OCTOBER 3, 2001
What will Hakkinen really do in 2003?
Mika Hakkinen's brilliant victory in the United States Grand Prix will have left many F1 insiders wondering whether the 33-year old Finn will, after all, return to the business reinvigorated and refreshed in 2003 following his much-publicized sabbatical.
If he does, then McLaren boss Ron Dennis may well find his diplomatic ingenuity stretched as never before as he attempts to find a way of accommodating all the drivers he has under "plural, long term contracts." In reality, there may be at least two other teams ready to snap up the twice World Champion if Ron cannot find a place for him in the Woking ranks.
Word has it that David Coulthard has negotiated a firm two year deal for 2002/03 in the wake of his best ever season as Championship runner-up to Michael Schumacher. So he looks firm in his current employment for the year-after-next. Moreover, one must assume that the lengthy negotiations to release Kimi Raikkonen from his Sauber deal were not simply and solely done with the intention of keeping him out of the Ferrari orbit. Unless his form dips spectacularly in 2002, McLaren will exercise its option on his services for the following season.
So if there really is no place for Hakkinen at McLaren, where could he go? Well, Jaguar must be the obvious prospect. At the end of 2002 the contracts of both Eddie Irvine and Pedro de la Rosa come up for renewal, so the Ford-backed team would surely benefit from a driver of Hakkinen's calibre to help them raise their game and increase their awareness of what is really required from a top line team.
Even more tantalizingly, perhaps Hakkinen could find a berth in the BMW Williams squad. Ralf Schumacher is officially on board until the end of 2003, but despite his three wins this season, there is a perception amongst those close to his team that Juan Pablo Montoya's audacity has adversely affected his concentration and motivation.
If Ralf doesn't get his act together, replacing him with Hakkinen could be a tempting prospect. And Williams have always been independent spirits when it comes to selecting - and retaining - their drivers.