Motor Racing: Hakkinen crashes as Coulthard flies

Australian Grand Prix: McLaren see Ferrari as main threat tomorrow despite Italian team's poor practice times
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The Independent Online
THE SPECTRE of Mika Hakkinen's near-fatal accident in Adelaide three years ago flitted briefly through Albert Park yesterday when the world champion's efforts to push home his advantage ended with a hefty crash at the last corner that brought out the red flag to stop practice.

Back in 1995 a tyre failure pitched Hakkinen into a wall at high-speed during practice for the Australian Grand Prix, and only an emergency tracheotomy, performed by the side of the track, saved his life. This time, though, the McLaren came to rest badly damaged, but the 30-year-old Finn was able to jump out unassisted and dismissed with his characteristic insouciance what he clearly regarded as just another of Formula One's occupational hazards.

"You have to find the limit somehow," he said philosophically. "I was on a really good lap in the first two intermediate points, but I just pushed it a bit too hard. No big deal."

His team-mate, David Coulthard, who pushed ahead to set the fastest time when the session restarted, described the difficulties that face the drivers on the latest grooved Bridgestone tyres, which have been much criticised during the winter test sessions.

"An F1 car is difficult to drive. You get understeer going into a corner, but oversteer coming out. It's sliding and it gets snappy. Sometimes you get it wrong. Mika was pushing very hard, and the car just got away from him."

Much anticipation accompanied the first meeting of all of the new cars under similar track conditions, after the chess game of winter testing. And even though Hakkinen's McLaren required much remedial surgery, the incident did little to dent confidence as the team dominated the first day and showed every sign of continuing its ultra-competitive form. "Mika just lost it because he was a little bit too quick going into the corner, but it wasn't a big issue," said Norbert Haug, the sporting director of Mercedes-Benz. "We are well prepared for the race. I was particularly pleased for David, because he was really fighting and going for it."

Johnny Herbert, fifth fastest on his first upbeat outing for Stewart- Ford, heaped further praise on the updated head protection that was introduced for the 1999 season. The 34-year-old Briton crashed heavily during recent tests in Spain, but like Hakkinen emerged unharmed after the deformable structure surrounding the cockpit had done its job.

"My accident in Barcelona was as bad as the Formula 3000 shunt I had at Brand's Hatch back in 1988," Herbert said, referring to the accident in which he shattered both feet. "You could see where my head hit the cockpit protection, but apart from a slight headache for an hour or so I was absolutely fine. People ask me whether you suffer psychological problems after an incident like that, and I tell them that the safety standards of these cars is one big reason why we can simply shake them off." Hakkinen was the first to agree with him.

McLaren's initial form has confirmed the fears of most rivals that the British team remains the class of the field. As the silver cars monopolised the top of the timesheets, and the Stewart and Jordan teams enjoyed a day in the sun, Ferrari appeared to struggle. Michael Schumacher joined Coulthard, Damon Hill and Heinz-Harald Frentzen with off-course moments on the dusty track surface, and later lost more time with a gearbox problem which prevented him from running as many laps as he wanted. But he denied that Ferrari was in trouble. "Friday here is always a lottery," he said, "and I'm confident we will have the right set-up for the race on Sunday. That's what really matters."

Already the indications are that this will be another fast season. Tyre compounds are harder this year, now that Bridgestone has a monopoly in the aftermath of Goodyear's withdrawal and so there has been less need to undertake the sort of intensive development programme that characterised its first two seasons in the sport. But despite this, and the introduction of a fourth groove in the front tyres instead of the three from 1998 to slow lap times further, the cars are already faster than at a comparable point last year. Coulthard's pace yesterday was more than a second faster than his pace on the first day 12 months ago.

Ferrari's disappointing showing yesterday notwithstanding, McLaren naturally expects the Italian team to provide its strongest opposition as the season gathers momentum. "We didn't really expect the margin we had," Haug admitted. "But when it's Friday you never really know what set-up people are using. Certainly others may use the track better when there's more grip. A gap of 1.6 seconds to Ferrari obviously was not real. Everyone could see they weren't on the limit and, for sure, we know they will be very strong this year. But even if it's not 1.6sec, I'll be happy with 0.6sec or even 0.06sec, so long as we are in front."