Motor racing: Herbert backing Hakkinen to win

JOHNNY HERBERT, a past team-mate of both championship protagonists, Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher, is putting his money on the Finn to emerge triumphant from the title decider at Suzuka this weekend.

As the drivers took a last-minute chance to relax in Tokyo before catching today's Shinkansen "bullet" train to the Suzuka track, the 34-year-old Briton said: "Mika has the better car, which will help. But the real story will be the tyres. The right choice will be critical. Bridgestone screwed up in the race last year, but they have learned from that.

"It's going to be a very close contest, and it's going to depend on which tyre company, Bridgestone or Goodyear, has done the right work for this track and where their development has been concentrated.

"Mika has the right character to win but crucially he also has the support from Ron Dennis and all the team at McLaren. The difference between them is that Michael also has the character but doesn't need the support. He's more capable of doing something on his own.

"Mika responds well to being told by McLaren that he can do the job, and I believe that he will. He only needs to finish second if Michael wins, but I can't see Mika doing that because settling for second can be fatal. I think he will just do the normal thing and go for it. He has to.

"He's got to get through the first few laps, which will be the most dangerous for him, and then he can decide how to play his race."

Schumacher, also in Tokyo, claimed to be feeling calmer than ever. "I've been getting lots more sleep than I usually do in Japan," he said. "And I'm taking it really easy, just staying low-key. I usually don't sleep very well for the first few days but since I got here on Monday I have been sleeping very well. I feel great."

He admits that a year ago he was much less relaxed going into the final- round decider with Jacques Villeneuve, who went on to take the title after a controversial collision. "That was a bad moment for me," Schumacher said. "But I'm realistic enough to know why I failed there. People who know me are aware of the fact that I rarely make a mistake twice.

"Being four points behind this year is a disadvantage but it doesn't add to the pressure. Recently, while testing at Mugello, I had the feeling that I'm going to be champion again. I cannot explain why, but the feeling was very strong."

Schumacher will travel to Suzuka with his brother Ralf, who is scheduled to have his first test run for the Williams team at Suzuka next week. Michael will meet Hakkinen for the first time since losing to him at the Nurburgring a month ago when they both take part in a press conference this afternoon. "That's when the work starts," Schumacher said. "Until then I can just relax and prepare carefully."

Herbert believes that Hakkinen would make a good world champion. "It would be pleasing to see him do it. He raced competitively when we were together at Lotus when we had some good times. I guess he got the opportunities and the support at a crucial stage of his career, and now he's ready for the big success.

"I'm not sure he'd be the most approachable champion because you never know with Mika. But maybe he'll relax in public, and be like the younger guy he used to be. One on one, he's always been easy-going and he isn't controversial. He'd be a popular winner, especially as they love him here in Japan."

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