Motoracing: Irvine sees size of task ahead

Austrian Grand Prix: Hakkinen wins duel of dominant McLarens to secure seventh pole position
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The Independent Online
HE WAS thrown into the North Sea from a helicopter as part of his stag night celebrations, he married his long-standing girlfriend Noriko, and he got Michael Schumacher's drive at Ferrari. The past week has been anything but dull for Mika Salo, the Finn who began the year as Formula One's forgotten man.

Back in harness for the first time since he stood in for Ricardo Zonta at BAR in Spain, he now has a car that, by his own admission, "should be in the top four at every race". Not to mention a hotline to the injured Schumacher, and the expectations of F1's longest established team riding on his shoulders.

This is an intriguing time for F1 with its yardstick temporarily indisposed, a little like 1968 and 1994 when the deaths of Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna removed the men by whom others judged themselves. Now everyone is wondering whether the spectacle will suffer, or be enhanced, by Schumacher's absence. Whether Mika Hakkinen will now cakewalk his way to a consecutive world championships, or whether Eddie Irvine can rise to the challenge and keep him and David Coulthard honest.

Qualifying yesterday suggested the cakewalk scenario may be the most likely as Hakkinen and Coulthard scrapped for pole position. Fresh from his confidence-boosting victory at Silverstone, the Scot was in feisty form and it took a remarkable effort from the Finn to dislodge him. Dusting the track with dirt as his left rear wheel kissed the edge of the road on the exit to the final corner, Hakkinen regained the honours from his team-mate as he became the only man to break one minute 11 seconds. Though Coulthard's response was fast, it fell a hair under two-tenths of a second short. He might have been disappointed not to keep Hakkinen out of his seventh pole position of the year, but it was all good news for McLaren.

"I had to use the spare car after my race car cut out suddenly, and that always makes you feel a bit nervous, but it was all great team work. This is going to be a tough grand prix, hard on the cars and the brakes, but I'm going to be going flat out."

McLaren's superiority inevitably provoked speculation that they will dominate the rest of the season, but Mercedes-Benz, the horsepower behind the McLaren throne, certainly don't believe that they are home and dry. "If you look at the facts, in the last two years since we started to be competitive and have been able to fight for races, it has been quite obvious that our strongest opposition has come from Michael Schumacher in the Ferrari," said Norbert Haug, the German manufacturer's motorsport director. "But I would not underestimate the competition right now. Ferrari are certainly strong. I got a good indication of this last year around Hockenheim time when everybody started to say, 'it's all done'. In fact, the championship had only just started." Indeed, the title was only resolved in Hakkinen's favour in the final round.

If the spotlight has been thrown on to Salo, as fate had helped to revive his career-long rivalry with his fellow Finn Mika Hakkinen, it is Eddie Irvine upon whom it has fallen to maintain Ferrari's challenge. For all his reputation as F1's motormouth, he is far too astute to underestimate the battle ahead.

"I don't know what my chances are," he admitted with candour, before rising strongly to the occasion to take a typically gutsy third place on the grid. "The season is halfway through and I am eight points behind Mika Hakkinen. If it keeps going like this to the end, I will finish 16 points behind him. Obviously we have got to turn things around. Whether we can or not, I don't know, but it will not be through lack of trying on my part. I am 100 per cent focused on trying to do it, but we have seen over the past few years how difficult it is to do that. Michael has been trying harder than anyone and he's the best driver in the world, but he still hasn't managed it."

If Salo was dropped in the deep end with the helicopter stunt - "They threw me out from 20 metres up and I floated for a while until a big yacht full of my friends turned up. It was OK, good fun" - his baptism with Ferrari was no different. "Actually driving the car is no problem," he said, "but getting everything out of it is more difficult. It takes a while to get used to that." He spun off the track on Friday, but put together a strong performance yesterday to take seventh place, separated from Irvine by the increasingly impressive Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Jordan and the Stewart-Fords of Rubens Barrichello and Johnny Herbert. The latter pair delighted Jackie Stewart, who had hoped for positions in the top eight after an improved Herbert had been fourth fastest in the morning's free practice. "If we hang on in the first four rows, I shall be well pleased," Stewart had said. But when the chips were down both his drivers did better still and resisted the attack he had expected from Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, who finished eighth and ninth.

Michael Schumacher's presence was still felt in the Ferrari pit, for the former champion has made it clear that he will be waiting by the phone for any cries of help from Salo. "I get anything I want - even more than I want - from Ferrari," Salo said, "and Michael has helped me and told me to call any time I want to know something. I've taken him up on that a couple of times already."

It is not clear whether Schumacher has been quite so helpful to Irvine. "To have a chance to go for the world title in any team is fantastic," the Ulsterman said, "so to have a chance to go for it in a Ferrari is even better. But winning the world championship ain't easy."

Yesterday's form endorsed his view. Unless Ferrari come up with something special for the race, it looks as if reliability may be McLaren's only cause for concern.