Hakkinen to hang up his helmet

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The Independent Online

Formula One will pay its respects to the victims of the American atrocities in the form of a minute's silence here today, then resume the business of racing, intrigue and speculation.

By the time the Italian Grand Prix has run its course on Sunday, Mika Hakkinen may well have confirmed his intended retirement from racing and Jenson Button could have eased some of the pressure from his young shoulders.

Hakkinen's future has been the subject of conjecture for much of the season, but now there is a strong feeling that he will announce tomorrow his decision to quit at the end of the season. The Finn would be replaced at McLaren-Mercedes next year by his 21-year-old countryman, Kimi Raikkonen, who is currently with Sauber.

McLaren declined to throw light on the matter last night, although Mercedes acknowledged they planned to make a statement about their driver line-up this weekend. Hakkinen, the world champion in 1998 and 1999, has been off form this season, his team-mate, David Coulthard, taking the challenge to Ferrari's Michael Schumacher.

McLaren were unwilling to grant Hakkinen the two-year contract and substantial pay rise he sought, and opened negotiations with Raikkonen, initially with a view to employing him as a test and back-up driver.

The sport's ever-prodigious source of information contends also that Button has been told to raise his game over the final three races or risk losing his job at Benetton-Renault. Flavio Briatore, the team principal, refuses to say whether he has issued such an ultimatum but makes it clear he demands more of the 21-year-old. Button has struggled to keep pace with his team-mate, Giancarlo Fisichella, and now that the Englishman has a much-improved car, he is expected to respond. However, he remains defiantly optimistic he will be with Benetton next year.

He said: "Everything is very positive in the team now and next year I'll be a lot more competitive. There are reasons why I've not been at my best. I've had a lot of problems through race weekends and simply had bad luck. At the last race in Spa I had an engine problem. No one is more disappointed than I am that I'm not at the front but I don't believe I have to prove anything to the team. They know the reasons why I haven't been able to show what I can do."

Briatore just happens to be the manager of Fernando Alonso, the promising young Spaniard currently with Minardi, and could draft him into the Benetton line-up next season. Briatore said: "The team is now competitive, Giancarlo is doing a good job and we want Jenson to do a good job. He has a two-year contract and I want to respect it but we have 700 to 800 people working on the car and engine and it's very difficult to push the team and get them motivated if we have only one driver and car doing the job."

Two driver changes have been made for this weekend: the Czech Republic's Tomas Enge taking over from the still recovering Luciano Burti at Jaguar, and the Malaysian, Alex Yoong, replacing Brazil's Tarso Marques at Minardi.

The Formula One authorities confirmed that Sunday's race and the US Grand Prix on 30 September would go ahead as scheduled. Ralf Schumacher, the Williams-BMW driver, admitted he would race reluctantly: "While there's still so much uncertainty I don't believe we should have sports events or large gatherings of people."

* Justin Wilson, who this year became the first Briton to win the F3000 title, will test drive for Jordan at Silverstone next week as he attempts to earn a Formula One drive for 2002.

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