Motor racing: Signs of hope for the forgotten Mika

Formula One's also-rans are becoming contenders as the second flying Finn realises his talent.
AS public humiliations go the world-wide television coverage of both all-black TWR Arrows cars rolling to a halt at precisely the same time in the Spanish Grand Prix earlier this month is as excruciating as it gets.

The pictures of Mika Salo and Pedro Diniz falling victim to synchronised engine failure were an agonising and absolute low-point for the team. But a fortnight later those same cars, with in-house engines developed by the talented lone wolf Brian Hart, finished fourth and sixth in the Monaco Grand Prix. Arrows were the only team to bring both cars home in the points.

Monaco gave Salo an all too rare opportunity to exhibit to a wide audience a talent which many believe to be the equal of Formula One's other Mika - the race winner and world championship leader Mika Hakkinen. Eight years ago they fought a gripping duel for the British Formula Three title. Victory catapulted Hakkinen towards the revitalised Lotus team and Formula One, but Salo slid towards obscurity racing in Japan until he was rescued in 1994 by Peter Collins, Hakkinen's mentor. His debut for Lotus in the Japanese Grand Prix that year made it clear that he too belonged at the top level. Since then both have struggled, but where Hakkinen has now struck a long-prospected seam of gold at McLaren, Salo, 31, is still waiting patiently for the right opportunity.

"I am really very happy with the team for having two cars finish in the points, they really deserve it, " said the Finn, who, like Hakkinen, hails from Helsinki. "I'm especially proud that this is my best result in Formula One, but if we hadn't had problems in qualifying I'm sure I would have ended up on the podium."

Last year the then world champion Damon Hill enjoyed an outwardly satisfactory relationship with the Arrows chief, Tom Walkinshaw, but the hungry Salo seems much more the blunt Scot's type. They both know that they need one another.

Monaco was Arrows' 311th race. They were created in 1978, when the former drivers Jackie Oliver and Alan Rees became disaffected with the Shadow team, and now they take the credit for F1's longest-running spell of mediocrity. The closest they have come to reaching the chequered flag first was Hill's extraordinary performance in Hungary last year, when a ten-cent failure robbed him of victory on the penultimate lap. Before that, the Belgian Thierry Boutsen had trickled feebly over the line third at Imola in 1985, out of fuel, and was subsequently elevated to second place when Alain Prost was excluded. It is hard to believe that Riccardo Patrese had been walking away with the team's second race until his overstressed engine failed.

The key to Danka Zepter Arrows' future lies in the takeover engineered by Walkinshaw in 1996. "Tom is the head of a successful international engineering team," Hill said when justifying his high-dollar deal for 1997. "Everything this man does and touches becomes a winner." But not yet in Formula One. The mountain has yet to be climbed.

Walkinshaw built his empire on hard graft and makes high demands of his employees. The former F1 driver Derek Warwick tells of how Walkinshaw sent the company plane to Jersey to fly him to TWR's headquarters in Kidlington the day he signed for his Jaguar sportscar team. "Once we'd done the deal I asked Tom when the plane would fly me back," Warwick recalled. "He looked at me and said: 'You work for me now, you can make your own travel arrangements for getting home.'"

The decision to run Bridgestone tyres last year was typical of Walkinshaw's willingness to gamble and swim against F1's Goodyear tide. Back then he said: "I think you have to evaluate the potential of things and then take a decision, and I value the potential of Bridgestone. It's enormous. We've worked with them for 10 years on road tyres and in touring car racing in Australia, so we are familiar with their engineering people and their capabilities. I don't think it's a big risk and I think there's big potential in it."

Events have proved him correct. Hiring the top-flight designer John Barnard was further evidence of his ambition. In the past Walkinshaw has won in every category in which his team have competed, with two Le Mans wins and the World Sportscar Championship with the Silk Cut Jaguars standing as the high points. As engineering director at Benetton he strongly influenced Michael Schumacher's world championships. But he knows that success in F1 these days is as tough as a moon shot.

Oliver, a man frequently accused of making the most out of the least in terms of Arrows' past results, said in Monaco: "It's hard to believe what we have achieved here, of all places. It couldn't have come at a better place. The way that Formula One is these days - you have to get results. But getting them has never been harder."