, but it effectively destroyed the finale to a season of fluctuating fortunes. The German did his best to overcome the setback, and when he passed nine cars on the first lap it looked as though we might be in for a classic recovery to match Ayrton Senna's historic charge at Suzuka 10 years ago, when he too stalled his engine in pole position but came back to beat Alain Prost by 13 seconds. Schumacher was up to sixth place by lap 14, after sweeping imperiously past Jean Alesi, Giancarlo Fisichella, Alexander Wurz and his younger brother, Ralf.

Then Schumacher found himself held up behind an obdurate Damon Hill, who was engaged in a fight for fifth place with Jacques Villeneuve and in no mood to make way for anyone - despite the advice of his team boss, Eddie Jordan, who came on the radio to suggest letting the Ferrari past if it did not put him at a disadvantage in his own battle.

Hill decided that it would, and the holders of the last three world championships circulated in close order for 10 laps, while Hakkinen pulled away at a rate of two seconds a lap from his frustrated challenger.

"Damon was obviously watching more in the mirrors to look after me than to try and pass Villeneuve," Schumacher later remarked with a hint of sourness, but waving a rival into a points-scoring position is not a racing driver's job, and Hill was later to win a measure of glory for a stupendous passing move that took him past Heinz-Harald Frentzen on the last corner of the final lap, thereby consolidating Jordan's hold on fourth place in the constructors' championship, their best-ever showing.

A combination of good pit-stop discipline and furious driving nevertheless took Schu- macher up to third place by lap 33, half a minute behind Hakkinen, with 20 laps to go and only his team-mate between them.

But, as often happens in motor racing, another man's narrative interrupted the plot, and debris from an accident caused by Esteban Tuero, the 20- year-old Argentine, punctured the Ferrari's right rear tyre, causing it to explode as Schumacher neared the end of the pits straight. His dream of a third world title in ruins, the German wrestled the car to a standstill before making his way back to the pits, where he shook hands with his crew and settled down to wait for his chance to congratulate the winner.

When Ron Dennis came on the radio to tell Hakkinen about Schumacher's retirement, the Finn could barely restrain his joy. "You're in a situation where you're almost singing in the car," he said afterwards, trying to describe the sensation of knowing that, whatever happened, he would be the champion of the world. Dennis promptly told him to get his emotions back in focus and finish the job. "So I started to go flat out again." But, as a journalist pointed out, his times in the last part of the race were unusually inconsistent, sometimes fluctuating by as much as four seconds. "Yeah, sometimes," he replied, with a little smile. "There was no rush."

Nothing gives Hakkinen more trouble than the effort to describe the effect on him of the terrible accident at Adelaide three years ago, and the way it changed his thinking. "You are what you are," he said, "and eventually something like that comes along to make you realise that it's better to be yourself. What happened to me in '95 made me change. Life was not the same any more, because it was such a big experience."

For Ferrari, there was only the taste of stale exhaust fumes. Even when Schumacher began his charge, the Japanese fans seemed unenthused, as though knowing the game was up. At Monza, the Ferraristi would have been roaring their hero on, believing in the impossible until blind faith was no longer an option.

The reverse of such faith is bitter disillusion. As Luca di Montezemolo, the flamboyant president of Ferrari, gave a series of mournful post-mortem interviews, a senior Italian journalist translated his remarks, and added a commentary. "He is saying that next year we will win," the journalist related with undisguised resentment. "He has said that every year since 1992. We are still waiting."

As the light began to fade and others were cracking open the champagne, Schumacher's mechanics were still working, hoisting the stricken car on to jacks in the Ferrari garage, firing up its engine to enable them to take a final set of readings.

Its howl, the forlorn defiance of a wounded beast, was the last sound of the season. One struggle had ended; another continues.

Japanese Grand Prix

1 M Hakkinen (Fin) 10 points

McLaren-Mercedes,

1hr 27min 22.535sec 205.229kph (128.268 mph)

2 E Irvine (N Irl) 6pts

Ferrari, 1:27:29.026

3 D Coulthard (GB) 4pts

McLaren-Mercedes, 1:27:50.197

4 D Hill (GB) 3pts

Jordan, 1:28:36.026

5 H-H Frentzen (Ger) 2pts

Williams, 1:28:36.392

6 J Villeneuve (Can) 1pt

Williams, 1:28:38.402

7 J Alesi (Fr)

Sauber, 1:28:58.588

8 G Fisichella (It)

Benetton, 1:29:03.837

9 A Wurz (Aut)

Benetton, 50 laps, 1:27:37.673

10 J Herbert (GB)

Sauber, 50 laps, 1:27:43.035

11 O Panis (Fr)

Prost-Peugeot, 50 laps,

1:28:20.327

12 J Trulli (It)

Prost-Peugeot,

48 laps, 1:25:12.668

NOT CLASSIFIED

S Nakano (Japan) Minardi-Ford, 40 laps, 1:11:40.268; M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari, 31 laps, 53:17.744; T Takagi (Japan) Tyrrell-Ford, 28, 50:26.268; E Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford, 28 laps, 50:47.170; R Barrichello, Brazil, Stewart-Ford, 25 laps, 45:01.383; J Verstappen (Neth) Stewart-Ford, 21 laps, 38:02.009; M Salo (Fin) Arrows, 14 laps, 24:49.643; R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan, 13 laps, 22:35.461; P Diniz (Bra) Arrows, 2 laps, 3:42.998.

CONSTRUCTORS' CHAMPIONSHIP

1 McLaren-Mercedes 156pts

2 Ferrari 133pts

3 Williams 38pts

4 Jordan 34pts

5 Benetton 33pts

6 Sauber 10pts

7 Arrows 6pts

8 Stewart-Ford 5pts

9 Prost-Peugeot 1pts

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