Motor Racing: The good guy versus the bully

Derick Allsop talks to world championship leader Mika Hakkinen about the mind games he must face before Sunday's deciding race
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The Independent Online
THE RACE will come as a relief, much as the heart will be pounding an excruciating beat, as the lights go out and send them on their way.

From there on in it becomes a sport and Mika Hakkinen will be in his natural environment, content to stand or fall on his driving skills.

For Hakkinen the hard part will be the ritual sparring that will inevitably fill the time between now and Sunday's decisive Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

His rival for the Formula One world championship, Michael Schumacher, will take every opportunity over the next five days to exert psychological pressure and the German, as in most aspects of the business, is a master practitioner.

Schumacher requires all the leverage he can muster. He goes into the final round of the season trailing Hakkinen by four points, the difference between first and second places.

First place in this race, however, would not be enough for Schumacher if Hakkinen finished second. The 30-year-old Finn would be champion on second-place countback.

Schumacher needs his team-mate at Ferrari, Eddie Irvine, to relegate the McLaren-Mercedes driver to third.

Hakkinen has had the benefit of the superior car all season, but only in the last race, the Luxembourg Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, did he earn universal endorsement as a worthy champion in waiting. His emphatic victory, after Schumacher and Irvine had occupied the front row of the grid, inflicted a devastating blow on the Ferrari camp.

The five-week delay to the concluding act in this absorbing saga, enforced by the cancellation of the Portuguese Grand Prix, has proved a welcome time-out for Ferrari, but a source of gnawing frustration for Hakkinen.

His team were in celebratory mood after the Nurburgring success. Ferrari were on their knees, there for the taking, but since then the Italian team have regrouped and invested heavily in a test and development programme.

McLaren's testing has been hugely impressive, but then they could make scant improvement. They had already achieved near-perfection.

And so Hakkinen has had to endure the waiting and the relentless inquisition. Little wonder that he was evasive, almost furtive, during the team's final test at Silverstone. How he would prefer a low-key run-in to Sunday.

Instead he has had to take a promotional detour through China en route to Japan and will be exposed to intense scrutiny for the rest of the week. He will not find that easy.

He has been required to mould a persona for public consumption and will make a great effort to appear relaxed and confident. Much of what is seen will be a show.

He remains acutely self-conscious about his visual clumsiness, his limited command of English and his crooked smile, a legacy of his serious accident in practice for the Australian Grand Prix three years ago, and his discomfort will be discernible. And yet he has, through his magnanimity in victory and his graciousness in defeat, earned the popular vote.

He is perceived as decent and honourable, sporting and law-abiding; the good guy confronting the perennial bully in Schumacher.

More importantly to Hakkinen, he feels he is in this position on merit - that his performance at the Nurburgring should have dispelled for ever the notion that he lacks the nerve to resist Schumacher.

"I think that win answered a lot of critics who said that I could not win under pressure," he said.

"There is always pressure and of course there are all sorts of anxieties about any race. But I fear nothing about this race. Fear is a negative emotion. I am preparing for this race in exactly the same way as for any other race. Why should we change a winning formula? If we treat this race as something different, that is when mistakes are likely to happen.

"I will be doing my best to win it, just like the other 15 races that we have had this season. If I do that job well, then the success will follow."

Since second place would suffice on Sunday, Hakkinen might be forgiven a cautious approach, concentrating on eliminating Irvine from the equation. He can, of course, amend his strategy during the course of the grand prix, but is conscious that any pre-race thoughts of compromise could have dire consequences. "You should always go into a race to give maximum," he said. "You cannot afford to think of playing safe."

But for Schumacher it is doubtful that Hakkinen would have faced any last race threat and that Formula One would have had a spectacle to sell this past season. The competition has brought the best out of Hakkinen, even if he admits that he would have appreciated a quieter life.

"I cannot say this season has been stressful, although it has been tough. Winning is everything and gives you such a great feeling inside that you forget all the stress.

"I just wish that Michael was not so damn quick! I would have had an easier season without him. He is one hell of a racer. He is a great driver with a great talent in the car and the way he works with his team.

"His character is such that some people like him and others do not. Nobody is perfect. Racing with him for the championship, my first thought was that I wished I had been competing against someone not so quick, although of course that is not the way it works. Certainly racing with Michael this year has been extremely fair."

The spectre of controversial races past hangs over this Grand Prix. Schumacher has been involved in two previous last-round deciders - with Damon Hill in 1994 and with Jacques Villeneuve last year. Collisions and recriminations ensued.

Hakkinen anticipates no foul play this time - from either protagonist.

"I am not worried that sort of thing will happen," he said. "I think there is a lot of mutual respect between me and Michael. I hope that we will have a fair fight on the track. In any case, this year I have a four- point lead and so it would be a big risk if Michael tried anything because if we both retired from the race then I would have the most points. I certainly would not be tempted to push him off the track. Absolutely not. That is not my style. I have never done anything like that and I never will."

On that point at least, few can doubt that he will be as good as his word.