Motor Racing: Hakkinen steers clear of controversy

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The Independent Online
MIKA HAKKINEN was a discreet fifth - lost in the Ferraris' wake - when rain washed away the remnants of practice ahead of an Italian Grand Prix tomorrow that could reopen or effectively close the World Championship.

He then hurried from the McLaren-Mercedes pit to the team motor home and declined to be engaged in any lengthy discussion about the traumas of the past fortnight and any fall-out that may have come his way.

The distraction created by the collision and subsequent off-track confrontation of his team-mate, David Coulthard, and his championship rival, Ferrari's Michael Schumacher, in Belgium has provided the Finn with a convenient shield and he patently has no intention of casting it aside.

"What has happened between David and Michael has nothing to do with me," he said on the hoof. "It's not something I want to get involved in in any way."

Hakkinen will have all the stage he wants when he lines up on the grid leading Schumacher by seven points. Only two more races follow this one.

Hakkinen's elusive strategy doubtless had the approval - and perhaps the guidance - of his boss, Ron Dennis, who insisted the smouldering controversy had not been allowed to penetrate his team's working operation. "I don't think it gets to the team," Dennis said. "We are resilient to most things. We build a psychological wall around the team and concentrate on doing the job.

"You have to be cool and calm and not get caught up in the hype between ourselves and Ferrari. It will be a cool head that wins the championship. We have very experienced people concentrating on doing their job and if they do it well we should achieve our goal. Mika knows he cannot allow himself to get into the mental arithmetic of what can and cannot be done. You have to be cool."

Dennis has been involved in a crossfire of allegations over the legality of the Ferrari this season and is adamant he will not shirk from demanding his rights if he suspects any foul play in the campaign's closing stages.

"We are desperately keen to finish the championship in the right atmosphere but I won't sit and say nothing if we feel we are being steamrollered. I'll stand up and never run from a fight. But if everything is equal and balanced the championship will have a good ending."

The accord reached by Schumacher and Coulthard has clearly diffused a potentially uncomfortable situation for the Scott and his team. Only a couple of banners declared Ferrari fans' hostility here yesterday. Coulthard said: "Any Ferrari fan who has come up to me here has just asked for my autograph."

Eddie Irvine was ahead of Schumacher at the end of the session, with Coulthard third. That may mean little when they qualify this afternoon and still less when they race but it probably indicates Ferrari have made progress on a high-speed circuit that inherently suits the McLaren.

"I know it's only Friday but it is better than going through your preparations and being third, fourth or fifth," Irvine said. "And I am ahead of Michael. I don't know how Michael has been affected by what happened between him and Coulthard but I don't think it has made the team any more determined to win here, because we are at it all the time. We are all flat out.

"But he will have learned from it. He is not Mr Perfect, but then who is? Everyone will have learned from it.

"Even if Michael doesn't win here there are two races left and he could win both of those, so it's not going to be decisive. I'd say it is now 50-50 between Michael and Hakkinen. It can go either way."

Schumacher was given a suitably rapturous reception and will not have been dismayed by the rain, an eerie reminder of recent conflict yet still encouraging for a man who remains the acknowledged master of the wet. Essentially, however, yesterday was just another day at the office for the German.

Damon Hill, who gave Jordan their maiden grand prix win at Spa and has confirmed a new one-year deal with the team, was a low-key eighth. Johnny Herbert, who leaves Sauber for Stewart-Ford at the end of the season, was 12th.

YESTERDAY'S PRACTICE TIMES

ITALIAN GRAND PRIX: 1 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1min 24.987sec (ave speed 151.878mph); 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:25.246; 3 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:25.690; 4 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Mecachrome 1:26.053; 5 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:26.159; 6 H H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Mecachrome 1:26.528; 7 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 1:26.748; 8 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:26.838; 9 G Fisichella (It) Benetton- Mecachrome 1:26.885; 10 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Mecachrome 1:26.886; 11 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:27.079; 12 J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Petronas 1:27.541; 13 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 1:27.676; 14 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:28.066; 15 R Rosset (Bra) Tyrrell-Ford 1:28.098; 16 T Takagi (Japan) Tyrrell-Ford 1:28.135; 17 J Verstappen (Neth) Stewart- Ford 1:28.606; 18 E Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford 1:28.847; 19 S Nakano (Japan) Minardi-Ford 1:28.849; 20 M Salo (Fin) Arrows 1:29.603; 21 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows 1:53.671.

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