Motor Racing: Hakkinen finds silver lining

German Grand Prix: McLarens take front of grid as Schumacher finds little home comfort
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The Independent Online
AND so to Hockenheim, the flat-out blast between the pine trees that, 30 seasons ago, claimed the life of the great Jim Clark. Here, this weekend, may turn the fortunes of a World Championship that has developed into a two-horse race between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher. Even David Coulthard, with the fastest times in free practice, acknowledged that his own title aspirations have all but gone after a season of wretched fortune. "To draw level with Mika I'd have to win the next three races without him scoring a point," he said. "That's a bit unrealistic."

It is more likely that Schumacher, however, might fail to score points, for the crowd's favourite lies a distant ninth as the McLarens share the front row. Schumacher spun on his first lap of the day, and later his Ferrari succumbed to engine failure. The former champion was always on the back foot after that, and was left trailing as he tried vainly to make up for lost time. He hasn't qualified this badly since Monza last year.

Instead of Ferrari challenging McLaren, Jacques Villeneuve celebrated an upturn in fortune in a revitalised Williams. Anyone tempted to doubt the world champion's commitment in a so far troubled season would have been served humble pie while watching as he pushed within half a second of the silver cars in the sort of display of brio that made his late father the crowd's darling. "We were fighting all the way through," Villeneuve said with the smile of a man relieved to be back at the sharp end, "and even took the McLarens at one point. This is the first time I have enjoyed driving a Williams with low down-force configuration."

The session was important, too, for Damon Hill, whose contractual negotiations with Jordan have reached critical mass. His situation is reminiscent of that once faced by the American hydroplane champion Bill Muncey, who remarked to his team owner Lee Schoenith: "Will you still love me when I'm not winning?" To which Schoenith replied: "Sure. But I'll miss ya."

Hill was employed by Jordan and Benson & Hedges to win races, but thus far has not even scored a point. He is facing the prospect of a dramatic salary reduction next season if he stays with the team, though this may take the form of a payment-per-point structure. To make matters worse, his team-mate Ralf Schumacher has scored three in the last two races, and lies just ahead of him. Compared to Jordan's early-season form, however, fourth and fifth places on the grid are manna from heaven. "I'm very pleased," Hill said, visibly relaxed. "Part of me had hoped for more, but I think we have to be pleased with what we got. To see both cars up there in the top six, well in touch with the class of the field, is great."

The subject of team orders has been much in people's minds this weekend. Earlier this year, Coulthard displayed remarkable character by obeying team orders and handing victory in the season-opening Australian race to Hakkinen. FIA subsequently declared such race practice detrimental to the sport. A week ago we were thus treated to a ludicrous pantomime in Austria as Schumacher, delayed by an off-track excursion, charged after team-mate Eddie Irvine. How would Ferrari couch the reason for the Ulsterman slowing sufficiently for his boss to sweep by? Ah, a brake problem. Irvine did what was expected of him, and Schumacher got the extra point that may yet prove critical. Irvine even managed to keep a straight face later, but the man from the brake supplier Brembo took a while to see the funny side. FIA has since declared that team orders are allowed, if they can be justified by the situation pertaining to the World Championship. So now, if Coulthard were to gift another race to Hakkinen, it would be all right.

Back in 1956 Peter Collins did not simply move over for his Ferrari team- mate Juan Manuel Fangio during the Italian GP; the Briton actually handed over his Lancia-Ferrari to the Argentine so that he could secure his fourth World Championship. Collins, unable to see a future in which death would claim him at the Nurburgring only two years hence, justified his action by declaring his youth to be on his side. This is not an easy time for Coulthard, who put ink to paper on a fresh contract yesterday, as did team-mate Hakkinen. The knowledge that not just Schumacher, but Villeneuve too, were on Ron Dennis's shopping list was a cause for concern, but his future at McLaren now looks secure for at least another season.

Yesterday an engine failure stymied his strong challenge for pole position, obliging him to slap on a brave face as he tried in vain to wrestle a better time out of a spare McLaren that was set up for his Finnish team- mate. "Of course it's a disappointing result for me," he admitted, in what has become a mantra for his 1998 season, "but it is good to be back on the front row of the grid again."

This afternoon he faces yet another dilemma. If he pushes on to win, with Hakkinen second, he will in effect have lost the Finn four points at a time when Schumacher appears to be struggling. So the inference is that he ought to defer to Hakkinen again even though another victory would be the perfect antidote to his own misfortunes. It is a burdensome position for one of the paddock's most honourable characters.