Motor racing: Hakkinen slams the door on Schumacher

Hungarian Grand Prix: McLaren-Ferrari rivalry smoulders in the background as flying Finn takes another vital step to the title
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IT'S A sceptical sport, Formula One. Even Tom Walkinshaw was moved to admit it, while celebrating his 53rd birthday on Friday evening. "It's no surprise, really, that people who have been in this game a long time are cynics, is it?" he asked.

When the Ferraris were off the pace at the German GP at Hockenheim a fortnight ago, and when subsequently the FIA conducted a two-hour analysis of their software in the immediate aftermath, their detractors nodded knowingly.

By threatening in advance to protest at Hockenheim at what he believes to be an illegal traction control system, which had pushed the red cars ahead of his silver arrow McLaren-Mercedes in the preceding three events, the old hands said, Ron Dennis had obliged Ferrari to play straight in Schumacher's home race. That explained their lack of pace and the supposedly spontaneous investigation, which the FIA could conduct in the comfortable knowledge that it would not significantly jeopardise the challenge they so desperately want to see Michael Schumacher pose to McLaren's World Championship aspirations.

This is modern F1. Traction control - the means of electronically sensing imminent wheelspin, was outlawed at the end of 1993. But the wording of the technical regulations allows teams to use something similar which smoothes an engine's torque curve by cutting fuel or spark at opportune moments. McLaren believe that Ferrari are operating outside the spirit of the regulations with it. Others say that everyone is running something similar; it's just that Ferrari's is better.

The bad feeling, smouldering between McLaren and Ferrari ever since Ferrari successfully protested at McLaren's braking system in Brazil, has reached an unseemly pitch.

"It's a very nasty, malicious process that certain teams are taking on to suggest that other teams are doing things that are perhaps not within the regulations," Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn said. "Somebody comes along and says, 'That car has traction control but it's done so cleverly that nobody can find it.' How can you defend yourself against that allegation?

"We are one of the few teams that has our software scrutineered before we actually use it. We have had at least 20 visits from the FIA, to approve it. So we are very sure, and the FIA are very sure, that our software is completely legal.

"There is a process where people can protest if they want to. In Austria, Ron Dennis came along and said he was going to protest our car. We welcomed that because it would have cleared the air. But he didn't protest. We felt there was something wrong with the McLaren at the beginning of the season, and we went through the proper process. I think it is a very unfortunate situation where somebody can accuse you of having something that is supposedly so clever that you can't find it. Nobody is applying any logic."

The action on the track was equally intense here yesterday as McLaren's drivers Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard fought Schumacher for pole position, which can be so important on this tight little circuit. Brawn blamed Ferrari's poor showing at Hockenheim on the car's dislike of running with minimal downforce, but the Hungaroring, like Monaco, demands the maximum. The McLarens, of course, develop rather more than anyone else, and it showed as Hakkinen once again edged out Coulthard by a narrow margin with Schumacher a similar amount behind the Scot. It's not where the German wants to be, especially as Coulthard has pledged to help Hakkinen's title challenge. "Given the position of the championship," he said, "I don't think it would be unfair if the team asked me to support Mika."

A year ago Damon Hill and Walkinshaw's Arrows team nearly pulled off the victory of the decade. But while the Scot's fortunes look less rosy, with Pedro Diniz and Mika Salo 12th and 13th, a fresh upturn for Hill was timely since he will shortly sign another contract with the Benson & Hedges Jordan team for 1999. He is a buoyant fourth on the grid, ahead of Jacques Villeneuve's Williams-Mecachrome and Eddie Irvine's Ferrari, but is less happy about persistent rumours that his team-mate Ralf Schumacher, 10th fastest, is likely to partner Alex Zanardi at Williams next year in his search for greater remuneration. Against expectations, the pair have gelled nicely. "Ralf is quick and he's going to get better," Hill said. "We make a good pairing here, and I'd be happy for things to stay as they are."

Schumacher Snr, however, could do without Hill this afternoon, especially bearing in mind the Englishman's performance in last year's race. It may be fanciful to expect Hill to challenge for Jordan's first victory, but if he makes a better start than Schumacher he could certainly jeopardise the German's chances.

It is more likely that Schumacher will be the one to pressure McLaren, however. "They still have the best car out there, I'm sure," Brawn conceded, "but where they have an average race and we have a good one, we can certainly push them very hard and beat them."

Whoever wins today, do not expect the bad feeling to evaporate in a hurry.