Hakkinen acquires greatness in one move

Belgian Grand Prix: Finn produces 'best ever manoeuvre' to pass Schumacher and secure victory that puts third successive world title in sight
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The Independent Online

Formula One has grudgingly acknowledged Mika Hakkinen as world champion these past two years but now, perhaps, he will be recognised as a driver worthy of a place in the pantheon of the sport's heroes.

Formula One has grudgingly acknowledged Mika Hakkinen as world champion these past two years but now, perhaps, he will be recognised as a driver worthy of a place in the pantheon of the sport's heroes.

The Finn's image has been forged by statistics rather than the courage and flamboyance of his driving, the gauge of a genuine people's champion. Until yesterday. Hakkinen's wondrous overtaking manoeuvre to suppress Michael Schumacher and win the Belgian Grand Prix have assured him of a new, exhorted status that even a third consecutive world championship will not enhance.

Schumacher sets the standards for them all and here, on the most awesome circuit of the all, the German attempted to regain the lead in the championship with characteristic aggression. Some, yet again, would say he was over aggressive in his ultimately vain defiance of the palpable quicker McLaren-Mercedes.

However, Hakkinen retained his nerve and determination to improvise with an extraordinary pass at more than 200mph, three laps from the end, which settled the race and had the McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis, acclaiming it as "the best ever manoeuvre in grand prix racing".

A lap after the Ferrari blocked the McLaren's path and the two cars brushed, both drivers braced themselves for another duel on the long climb out of Eau Rouge. This time they had a back marker, Ricardo Zonta, between them and the next corner.

Schumacher felt the presence of the BAR-Honda would help him fend off Hakkinen again and moved to the left of the Brazilian's car. But, to the surprise of Schumacher and the alarm of Zonta, Hakkinen thrust his McLaren to the right side of the road. Hakkinen came out ahead of both the other cars and held his lead into the rapidly approaching chicane. Once he had negotiated that he, and Schumacher, knew the race was over.

It is too early to say the championship is over also. With four races to go anything can happen. And yet there was scant conviction in Schumacher's voice. He is six points behind Hakkinen and more importantly his familiar adversary has struck a potentially devastating psychological blow here.

McLaren's other driver, David Coulthard, could manage no better than fourth place, behind Ralf Schumacher, in a Williams-BMW, after losing precious time in the confusion of the pit-stops as the track dried. Jenson Button, the 20-year-old British driver, was fifth in the other Williams and Heinz-Harald Frentzen claimed the final point for Jordan-Mugen-Honda.

Hakkinen, holding on to pole position after starting behind the safety car, yielded his advantage to Schumacher senior when he spun off a wet kerb on the 13th lap. Schumacher built a seemingly commanding lead but after his scheduled pit-stop he found Hakkinen on his tail.

Schumacher had used the wet side of the track to help cool his tyres but had no time for such thoughts as Hakkinen attacked on lap 40. Schumacher inched across and Hakkinen narrowly averted a potentially serious collision. Next time round he took Schumacher and the manner of his triumph made it all the more satisfying.

Hakkinen said: "It was incredible, and very difficult. I knew Michael was not going to give me much room and when I tried to overtake him the first time his car was too wide so I had to go plan B. Being behind the back-marker gave me an extra tow. Michael went left and lost his tow so I had more momentum and went inside Zonta.

"What happened on the previous lap was something weird but at the moment I am cool. I am not sure if we touched but my car moved violently. In situations like this emotions can be high and you can react without thinking. So it's better to look at the video in slow motion and understand what happened before saying any more."

Hakkinen and Schumacher were locked in earnest discussion at the end of the race and the Finn's hand movements suggested he was re-enacting the earlier attempt to overtake. Neither driver would reveal what was said but Schumacher defended his action.

The German said: "I moved from left to right but I honestly thought the move was okay. As Mika says, you have to look at the video to be say if it is any different. I tried my best but it was not enough. When Mika got me it was an outstanding manoeuvre and not one I expected. But I got six points and the championship is still alive."

Zonta, the man caught in the middle of the decisive manoeuvre, said: "I was at full speed and didn't know there were two cars behind me. I moved over for Michael and fortunately didn't move too far to the right because suddenly a McLaren was there and it shot passed me. It was a bit dangerous but an incredible move."

Dennis's admiration of Hakkinen was tempered by his transparent disapproval of Schumacher's driving tactics. Dennis said: "It was the best ever manoeuvre in grand prix racing. Mika was on the wet part of the track and it required commitment and bravery. He also had to keep the right line to the first corner. But I thought what happened on the lap before was on the limit. To say anything else is inappropriate. Others may go further but I'm not going to get involved in a war of words. At the same time I am not going to ignore it."

Dennis made no attempt to ignore the delay that cost Coulthard any chance of third place. Instead of bringing in both cars together the Scot had to make another lap of the circuit. Dennis said: "It's difficult in a situation like that because you can lose time changing the fuel nozzle. With hindsight we can say it was the wrong decision. But I'd be surprised if any analysis showed David would have finished better than third."

Coulthard said: "I've not benefited from any of these calls. I don't think it's deliberate action but it's left me with fewer points than I should have. It's clear as day it would have been better for me to come in with Mika."

Jaguar's Johnny Herbert was eighth and his team-mate, Eddie Irvine, 10th.