Mika Hakkinen's smile has always dawned with the inscrutable warmth of a bright spring morning. Yesterday, for once in a season of despair, the Finn had a reason to be cheerful, but it was not finding himself back on the front row alongside Michael Schumacher, his faithful old adversary, which made the face flicker almost imperceptibly.
The question was a familiar one, a variation on a rumbling theme and replete with implication. Would the former world champion pull over to allow David Coulthard to further his claims for the championship in the event of the McLarens running one-two at Silverstone this afternoon? Hakkinen stalled, not for the first time this season, referring the inquisitor to his answer of the day before like the Prime Minister at Question Time. Instead, Coulthard was asked what expectations he had of his team-mate. "I'm as curious as everyone else to see what happens," the Scot said. The code-breakers at Bletchley Park would have been hard-pressed to interpret the minutest of twitches at the corner of Hakkinen's mouth.
"Well," he added, "I've never won a British Grand Prix and I'd like to win it." Make of that what you will. The smart money is on Hakkinen looking after number one and Coulthard being consigned to the role of faithful retainer which he has played with such good grace for so long. This is a world, after all, where one good turn generally deserves a kick in the teeth. Either way, the prospect of Ron Dennis, always regarded as a Hakkinen man, having to invoke team orders is one which will be relished in the press area, not least because persistent criticism by the McLaren boss of Ferrari's team tactics has smacked of hypocrisy.
Yet there is hope for Coulthard's chance of matching the record of three consecutive home grand prix victories set by Jim Clark. Had his team-mate been Michael Schumacher, the question would have been utterly academic, but not so for Hakkinen, whose seam of ambition has always included a visible streak of decency. Hakkinen, on the spur of the moment, might just consider a noble gesture. Schumacher never.
"I believe in Mika's integrity," Coulthard added in a scarcely veiled attempt to crank up the moral pressure. "If he is given the instruction to move over, I believe he will do it. I don't expect out of the kindness of his heart he will move over because I wouldn't. I need to be in front of Michael. If not, it really is a big, high wall to climb. He will have certainly put the roof on if he wins again here.
"I believe the team know what the right thing to do is in terms of maximising their chances of winning. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to work it out. But a lot can happen; if we have problems with the car it might not be an issue. I think it is just logical that if you are going for a championship and one guy has a chance and the other doesn't then it's a logical act for the team to do. It's not a charity we're running here, it's a business. There's no point talking about a situation that may not arise. "
The more pertinent question for Formula One's long-term plotline is whether Hakkinen's downward slide is now unstoppable. Another question probed the sensitive spot, requiring Hakkinen to search for a precise interpretation.
"Oh right," he said finally, repeating the word very deliberately as if hearing it for the very first time. "Motivation." He replied with his own supplementary questions to himself. "Was there something different there today from other days? No. You look at the last grand prix, was there more performance and more motivation? Today was the same. It just feels that today we got things right. The car was good and very enjoyable to drive."
Hakkinen certainly looked pleased to be back, even if his drive for pole was dashed by a familiar foe. This season has strayed beyond mere ill fortune for the two times world champion and entered the realm of embarrassment. Just once on the podium, in Canada, just nine points in total; even worse, the one glimpse of his old dominance ended with a broken clutch on the final lap of the Austrian Grand Prix and lingering chances of a challenge to Michael Schumacher dumped with the temperamental McLaren on the side of the track. At times, just getting their cars through the startline traffic lights seemed the height of ambition for the McLarens and one can only guess at the words of recrimination which accompanied their No 1 driver's humiliating fall from power.
The problem for outsiders is that, even in his pomp, no one truly understood what drives the Finn. Though those who know him well talk of his more relaxed demeanour, point to his stable home life, his beautiful wife and the birth of his first child, Hugo, and hint at retirement, Hakkinen has emphatically denied he will be bowing out at the end of this season. "My main objective is to win races and this is what I shall be focusing on at Silverstone," he said, which sounded much like the same old Hakkinen.
Yesterday, he drove like the same old Hakkinen too, hurling his McLaren-Mercedes round a drying Silverstone, leading the chase for pole with a time of 1:20.897 on his fifth lap and improving on that with his final flying lap. Not enough to oust Schumacher, but a suitable reminder to his critics that duels between old gunfighters are usually the best.
Schumacher has proved an unexpected ally to Hakkinen in recent days and both men will be comfortable in each other's company at the head of the grid this afternoon. Rather Mika than Ralf, for sure. Hakkinen might yet reflect on the 2001 British Grand Prix as the race which transformed his mood, if not his season. And for that reason alone victory is as important to him as it is for the hard-charging Coulthard.Reuse content