Hakkinen the best of the rest

Finn produces a vintage drive in a non-vintage season as Irishman is left chasing his dream
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The Independent Online

When the moment came, one man was up to it, the other was not. At the end of a season characterised by blunders and the bizarre, the tried and usually trusted prevailed.

When the moment came, one man was up to it, the other was not. At the end of a season characterised by blunders and the bizarre, the tried and usually trusted prevailed.

Eddie Irvine's resigned countenance was as revealing as the relief evident in Mika Hakkinen's every word, expression and gesture. The Ulsterman had not done enough to merit the championship and he knew it. The Finn had ultimately done enough but knew he had been let off the hook.

Alongside them on the rostrum stood Michael Schumacher, second in the race, nowhere in the final analysis because of his accident at Silverstone. And yet his late intervention in proceedings provided a sobering reminder to the title protagonists that it might have been a very different closing act.

Irvine was fortunate merely to be in this position, aiming for motor racing's greatest prize. A dutiful and often effective No 2 to Schumacher at Ferrari, his limitations were exposed when the German returned for the last two rounds.

There will be mutterings in the Irvine camp that Schumacher let him down by not pursuing Hakkinen more earnestly, but the reality is that Irvine did not have the pace to chase his own dream.

Hakkinen had no significant help from his McLaren-Mercedes team- mate David Coulthard, and did not require it. All he asked was a quick and reliable car, and efficient pit work. The team obliged and Hakkinen delivered.

The emotional turmoil of recent weeks had palpably drained Hakkinen, and he made no attempt to conceal his anxieties. He talked of the difficulties he and the team had experienced this year. It had been nerve racking (or did he actually say nerve cracking?) and didn't recommend it. He hoped that was the last of such tension.

His has not been the year of a champion and yet in the decisive race he produced the drive of a champion. For that alone, he is more deserving of the crown than Irvine is.

The shadow of Schumacher falls on all of them and perhaps next year he will have the opportunity to fulfil his declared destiny with Ferrari, but Hakkinen has just about proved he is still the best of the rest.

By the same token, Ferrari merit the constructors' award. Despite their occasional lapses, they have been more consistent than McLaren and were deprived of Schumacher's incomparable talent and input for six of the 16 races.

McLaren's vulnerability, as much as Ferrari's tactical excellence and reliability, and a dodgy court ruling, shaped the season and cornered Hakkinen into another Japanese shoot-out. Schumacher's broken leg ought to have sealed it for Hakkinen. Instead McLaren ran into a series of mishaps, Coulthard ran into his partner, and the defending champion ran himself aground. Hakkinen's second Italian error, at Monza, and subsequent weep in the woods suggested he was crumbling under the pressure.

The suspicion was reinforced by his meek performance at the Nürburgring and his capitulation in Malaysia. Many suspected the overturning of Ferrari's disqualification in that race would finish him. Far from it. Victory was his only certain and realistic option for retaining the championship and he had the nerve to reach out for it.

There is little doubt he has had the best car for the past two years, but so has Coulthard and the Scot has fallen way short of championship standard. Hakkinen is the seventh driver to have achieved consecutive title wins, itself a testament to his ability and resolve.

He may not rank among the all-time greats, the Fangios and Clarks the Sennas and Schumachers, but he is a model professional of his time: quick, diligent, serious, focused. And this after almost dying in Australia, four years ago. That accident served to form a strong bond between the driver and his boss at McLaren, Ron Dennis, and the team have been accused of favouring Hakkinen over Coulthard. Dennis acknowledges the "close relationship" and makes no apologies for it.

However, Dennis is also a pragmatist. Sincere though his feelings are towards Hakkinen on a human level, his business is winning motor races and, having failed to lure Schumacher to his team, he recognised his best bet for success and backed him.

According to those who work with Hakkinen, he came back from that accident a more humble, considerate and grateful man. He was, they say, a better person. It soon became clear he was a better driver.

The promise blossomed and he had his maiden grand prix win at the end of the 1997 season. The lock picked at last, he walked in and helped himself to eight wins and the championship the following year, fending off Schumacher in the process.

This season he has managed only five victories. Errors and misfortune probably account for his fate in as many more races. Schumacher naturally believes he would have claimed his third title but for his crash at the British Grand Prix: another element to this tantalising season.

From the rubble of imponderables can be retrieved the fact that Hakkinen emerged from his tunnel of torment into the glow of another championship triumph, and even Irvine cannot complain about that.

Other winners of this curious campaign are Heinz-Harald Frentzen, third in the drivers' standings, Ralph Schumacher, who scored all Williams' 35 points, Jordan, who came third in the constructors' championship, Stewart-Ford, who beat Williams to fourth place, and Minardi-Ford, who scored a point.

Other losers were Coulthard, again the under-achiever, Alessandro Zanardi, who failed to score for Williams, Damon Hill, who stayed on a season too long, Olivier Panis, squeezed out of Formula One, and British American Racing, the only team without a point.

1952, 1953

Alberto Ascari (It) Ferrari

1954, 1955, 1956, 1957

Juan Manuel Fangio (Arg) Mercedes-Maserati

1959, 1960

Jack Brabham (Aus) Cooper-Climax

1985, 1986

Alain Prost (Fr) McLaren-TAG Porsche

1990, 1991

Ayrton Senna (Bra) McLaren-Honda


Michael Schumacher (Ger) Benetton

1998, 1999

Mika Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes