Hakkinen happy to spread a little joy

It must end in tears for somebody but not, Mika Hakkinen suggests, for him this time. The Finn carries confidence as well as the pace of Formula One's best car into Sunday's Italian Grand Prix here, sensing he could inflict on the home cause a potentially decisive blow.

It must end in tears for somebody but not, Mika Hakkinen suggests, for him this time. The Finn carries confidence as well as the pace of Formula One's best car into Sunday's Italian Grand Prix here, sensing he could inflict on the home cause a potentially decisive blow.

Hakkinen, the McLaren-Mercedes driver, leads Ferrari's Michael Schumacher by six points on a circuit that served to open up the championship 12 months ago. With Schumacher nursing a broken leg, it was left to his team-mate, Eddie Irvine, to take up the Ferrari standard and he left here still hopeful of title success after Hakkinen threw away the lead and the race when he spun off at the first corner. The torment was more than Hakkinen could bear and he slumped to his haunches and wept.

He is comforted by the changes to that chicane, creating a possible overtaking area, yet still more so by his audacious manoeuvre to beat Schumacher at the Belgian Grand Prix, 12 days ago. And that after he had the door slammed in his face at 200mph by the uncompromising German.

"I am happy they have changed that corner," Hakkinen, the unlikely comedian, grinned. Reverting to a more familiar countenance, he went on: "It's good to come here. Last year was something different and strange, and I hope I don't experience the same thing again. I am feeling confident this time."

Hakkinen's personality and strength of character are debated as much as his true ability. Although he is within four races of a third consecutive drivers' title it is acknowledged he has a distinct car advantage and that Schumacher remains the pre-eminent driver.

That perception is challenged by Hakkinen's manager, the 1982 world champion, Keke Rosberg. "Mika was branded a wimp last year, but I don't think anyone could accuse him of that this time around," Rosberg said. "He showed at Spa he is not a soft touch.

"He is a lot tougher than most people realise. He has incredible mental powers. But he is not big at selling himself. His weakness is not being able to put his true character across properly. He does not brag about his ability. Just because he doesn't have a sign on his head saying 'watch out, I am tough' doesn't mean to say he doesn't have what it takes.

"I believe Mika is now better than [Schumacher]. I know I'm biased but he is the all-round package. He has the speed and makes fewer mistakes. He will always fight hard but fair and he refuses to be intimidated. He's proved he can win races by being a gentleman. He maintains the ethics the drivers had in my day.

"The McLaren may be the best car but Mika has helped develop it. It's up to Schumacher to help his team make their car go better."

Schumacher remains, for public consumption at least, defiant in the face of Hakkinen's seemingly irresistible resurgence. "It is an important race for us, but even after it the championship is not finished. "

Jaguar have confirmed that the 25-year-old Brazilian, Luciano Burti, is to replace Johnny Herbert as partner to Irvine next season. Burti has graduated from test driving duty on the strength of his consistent performances and impressive showing when he stood in for Irvine at short notice for the Austrian Grand Prix.

Sparring on the track may be the main event but exchanges at boardroom level continue to run as a side show on the Formula One tour. Max Mosley, the president of FIA, the sport's governing body, has responded to rumblings of discontent about his powers by playing the malcontents at their own game.

Mosley has written to the teams informing them that Frank Williams and McLaren's principal, Ron Dennis, are agitating against him. He counters by stating Dennis does not appreciate what his position entails and that if he is so dissatisfied he should consider organising his own championship. This latest episode of the high-octane Coronation Street is likely to merely reinforce Mosley's position and he has announced his intention to stand for re-election next year.

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