Motor Racing: Hakkinen keeps his head as others talk of crowning glory

Monday Interview: Mika Hakkinen; There was a time when he was seen as an arrogant upstart, but Mika Hakkinen has worked hard to earn respect in Formula One. As the Finn prepared for the start of the season next weekend he talked to Derick Allsop
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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS everywhere he has been of late he has heard how he is expected to win the world championship. Gerhard Berger, the Austrian who retired at the end of last season, started it and the theme gathered a rampaging momentum.

The logic is sound. Berger's nomination does, after all, carry into the new season the best form of his career and he drives a car that has stunned Formula One opponents and observers alike with its pace in testing.

The subject of this growing conviction smiles politely and skirts the issue with the dexterity of a politician or a football manager well versed in soundbites. He will doubtless take each race as it comes even if he romps away with the first half-dozen.

"It doesn't mean anything... we've done nothing yet... I'm trying to ignore all the talk."

There was a time, not so long ago, when Mika Hakkinen would have swaggered to the beat of such heightened expectation. He might, also, have been wearisomely bumptious for those living and working around him.

The image of an apparently insensitive Hakkinen, savouring his third place at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, still irks many who were that evening mourning the death of Ayrton Senna. Hakkinen maintained he, and other drivers, were not aware of the severity of the Brazilian's injuries at that stage. Other drivers, however, instinctively sensed cause for restraint.

Hakkinen, too, would be involved in a big crash, during practice for the last race of the 1995 season, at Adelaide. A puncture sent his car into a barrier at 130mph. He fractured his skull and but for instant attention might have died or at least suffered brain damage. Those close to him say it marked the beginning of the defining period in his life.

One said: "That accident brought him back down to earth. He was racing again at the start of the following season but it took him all that year to recover, as a person as well as a driver. Last year he blossomed, and you see what he is like now."

Hakkinen today is a driver in his pomp, blessed with the natural talent, experience and, the signs are, the car in the McLaren-Mercedes, to aspire to motor racing's ultimate prize.

The self-belief has been rekindled, but the arrogance cast aside. When he lines up on the grid in Melbourne on Sunday, others will be telling the world he is the man most likely to eclipse Michael Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve and the rest.

The 29-year-old Finn acknowledges the psychological healing was just as important as the physical recovery after his accident. "It took time and during that time I was able to think a lot," he says. "You do. About everything. It wasn't a problem to get back into the car. I wasn't scared or anything like that. It was just things generally."

His nervous grin is a familiar defence mechanism. Racing drivers do not enjoy appearing self-conscious, coy or vulnerable. That would be a weakness.

But then Hakkinen does not find it easy to express his most delicate emotions, certainly not in a foreign tongue. Besides, he reasons, Finns are unemotional. His sometimes eccentric responses at press conferences reinforce suspicions he is no intellectual.

In less formal and artificial situations, however, his communicative powers multiply. He is bright, attentive and converses comfortably about his rehabilitation and emergence as the latest grand prix winner.

"Last year was very important for me. I got my first pole position and at the end of the season my first win. I always believed I could do that and a lot of people said they expected me to do it, but until you do there is always the question. People will always have their doubts."

Those questions intensified through the first half of last season, when he was generally outpaced and outmanoeuvred by his team-mate, David Coulthard. It was felt Hakkinen might have drained the faith of his boss at McLaren, Ron Dennis, and that he would have to move on to revive his fortunes.

If there was any pressure on Dennis, he resisted long enough for Hakkinen to find fresh inspiration. Assured of his place in the team, he gradually got the measure of Coulthard and refused to be deflated by a series of setbacks which would have tested the patience of any driver. Silverstone was just one venue where he suppressed wholly understandable frustration.

Eventually his luck changed. He recorded the fastest race lap in Italy, registered his maiden pole at the Nurburgring and, albeit with the co- operation of Villeneuve and Coulthard, claimed his first win at Jerez. After 96 grands prix, the burden had been lifted from his shoulders at last.

