Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Paris, Saturday, July 11, 1998

Schumacher Closing, Hakkinen Is Ready

British Grand Prix Could Be Test of Wills

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Mika Hakkinen has been here before. He has a real chance to win a motor racing title, just as he did in 1990. But Michael Schumacher is threatening to spoil Hakkinen's chances, just as he did in 1990.

Hakkinen has led the drivers' title race from the beginning. He won four of the first six races and looked untouchable. But Schumacher won the next two races and has closed to within six points. Victory in the British Grand Prix on Sunday could give the German the point lead in the drivers' championship, and it would definitely give him a psychological edge in what has become a test of wills between the two drivers with now nearly equal cars.

After losing to Schumacher in France two weeks ago, Hakkinen said he was ready for the showdown.

''I have been successful in my racing career in the past, and I know what it's like,'' he said. ''You just have to keep your feet on the ground and listen to the people you work with.''

Hakkinen came to Formula One with a strong reputation, but he took 96 races to gain his first victory. That was at the European Grand Prix in Jerez, Spain, in October, when both David Coulthard, his teammate, and Jacques Villeneuve pulled aside to let Hakkinen win.

In an interview before the French race, he was bubbly, confident and unrestrained - a new, mature Hakkinen, liberated by that first victory and his victory at Monaco in May.

''After so many years' darkness, suddenly when the sun comes out it's difficult to show your emotions,'' he said. ''You're scared. You don't think it's all real. After a while you learn to come out of yourself more, you smile more. That's what happened in Monaco. I realized that it's not a dream anymore.''

But it could all end like the world championship Formula Three race in Macau in 1990 when he and Schumacher collided on the last lap, handing the title to Schumacher. Schumacher later ended races for the Formula One drivers' title in collisions with Damon Hill in 1994 and Villeneuve last year.

Hakkinen nearly lost much more before the Australian Grand Prix in 1995 when a tire puncture sent his McLaren flying into a wall. He fractured his skull, and his life was saved only by an emergency tracheotomy by track medics.

''I had definite doubts I would ever come back as I was in the past,'' he said. McLaren's managing director, Ron Dennis, told him to return when he felt ready. Months later, on his first test, he set a lap record.

Hakkinen had learned about the danger of racing long before that. At 6, his parents let him try a go-kart for the first time. He rolled the kart upside down. ''That was bad,'' he said, with more emotion than when talking about his nearly fatal accident. ''That was the day that I realized the danger. It came from my father. I saw by the emotions on his face how dangerous it was.''

He later became Finnish kart champion five times. At 18, he bought a racing car and won championships in Formula Ford.

In 1987 he met Keke Rosberg, a fellow Finn and a former Formula One champion, who managed Hakkinen through two more championships in other categories and then signed him to Lotus in Formula One in 1991.

Hakkinen became test driver for McLaren in 1993, Ayrton Senna's last year with the team. With three races to go, Michael Andretti, the other driver, quit. Hakkinen replaced him and qualified faster than Senna in his first race.

McLaren was struggling, and it was several years before Hakkinen found himself in a car that could win.

''I feel much more ready for the pressure,'' he said. ''As long as you win sooner or later, there's nothing wrong with it. If you know you're good, and you do your job well, you just have to keep going. You will get your goal. But you have to believe in yourself.''

Norbert Haug, the head of Mercedes Motorsport, the team's engine supplier, believed in him as well.

''Lots of people said we should throw him out,'' Haug said. ''Even last year when our engines were failing, they said we should throw the drivers out. But we stayed with them, and I think we showed everybody that it was the right idea.''

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