AUGUST 29, 2001
How will McLaren structure its driver training?
WITH Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard entering their seventh year together as team-mates in the McLaren-Mercedes squad, one could be forgiven for thinking that the team has a more pressing need than most to find new drivers for the future.
With that in mind, the F1 paddock is waiting on tenterhooks to see precisely how Ron Dennis and his partners will structure the overall team line-up for 2001. This isn't simply a question of establishing whether or not Hakkinen continues racing - although the clever money is on him continuing to do so - but deciding which of the young rising stars are firstly available and, secondly, offer the sort of long-term promise commensurate with a front-line F1 operation.
There have been stories emerging in Europe to the effect that Hakkinen might be keen on tutoring Kimi Raikkonen to take his place in the longer term. This, of course, seems to avoid the question as to how Raikkonen will be disentangled from his current Ferrari-blessed Sauber contract, nor what precisely would be in it for the veteran Hakkinen.
It is a story which puts one in mind of speculation back in the late 1980s to the effect that Alain Prost might retire simply to carry out test and development work for the McLaren-Honda alliance while his arch-rival Ayrton Senna continued racing. "Doing the development to help Ayrton win more races than he has doesn't look like a deal which has much in it for Alain," said one commentator at the time. And that's pretty much the way in which any such "coaching" deal looks for Hakkinen.
Yet there are few people who have keener appreciation of their employees' strong and weak points that Ron Dennis. Although Hakkinen may race on into 2002, there is no doubt that he is edging towards the twilight of his F1 career and can't be expected to continue on an open-ended basis.
Raikkonen is clearly the best bet for the future and, whatever the eventual McLaren-Mercedes driver arrangements for next season, don't rule out the possibility of Raikkonen eventually driving a McLaren-Mercedes. Even if he has to wait another two or three years to get the chance.