APRIL 22, 1996

Early silly season rumors

WE may be only three races into the 1996 season but already there is gossip about who will be driving where in 1997.

WE may be only three races into the 1996 season but already there is gossip about who will be driving where in 1997. The men most likely to be on the move are thought to be Mika Hakkinen and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Hakkinen's three-year contract with McLaren ends this season and the Finn, although publicly polite about McLaren, must be wondering whether his decision to join the team in 1993 was the correct thing to do. Mika had to sit on the sidelines for most of 1993, and in 1994 and 1995 struggled to be competitive. Hakkinen's choices are, however, rather limited if he wishes to remain in a "top team" because most of the big F1 drives are already tied up for 1997. Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger are both on two-year deals with Benetton as is Jacques Villeneuve at Williams and Michael Schumacher at Ferrari. Eddie Irvine's Ferrari deal is even longer. Hakkinen's primary target, therefore, is likely to be Damon Hill's drive at Williams and with Keke Rosberg (who won the 1982 World Championship for Williams) as his manager Mika could be well-placed if Williams and Hill cannot agree a deal.

Frank Williams and Patrick Head traditionally refuse to pay vast salaries to drivers and have lost several World Champions as a result, notably Nigel Mansell in 1992.

It is worth noting that Hakkinen had lengthy talks with Williams before signing for McLaren in 1993 and, indeed, a contract would have been signed had Lotus, Hakkinen's employer at the time, not scared away Williams. McLaren called Lotus's bluff and grabbed Hakkinen after a visit to the FIA Contract Recognition Board in Geneva.

Another man who would like to get the Williams drive is German Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Frentzen is believed to be very disappointed with the performance of the Sauber-Ford this year. Frentzen - and his manager Ortwin Podlech - are very aware that an F1 driver can only be promising for so long as that the time has come for Frentzen to get into a top team.

Heinz-Harald turned down the chance to drive for Williams in May 1994 after the death of Ayrton Senna, reckoning that it was too early to go into a top team - he had done only three races at the time. Sauber was also in desperate trouble because of Karl Wendlinger's accident at Monaco. Frentzen's loyalty to Sauber has not been repaid with results.

Heinz-Harald is also believed to be a target for Tom Walkinshaw, Eddie Jordan and Jackie Stewart.

The maneuvering around Williams will be interesting to watch as Rosberg and Podlech are former partners who fell out acrimoniously some years ago...