Motor Racing: Mansell return would hold no fears for Hakkinen: Young pretender to the throne thinks champion would find new-look Formula One much more difficult to master

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NIGEL MANSELL, the old lion of the track, will find Formula One a strange and hostile racing environment if he returns, according to one of the cubs intent on taking over his former territory.

The general belief here, as teams assemble for Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix, is that 40-year-old Mansell is on his way back to Williams-Renault from IndyCars, but Mika Hakkinen, the 25-year-old Finn, believes the 1992 world champion would be subjected to a torrid experience.

'I would be surprised if Mansell came back because he will find it very hard. Formula One has changed a lot since he was here. The technology has gone, the cars are much more difficult to drive and there are a lot of young, fit guys out there to compete against,' Hakkinen, the McLaren- Peugeot driver, said.

'I don't think Formula One needs Mansell, but I can understand that the team might need him. He can lift them and give them the experience and the ability to drive flat out.'

Mansell, in North American terms just down the road in Detroit for Sunday's IndyCar race, is said to be ready to leave Newman- Haas in a multi-million-pound deal with Williams.

'If he does come back it won't make any difference to me or the other young drivers,' Hakkinen said. 'We have committed ourselves to our sport. I want to be world champion, I am 25, and I am working hard and I am focused on achieving it.

'Formula One is not necessarily a young man's sport, but when you are older you look at other things, like a family. When you are 25, you are ready to work night and day, but maybe not at 40. I don't know, I've never been 40.'

Hakkinen's talking is as straight and uncomplicated as his driving. He and Damon Hill, of Williams, appear the men most likely to give another 25-year-old, Benetton- Ford's Michael Schumacher, a fight along the road to the championship. 'It will be difficult to stop Schumacher in the championship, but in some races it will be close,' Hakkinen said. 'Damon probably has the best chance of catching him, and you never know. But we will win a race this year, definitely. Perhaps it will be this weekend.'

Despite the competition from the new generation, Hakkinen speaks with pride of the 'togetherness' the drivers have accomplished in the wake of recent tragedies and that, he contends, will enhance the quality of the racing.

'These events have brought the drivers closer and now we have more understanding and respect for each other,' he explained. 'You get to know the other guys and when you know them, you know how to race them, so the racing is closer and safer.

'When I came into Formula One, in 1991, top drivers thought they were gods, heroes. They were spoiled, they were paid so much. They seemed afraid to communicate with the young drivers. All except Ayrton Senna. He shook hands with me, welcomed me and wished me well in my career.'

Hakkinen received worldwide condemnation for his apparently insensitive celebration and comments after the San Marino Grand Prix, the race which claimed Senna's life. The criticism still hurts and he takes the opportunity to put the record straight.

'The things that were said about me made me angry,' he said. 'I did not know how serious the situation was and you have to concentrate so much on your own job it is difficult to take in anything else.'

Schumacher remains the championship favourite, despite Hill's victory in Spain, where the German salvaged a remarkable second place with the use of only fifth gear. Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, said: 'If Schumacher really did have only one gear we might as well all pack in now.'

Williams' endeavours to bring back Mansell are testimony to the fact that they haven't yet thrown in the towel. Even if the drivers' title eludes them this time, the constructors' crown is within reach and a combination of Mansell and Hill ought to threaten Benetton's ambitions. Before that, the drivers have to satisfy themselves that a chicane, introduced following an inspection of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, out on Ile Notre Dame, by Hakkinen's team-mate, Martin Brundle, meets their safety requirements.