"That first win definitely makes a big difference" he says. "It's the confidence it gives you. That's the biggest thing. Suddenly you know you can win races and you don't have to prove it to anyone any more. You have much more confidence to go forward from there. You feel there is nothing you can't do."

There were admirers who have never wavered in their support of Hakkinen, contending that the raw materials were always obvious. He was the British Formula Three champion in 1990 and impressed sufficiently in two seasons with Lotus to earn a switch to McLaren in 1993. He put down his marker in his debut, outqualifying his team-mate, Senna.

He had the courage to match his speed. Too much courage, some feared. His accident at the 1995 Australian Grand Prix, although through no fault of his own, served to confirm those fears.

The prejudices have been whittled down by Hakkinen's dedication and the quality of his performances. Frank Williams, the most successful team boss in the history of the World Championship, says: "Mika has impressed me very much, considering his accident in Adelaide."

The respect is mutual. Williams' perennial excellence convinces Hakkinen he must not be carried away by lap times achieved in winter testing, which are notoriously misleading. Often deliberately so.

He says: "What we have been doing in testing is very encouraging and we believe we have a very good car. It was quick straight away and felt good, and that is a good sign. We feel it has a lot of potential and should be capable of winning races.

"But we have to keep our feet on the ground. You can never be sure what kind of work the other teams are doing in testing and what the times really mean. You don't really know anything until you go racing.

"People keep saying we could win the championship and that I must have a good chance. It's nice that they say those things but to be honest I try to ignore them. There is no point even thinking like that before the season has started.

"The only thing for certain is that it is going to be very competitive. Williams, of course, will be strong. And not only Villeneuve. Heinz-Harald Frentzen will be stronger this year. It is his second season at Williams, he knows the team now and he will be ready.

"Obviously Schumacher will be there. Ferrari are going all out for the championship and we all know what Michael can do. And I think Benetton will be good. Don't forget them. They could surprise people. There will be plenty of competition."

And Coulthard? "Yes," he says, the grin returning. But a mischievous, rather than nervous grin, this time. "He will be very competitive, very fast. No doubt about that. So it will be the normal thing."

Hakkinen and Coulthard are not the best of friends, which is an unremarkable state of affairs for Formula One. In this sport your team-mate is your first and often fiercest opponent. If you cannot beat him, you cannot conquer the universe.

McLaren's current drivers have not, as yet, become embroiled in the type of civil war that raged when Senna and Alain Prost were partners in the team, but then they have not, as yet, been fighting one another for the championship.

As Coulthard says, they are "very different people with very different interests and no reason to socialise away from the circuit, but we do work together and have no problem within the team".

Jackie Stewart, fellow Scot and once Coulthard's mentor, suggests their differing driving styles will be evident as they get to grips with the new regulations - narrower cars, grooved tyres and all - this season. Stewart believes Hakkinen's driving, perceived as being more instinctive, will be better suited to the less predictable cars, whereas Coulthard is "at his best when the car is excellent. If he doesn't quite like the car, he is not the same driver".

Hakkinen affirms his approval and liking for the new cars. He says: "I certainly enjoy driving these cars because I feel I can drive them the way I like to drive. I can push hard. The grooved tyres suit my style. So yes, I'm looking forward to this season."

Perhaps he is dropping his guard after all. He may even be prepared to contemplate the prospect of becoming McLaren's first world champion since Senna, in 1991?

"No, I'm not saying that. I'm relaxed now and I intend to stay relaxed. We have a lot of work to do, all of us in the team. We know that and we're ready for that. It's a long and hard season.

"But of course I'm going to be positive and do my best and try to get the best out of the car. If we do that we have the chance of getting the results we all want. I am confident I can do a good job and I'm confident the team can.

"I want to win races from the front, and show I can do that. I'm going for the best possible. If I can do that, then maybe we can start to think about the championship."