Motor racing: Protest fails to overturn Hakkinen's victory

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The Independent Online
MIKA HAKKINEN'S victory in the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday will stand - though the "pre-arranged" finish with his McLaren-Mercedes team- mate, David Coulthard, which let him in for victory, may be outlawed later this month.

The FIA, Formula One's governing body, turned down a protest from the Australian organisers yesterday, but said the practice of a gentleman's agreement could be banned when the World Motor Council meets on 18 March.

"Team orders specifying the finishing order of drivers within a team have existed in motor sport since the beginning of the century," the FIA said in a statement. "It would therefore not be right to criticise or sanction McLaren for what it did."

The real problem, though, is that Ron Dennis, the managing director of McLaren, must know that he has it within his power to make or break the Formula One world championship as a viable contest.

First races can be misleading, because not all the teams, even bigger ones, are totally prepared. Conventional wisdom maintains that the championship proper begins when they arrive in Europe for the fourth round, the San Marino Grand Prix.

This year, however, it appears improbable that any team will be able to make sufficient progress to threaten McLaren's obvious superiority. They lapped the rest without extending themselves in Melbourne, raising the prospect of a whitewash that eluded them by just one race out of 16 in 1988.

The redeeming feature of that year was the magnificent duel by the McLaren drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the former eventually shading it eight wins to seven. Formula One now turns to Coulthard and Hakkinen to save this year.

Team arrangements are nothing new in motor racing and McLaren were involved in controversy at the final race of last season when Williams' Jacques Villeneuve, assured of the title, allowed Hakkinen and Coulthard to pass him in the closing stages.

At Melbourne the co-operation was purely inhouse. McLaren were confident they had a performance advantage over their opponents, but were uncertain of their reliability and so accommodated their drivers' agreement that whoever made it to the first corner in front would be granted victory.

Formula One is a team game and that made sound team sense, but it is also a public spectacle for which trackside customers and television companies around the world pay substantial sums.

Coulthard's extravagant gesture in slowing down for Hakkinen, who found himself trailing after a mix-up over a pitstop, two laps from the end of the race, understandably irked the huge crowd and the organisers.

FIA may not welcome Coulthard's words in anticipation of a comfortable victory at the next race in Brazil.

"I am expecting to be repaid. I could have won the opening race, but hopefully we will put this to bed after the next race and carry on from there," he said. "After two races we should be on an even keel, so there won't be a points disadvantage."

Dennis contends his no risk policy is justified for another race, but maybe persuaded otherwise. At the very least, he is likely to make sure any "arrangement" is not as blatant.

During the build-up to the season Dennis talked of his relishing the prospect of having two drivers battling for the title, as with Senna and Prost, and with Prost and Niki Lauda at McLaren in the mid Eighties.

Some teams defend control of their drivers on the grounds that rivalry can become overheated, as it did between Senna and Prost, or self destructive, as between the Williams pair, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, in 1986.

And yet this has to be seen to be a race, otherwise it has no credibility and ultimately will have no appeal. After all, Mansell's overtaking manoeuvre against Piquet in the 1986 British Grand Prix remains one of Formula One's most thrilling moments.

Coulthard and Hakkinen are well matched and capable of giving us a similarly compelling championship this yeear that would cover McLaren and Formula One in glory.

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