Dennis says track protestor cost Hakkinen victory

The head of McLaren Mercedes, Ron Dennis, angrily insisted that the man who had crossed the track midway through yesterday's grand prix at Hockenheim in protest at his dismissal by the Germanengine suppliers had cost the team victory.

The head of McLaren Mercedes, Ron Dennis, angrily insisted that the man who had crossed the track midway through yesterday's grand prix at Hockenheim in protest at his dismissal by the Germanengine suppliers had cost the team victory.

The world champion, Mika Hakkinen, was leading at the time, but had to settle for second place behind Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello. "We had flexibility in our strategy but not enough to accommodate the deranged spectator wandering on the circuit, not only costing us the race but also endangering his and the lives of the drivers," Dennis said.

The safety car had to be deployed on the 25th lap after the man, who had cut his way through a fence, ran across the track in the middle of a straight where cars reach speeds in excess of 220mph.

The man then wandered along the grass next to the track. Police said he was a 47-year-old Frenchman who had worked for Mercedes-Benz, McLaren's Formula One partners, for 22 years before being dismissed for health reasons.

The Hockenheim promoters confirmed a report by German television which said the man had tried to get onto the track 15 seconds before the formation lap but had not been arrested at the time.

"It's a scandal," the Mercedes-Benz sporting director, Norbert Haug, said. "I can't understand why he wasn't rounded up by police in the first place. It was a big mistake."

The man, whose identity was not disclosed, was wearing a white plastic cape with his protest written on it. "Mercedes-Benz, who were aware of my health problems, offered me a job which I could not take and dismissed me for physical ineptitude after 20 years," it read.

The intruder was escorted away by police and remanded in custody. The company running the track, Hockenheim GmbH, said it had brought a charge against him for trespassing, but could now face sanctions for the way they handled the incident. The company has a contract to stage the race at Hockenheim until 2001, but faces competition from other circuits beyond that. Public prosecutors in the nearby city of Mannheim will decide today whether to take legal action against the man.

"You have to guarantee safety for a grand prix and that wasn't done," said the three-times world champion, Niki Lauda, at the race as a consultant for a German TV channel. "I've never seen anything like it."

"It was obviously very, very dangerous," the Ferrari technical director, Ross Brawn, said. "The trouble is the public do have access, particularly at a place like this because it is in the forest. That should never be allowed to happen again."

"I saw him," said the eventual winner, Barrichello, of the protestor. "I wasn't worried for me, but for him. I was afraid he might get killed."

The chances of Barrichello's fellow Brazilian, Ricardo Zonta, staying at British American Racing next season receded further yesterday when Jacques Villeneuve said he had little respect for his team-mate after the two drivers tangled on lap 34 in an incident that ensured neither ended up with any points.

"There was an incident with my team-mate and I have to say that I don't have much respect for him as a result," the 1997 world champion said. "Ricardo's mistake cost us fifth and sixth positions and the team three points."

Zonta, who shunted Ferrari's championship leader, Michael Schumacher, out of the previous race in Austria at the first bend, said he was sorry for what had happened.

"He gave me space but not quite enough and I touched the kerb as a result. It was slippery, the car slid back out a little and my front wheel clipped his rear wheel, causing him to spin," the Brazilian said.

Zonta also collected a 10second penalty before he later locked his brakes and slid off the track on lap 38.

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