Motor racing: Irvine flying as Hakkinen hits gravel

McLaren's troubles continue in Hungary as world champion slides off in practice after early spin

PERHAPS THE season is taking its toll. From the reigning champion to Britain's last champion the vagaries of the campaign appear to be gnawing at the nerve ends.

Mika Hakkinen, who dare not lose more ground to Eddie Irvine here, could only watch as the Ulsterman went to the top of yesterday's timesheet with his final lap.

Hakkinen had abandoned his McLaren-Mercedes in a gravel trap in unofficial practice for tomorrow's Hungarian Grand Prix. He was not alone in succumbing to tricky conditions, and the list of casualties accelerated as drizzle fell in the later stages.

However, Hakkinen had also spun during the morning session, interrupting a programme planned to reassert the team's authority over Ferrari. The mishaps may ultimately prove as meaningless as much of Friday's proceedings, but suddenly the doubts are creeping in.

Hakkinen's misfortune in the last three races, which reached a terrifying climax with his tyre blow-out at Hockenheim, leave him eight points behind Irvine.

Given normal circumstances, and the absence of Michael Schumacher, the Finn would expect to win here, followed by his team-mate David Coulthard. But normality is an elusive scenario this summer and the rain clouds closing in on what has historically been one of the hottest races on the grand prix circuit, served to underline the point.

Hakkinen said: "I'm worried but I have to stay cool to try and get some points. I will be driving to the maximum and hopefully the car will stay together.

"At the start of the season I thought defending the title would be easy. What's happened is surprising, but if the last two grands prix had gone to plan I'd still be ahead. Now I'm hungry for the fight."

Hakkinen remains anxious to hear an explanation for his tyre failure a fortnight ago. "We have to find a solution," he said. "We still have to go to Monza, where the lap time is even faster than Hockenheim."

Coulthard was third fastest yesterday, followed by the consistent Reubens Barrichello in a Stewart-Ford, Mika Salo in the second Ferrari and Heinz- Harald Frentzen of Jordan. Damon Hill in the other Jordan, was a distant and seemingly forlorn 16th when he spun off the circuit.

The Hungaroring has, since his first visit in 1992, been a productive hunting ground for Hill, yet he arrives this time struggling for form, conviction and motivation. He pulled out of the German Grand Prix adamant that his brakes were not safe, while the team insisted there was no such problem with the car.

His boss, Eddie Jordan, could not suppress his concern yesterday. Frentzen is third in the drivers' standings with 33 points, guiding the team towards the same position in the constructors' championship. Hill is 10th on five points.

Jordan said: "At the moment Heinz-Harald is doing an outstanding job. Damon is fraught with all sorts of problems. He is not giving what we initially expected of him. There have been a lot of things that have caused these problems. When things do go right for him he does a very good job."

Hill, who marched away from Hockenheim with a face like thunder, now says the difference of opinion over the brakes was misunderstood and he wished to consign it to history. He was, however, forthright about the present state of play.

He said: "I feel I've gone from Roadrunner to Wiley Coyote. Nothing I do seems to work. I've lost my temper a few times. I wouldn't be a racing driver if I didn't have that aggression in me. I'm doing my best and sooner or later my luck will change. The car is better this year than last year and that makes it more difficult to bear. I've got a minimum of points compared with Heinz. I feel I am not delivering and that makes it awkward knowing I've not fulfilled my potential. It's been quite a disappointing year. When I have had opportunities I've not done as well as I'd hoped. There is no reason why I can't reproduce the form I know I am capable of."

Hill, the 1996 champion, believes this could be the crucial race in Irvine's title quest. He said: "If Eddie can extend his lead here then that might just be the margin to see him through. He needs every point to beat Mika. Eddie has a tenuous grip on the championship and there will be pressure from Ferrari and all Italy. He might never be in this position again. The contemplation of failure is the big risk and the sort of thing that puts on the pressure."

OPENING PRACTICE TIMES

HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX (Hungaroring) Unofficial practice: 1 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1min 19.476sec (ave spd 179.963kph); 2 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren- Mercedes 1:19.792; 3 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:20.117; 4 R Barrichello (Brazil) Stewart-Ford 1:20.547; 5 M Salo (Fin) Ferrari 1:20.989; 6 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:21.185; 7 A Zanardi (It) Williams- Supertec 1:21.251; 8 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Supertec 1:21.456; 9 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec 1:21.481; 10 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford 1:21.486; 11 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec 1:21.504; 12 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 1:21.525; 13 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:21.635; 14 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Supertec 1:21.673; 15 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:22.009; 16 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:22.182; 17 R Zonta (Bra) BAR-Supertec 1:22.290; 18 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 1:22.360; 19 M Gene (Sp) Minardi- Ford 1:22.380; 20 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas 1:23.096; 21 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows 1:23.216; 22 P De la Rosa (Sp) Arrows 1:24.064.

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