Motor Racing: Hakkinen waits for his fortunes to turn

David Tremayne says Formula One's unluckiest driver is overdue a victory
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"I was scared people would think I couldn't still do it," Mika Hakkinen said after he had stepped back into a Formula One car in January 1996 in a private test in France. "But when I drove for the first couple of laps it was fantastic. But it wasn't easy, to be honest. After a long break, it was difficult to come back."

In Adelaide the previous November only emergency trackside surgery had saved him after a tyre failure had thrown his McLaren into a tyre barrier at very high speed. His apprehension was understandable.

They say that you either bounce right back from a major accident, or are never the same driver again. Hakkinen bounced back. The following September only misfortune robbed him of the Italian Grand Prix. It has become a familiar tale since. Just as it remains inconceivable that Stirling Moss was never crowned world champion, so it is that Hakkinen remains the one contemporary F1 star never to have won a grand prix. He could be forgiven for thinking that the gods have taken umbrage at some misdemeanour. Instead, he is waiting patiently for his luck to turn.

His quality was immediately evident when he burst on to the stage with a confident performance for Lotus in the US Grand Prix at Phoenix in 1991. When he joined McLaren in 1993 he gave team-mate Ayrton Senna a shock by outqualifying him in Portugal. But the intervening years have been a mixture of impetuosity, poor cars and near tragedy. In 1995 he took the unloved McLaren MP4/10 to second place in Japan. A fortnight later he almost died in Australia.

Last weekend he smiled quietly when McLaren team-mate David Coulthard scooped the victory which looked to be Hakkinen's until a delaminated tyre sent him scurrying back to the pits, adding just another typical chapter to the Hakkinen story. Fourth in Melbourne as Coulthard won; fifth in Brazil; sixth in Argentina; third in Germany. Those have been the good points. The bad were some miserable performances; engine failure just as victory was within reach at Silverstone; disqualification from third in Belgium because of a fuel infringement. His 92 winless starts take him well beyond Nigel Mansell's 71, and just past Jean Alesi's 90.

Hakkinen remains phlegmatic and admits: "I've been struggling to get the best out of the car." Curiously, when he is up Coulthard seems down and vice versa. At Lotus they rather cruelly, though affectionately, used to call Hakkinen "the empty helmet". But when a car is unbalanced, only Hakkinen can wrestle a performance from it. "No driver really likes a car that slides around," he said. "Going sideways doesn't get you very far. Would I like that more than a stable package? Of course not." Maybe so, but he more than most people can cope with it.

What does turn him on? "Being able to control the car in extreme situations. Being able to take a car round a corner on the limit, and to control it like that. To feel how late can you really brake it. Feeling how to overtake, and being brave enough to do it without accident."

Hakkinen's bravery has been tested twice recently, when he qualified fifth at Spa after a 200mph shunt in practice; and in testing at Monza when the car failed again at high speed. Again he bounced back.

A year ago he said: "I am ready to win." But he is still waiting. Sooner or later it will happen and no victory will evoke greater applause, empty helmet or not.