Motor racing: Patience pays off for Salo

David Tremayne says a refusal to be an also-ran has brought reward
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The Independent Online
IF ANY one man was entitled to rejoice in Mika Salo's performance in finishing second for Ferrari in last weekend's German Grand Prix at Hockenheim - and let's face it, there were many who might lay such claim - it was someone who at present has no connections to the frenetic world of Formula One.

The race winner, Eddie Irvine, could not wait to tell the world what a great team-mate he had, after the Finn had gifted him a victory that moved Irvine ahead of Mika Hakkinen in the World Championship. Ferrari's sporting director, Jean Todt, praised the supportive game Salo had played. Salo's manager, Mike Greasley, smiled cheerfully as his driver finally produced the performance he had always known to be within his capability.

But for Peter Collins, Salo's run was more poignant. As Team Lotus sank quietly at the end of 1994, and administrators sold off Johnny Herbert to Ligier, Collins was the man who plucked Salo from the obscurity of the Japanese F3000. His eye for talent had already helped Nigel Mansell, Herbert and Alex Zanardi, and now Salo got his chance at the Japanese GP at Suzuka in which Damon Hill famously beat Michael Schumacher to prolong their title fight. Understandably hidden in all the hoopla surrounding the battle, Salo's masterly performance went almost unnoticed. Yet it was unmistakably the drive of a potential champion.

"Back then Mika seemed like one of those untapped talents," Collins said last week. "I believed that he had the style, speed and hunger to get the job done."

Yet recently even Collins was prompted to question whether he was still hungry enough. From 1995 to 1997 he drove uncompetitive cars for Tyrrell, before switching to Arrows in 1998. Salo left voluntarily at the end of that year, preferring to sit on the subs' bench rather than trog round at the back. His performances as stand-in at BAR were not earth-shattering. "I'm not sure," Collins said at the time, "whether Mika still wants it badly enough."

When Damon Hill appeared likely to quit after the British GP last month, Salo was not in the frame at Jordan. Instead, they opted to test Jos Verstappen. But when Michael Schumacher broke his leg at Silverstone, Todt knew just whom to call up.

Salo looked good all weekend in Germany, outqualifying a troubled Irvine and running ahead of him in second place until Hakkinen's spectacular accident handed him the lead. But once Ferrari's principal opposition had eliminated itself, Salo knew what to expect and duly moved over to let Irvine by just as Irvine himself has often had to make way for Schumacher. Salo was the moral victor, but second place was still by a long way the best result in the 71 races in which he had previously participated.

"What a star Mika was," Irvine said as they celebrated Ferrari's unexpected one-two. "I'm going to give him the trophy because it was his race today, really - he was ahead of me after the stops, after all. I would feel bad if it were sitting on my mantelpiece instead of his. He is a boy wonder and did an absolutely incredible job."

For Salo, Hockenheim provided the chance to remind the forgetful what he can do. He said that racing for Ferrari was like being on another planet. He'll be back on the subs' bench just as soon as Michael Schumacher returns.

But he is a hot property again. The German GP was a showcase for the man who fought Hakkinen right down to the wire for the British F3 title in 1990. And though their careers have since diverged dramatically, fate has once again thrown him a lifeline to prolong the rivalry.