Motor Racing: Hakkinen leads in war of words

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The Independent Online
MIKA HAKKINEN'S last word on the matter was delivered with feeling and lifted him clear at the top of the time sheet while Michael Schumacher was a muted fourth.

Friday's practice is not necessarily a guide to events that unfold in the race, but it doubtless made the Finn and his McLaren-Mercedes team feel a mite better. Hakkinen's team-mate, David Coulthard, toed the McLaren party line, maintaining Hakkinen had the mental strength as well as the driving ability to come through the test. For good measure, the Scot suggested that Schumacher was becoming more prone to errors, and perhaps showing his age.

Norbert Haug, head of the Mercedes Formula One operation, echoed the support for Hakkinen and called on all concerned to create a fitting finale to the season, and avoid any repetition of last year's scenario when Schumacher's ill-fated collision with Jacques Villeneuve confirmed the Canadian as champion.

In the Ferrari camp, however, they were unmoved. For a start, they said, they had no desire to use fresh tyres for the sake of a quick time at the end of the practice session, and as for pointing the finger at them and contending that Hakkinen would not buckle: "Bah".

The psychological warfare was rampant as McLaren and Ferrari sparred ahead of tomorrow's Luxembourg Grand Prix, the penultimate round of the championship. Hakkinen holds the advantage only by virtue of second place count-back, but he will be champion if he wins this race and Schumacher fails to score.

The German, however, is on a roll, having wiped out Hakkinen's 16-point lead in three races. Yet Coulthard vehemently argues the case for his team and partner.

"I am confident we still have the best car and it's a question of making it work," Coulthard said. "I can understand why people think Michael is tougher than Mika. But Michael has had more incidents and he always says it's the other guy's fault.

"I don't believe Mika will give an inch because he wants the championship and if it comes down to the last corner, he won't be found wanting. I think Mika deserves to win the championship. His race wins have been very clean. Not all Michael's have. His win in Argentina, for instance, was not sporting. Given this is a sport, may the best sportsman win." As a final dig, Coulthard added: "Michael appears to have made more mistakes this year. Whether he is getting older or closer to the edge I don't know."

Schumacher, of course, has an enormous following, but Mercedes also lay claim to home ground and Haug's crew are under pressure to provide the reliability as well as the pace to undermine their compatriot's aspirations.

"Last year's finish in the championship was not good for Formula One but it was not good for Schumacher either," Haug said. "Nobody can afford that. It is not our way to go motor racing.

"But nobody should think we are the pussycats of the starting grid. We are sharp and we are fighting, and there is no doubt we can attack as well. But I do not want to see wheel banging or stuff like that."

Haug, too, is confident Hakkinen has the mental courage of his convictions: "Who is qualified to say Mika can't stand pressure as well as Michael? If you are confident you don't make a noise about it."

The noises, however, have been emanating from both teams and Eddie Irvine, the ever-dutiful No 2 to Schumacher, had no compunction about extending his responsibilities for supporting Schumacher beyond the race circuit.

"There's no way Mika is mentally tougher than Michael," Irvine said. "For sure Hakkinen will crack under the pressure. Michael knows he will have another shot at it if he doesn't get it this time. Mika knows this might be his only shot at it, and that creates the pressure."

Irvine is adamant he would never resort to foul means to help Schumacher and resents the suggestion that Ferrari have cheated to make their car more competitive: "I wouldn't take anybody off even if asked. As for McLaren saying we've cheated, they must be mad. If we've been cheating, how come their car is still faster?"

Irvine, too, had a closing barb for the opposition: "If Coulthard had given way and helped Hakkinen more often, as I've helped Michael, Hakkinen would be champion already."

Stewart-Ford have confirmed that Rubens Barrichello would be staying with the team next season as partner to Britain's Johnny Herbert.

Practice times,

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