Motor Racing: Hakkinen ready for the final lap

As the Formula One championship nears its climax in Japan, Derick Allsop finds the Finnish driver determined to end McLaren's lean streak
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THE SOUND of Queen boomed out from the McLaren-Mercedes camp, providing an appropriate anthem: "It's a kind of magic... one dream... one prize... one goal".

That goal had come tantalisingly into view and the magic could not be suppressed. Even Michael Schumacher's fans gatecrashed the party and had their red caps autographed by Mika Hakkinen's accommodating if slightly bemused wife, Erja.

Hakkinen was still locked in a private compartment of the motor home; showered, changed, alone with his thoughts, some scattered gear and a picture given him for his birthday. It was a precious opportunity to quietly savour the satisfaction of his achievement.

Victory in the Luxembourg Grand Prix had given him a potentially decisive advantage over Schumacher in the Formula One world championship and convinced a sceptical sport he was worthy to aspire to its ultimate goal.

"We've not won here by luck, or somebody going off, we've won because we were fast and had the right tactics," Hakkinen, who was 30 yesterday, said.

"I proved a point and if I win the championship I will feel I deserve it. But when I am on the track, I never think about what people think. I just race for myself. I believe in my abilities.

"A lot of other drivers deserve to win it and have proved they're great drivers. Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve had to fight for it in the last couple of years. A driver like Johnny Herbert, who has been racing many years, also deserves it."

Second place in the final race of the season, in Japan on 1 November, will be enough to give the magnanimous Hakkinen the championship, even if Schumacher wins. The Finn might be forgiven if he now applied additional psychological pressure to his adversary and the Ferrari team, but that is evidently not his style.

"I don't see any difference in Michael because of this defeat," Hakkinen said. "He feels bad, of course, he is down, especially because this is in Germany. I would feel the same if it had happened to me in Finland.

"But the last race, in Italy, was a disaster for us and we came back, and Michael will be back just the same, lifting his team. We do that because we are both professional. He knows you just have to keep going, and maybe the team will find some improvements in testing."

Hakkinen, who joined McLaren in 1993 on the advice of his manager, Keke Rosberg, has shared with the team some of their leanest years, an experience which renders success all the more rewarding.

"You have to believe in a team and stick to a team with potential. Keke told me to come to McLaren because they had the record, the history. They have great people, the package and the sponsors, and when you have that you know that if you work, one day you will win.

"Some of the people here have been through hard times, and they appreciate it when they win. I know how they feel. They're working flat out and believe in me 100 per cent. That is one of the reasons I don't want to let them down."

Rosberg, Finland's first and last world champion, in 1982, is unrestrained in his appraisal of Hakkinen and the impact his driver has had on Formula One here.

"People have finally recognised Mika is a great racing driver," he said. "Even after his wins in Austria and Monaco this year people were saying he'd crack under the pressure and that Michael is better than anyone.

"The trouble is, Michael plays down the car, saying the Ferrari is no good, to make himself look better. McLaren drivers are part of a team. If Mika had driven for Ferrari here the church bells would now be ringing in Italy.

"Michael now knows what he faces, that Mika is not an easy touch. Michael will probably be praying for rain in Japan, but Mika can win in snow, rain or sun.

"It's going to be some fight at Suzuka. It can be just as difficult to be second as it is to win a race."

Jean Todt, Ferrari's sporting director in every sense here, commended Hakkinen on "one of his best races" before retreating to scratch his head along with the rest of his team. McLaren's extra pace and Hakkinen's application had patently wrong-footed them.

Hakkinen, who goes testing at Magny-Cours this week, said a mite bashfully: "I don't exactly feel it was my best race. It's really weird and hard for me to understand what's going on at the moment. We haven't won it yet.

"At the end of the day it is still a sport. I can only give it my best shot. If I lose I lose; if I win I win. To be a good winner you have to learn to lose.

"It doesn't matter when you win, as long as you get your goal."

That's a kind of magic.