AUGUST 22, 2001
What next for the talented Mr Hakkinen?
Yet the 2001 season has produced a mixed canvass from the twice World Champion and it is no surprise that he and McLaren have encountered some crucial sticking points while trying to cut a deal for next year. The dilemma is twofold. Firstly, while there is a huge well of residual affection and loyalty for Hakkinen within the McLaren camp, there is a genuine worry amongst the management that he might be losing the sharp edge of his motivation.
Secondly, judging just how likely it might be to recruit a driver of corresponding calibre to replace him is also extremely difficult, as well as a huge risk. In an ideal world, Dennis might like to sign Mika on a one year deal for 2001 and then bring on Kimi Raikkonen into the McLaren F1 fold. The snag here is that the 21-year old Finn is so closely tied in with the Sauber/Ferrari alliance that his long-term future is almost certainly bound up with Maranello.
Unlocking him from his Sauber deal would not only be prohibitively expensive, but it might jeopardize the Swiss team's continued supply of customer Ferrari V10 engines. And with a Mercedes spokesman categorically denying that there was any prospect of servicing a second team apart from McLaren next year, there would clearly be no realistic fall-back position for Sauber in terms of engine supply.
Nick Heidfeld might be an alternative, of course. His performances this season have virtually been on a par with Raikkonen's and his former role as McLaren-Mercedes test driver would give him a flying start in terms of personal relationship with the team. Yet McLaren is a five-star F1 operation seeking to compete at the very highest levels. Dennis may not feel that Heidfeld and Coulthard are quite enough to take on Michael Schumacher and Barrichello on a consistent basis.
The most favored option must surely be Hakkinen's rehabilitation and remotivation. Remember, the veteran Finn came out of Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix with the fastest lap to his credit and, on close scrutiny, one would have to say that he should have won at least three Grands Prix so far this season rather than the solitary one which currently stands to his credit.
It's very easy to underestimate the demoralizing effect of Hakkinen of his massive accident in Melbourne and his cruel last lap retirement at Barcelona. Yet if he can get his head round all this grief, he still remains the man most likely to challenge Michael Schumacher. As well as the man most highly regarded by the newly crowned World Champion.