Will Hakkinen retire?

THE German motoring publication AUTO BILD published a story on Tuesday saying that Mika Hakkinen will retire at the end of the season and that his place will be taken at McLaren by Olivier Panis. The publication, which has strong links with Mercedes-Benz, might have inside information although Mercedes-Benz sporting director Norbert Haug was quick to dismiss the report as "pure speculation".

Panis is an obvious replacement without any real risk for McLaren as the team knows him well as he spent last season working as McLaren's third driver before moving on to a drive at British American Racing. Panis was also very good with McLaren's sponsors and so is a popular figure both with the team and its backers.

But the important question remains: will Hakkinen actually retire?

On the surface there is little to suggest why he should. He is only 32 and he has no obvious other major interests in his life on which to concentrate. He has his family and a few toys in Monte Carlo. But he has been racing since he was a small boy and it is hard to imagine that he is going to give up that passion while he is still in a car which is capable of winning Grand Prix. Admittedly, McLaren has not been great this year but the cars are right at the sharp end of the grid and Hakkinen could win a race at any point.

The problem is that Mika has rather lost interest this year because a series of mechanical failures has left him without any hope at all in the World Championship. Even if he does well he is going to be asked by his team to help team mate David Coulthard who is much better placed in the battle for the title. In other words there is nothing to motivate Hakkinen to better performances. He is not under threat as McLaren knows his value and as long as Ron Dennis remains in charge of the team he is likely to remain unless his performances become embarrassing - which they are not likely to do.

We have heard a few whispers in recent days that Dennis may have been moved a little further away from the racing team than was the case and that the team's managing-director Martin Whitmarsh is being given a bit more power but the fact remains that it is still Dennis's team and that is not going to change unless he himself decides that he has had enough or that other ambitions become more interesting for him.

Ambition is another issue in the question of whether Hakkinen should retire because we believe that Hakkinen harbors the desire to beat Michael Schumacher to the World Championship for a third time. This year that is not possible but that does not mean to say that next year Mika could not be a real threat to Michael.

On the other side of the coin, Hakkinen does not do as much testing as perhaps he should be doing when one compares him with Michael Schumacher and there are some within the McLaren organization who think that Mika could do more.

On balance the conclusion is that Hakkinen will not retire this year but will aim for one more year trying to beat his arch-enemy. This year he cannot do it and Mika may well try to help David Coulthard in his World Championship challenge. The team would obviously like to see this happening but it has never been really in Hakkinen's nature to do such a thing. If it was he would probably not be the winner that he is.

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