Motor racing: McLaren set for another fast start

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The Independent Online
IF YOU thought that Mika Hakkinen was in good form last year, watch out for him even more closely in 1999. That was the warning that McLaren's chief, Ron Dennis, issued to rivals yesterday as the Formula One circus limbered up for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne's Albert Park.

Across the room Hakkinen looked every inch a world champion, basking in his usual shy but cheerful manner in the glory befitting a man who, a year ago, had but one grand prix victory to his credit and is now King of the World. The 30-year-old Finn is now a thoroughly seasoned campaigner and a fulfilled man. Last year brought him both a championship crown and the stability of marriage. "Sure, life has been good for me lately," he said. "And of course I will be doing everything I can to win again this season. I don't see why I shouldn't. The new car is very good and we know it is a step ahead from last year's. I'm feeling very confident." It showed.

"Mika will be stronger than ever with the world championship under his belt," Dennis said. "He is a happier person and he is one of those racers who's always stronger when their confidence and competitiveness have been raised."

Hakkinen and his team-mate, David Coulthard, stormed away from the field in the Australian Grand Prix 12 months ago and set the tone for the British team's domination of a season in which only Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari could challenge them. But they were dogged by the controversial team orders that obliged Coulthard to hand over the lead after Hakkinen had lost it by mishearing a radio order and driving into the pit lane to find that nobody was expecting him. By honouring a pre-race agreement and surrendering the lead without demur, Coulthard brought upon his own head the wrath of thousands of betting fans who felt they had been cheated out of his victory.

Coulthard smiled tolerantly when reminded of the controversy. "People were actually sending me their betting slips after that," he joked. "A lot of them seemed to understand that it wasn't my fault which I was grateful for. But a lot of them wanted me to send the slips on to Ron with some quite inventive and colourful instructions as to what he should do with them."

Coulthard knows that 1999 will be his crunch year. Like Hakkinen, he too looked confident but he usually does, even when the cards are falling as badly as they did at times in a season when he often matched Hakkinen's pace but failed to go the distance. He won the San Marino Grand Prix but his car wilted in Monaco, Montreal and Monza when further successes seemed imminent.

"I believe that I'm as quick as Mika," Coulthard said. "But all through the winter, I've been working at my consistency. That was what suffered at times last season and it really hurt my chances. It was not always down to me, sometimes it was the car that was unreliable. But I know if things work out for me that I can win the title this year. Right from the start, I'll be pushing as hard as I can."

"It's time," Jackie Stewart has said, "for David to be less of a nice guy and more of an uncompromising hard charger."

It is easy to look back now and suggest that if Schumacher had not driven into the back of the troubled Coulthard while lapping him in appalling weather conditions during the Belgian Grand Prix that was subsequently won for Jordan by Damon Hill, he could have been crowned Ferrari's first Champion since Jody Scheckter in 1979. But McLaren have the upper hand and only seem fallible through the occasional lapse in reliability. Ferrari is seizing on that once again after stories that the latest McLaren has thus far proved capricious - it lasted less than a lap on its testing debut in Spain when a fault in the electronics brought Coulthard to a halt. But yesterday Dennis exuded confidence. "It's true that we prepared last year's cars as well but that was only because we had spare capacity at the factory," he said. "Like any new car, MP4/14 had its share of teething problems but we are confident that we have the car fully optimised and have committed to it here because we believe that it's fundamentally faster." Rivals be warned.

The odds favour a repeat of McLaren's one-two result in 1998 and, who knows, Coulthard may yet get his payback. But after all the fuss last year, Albert Park must be the last place McLaren would dare to fix that.

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