MARCH 19, 2001

McLaren down in the dumps

MIKA HAKKINEN and David Coulthard were distraught men on Sunday night after suffering the indignity of another defeat at the hands of rivals Ferrari in the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The two McLaren drivers were outpaced in the race and out-thought after the first pit-stops when Ferrari drivers Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello opted to put intermediate tires on their cars in the rain and not wets, which Coulthard and Hakkinen did use.

The decision effectively lost the McLaren duo the race as the Sepang track dried quickly and they lost time to the Ferraris until they could change to slicks, but by then it was too late as Schumacher cruised to victory ahead of Barrichello.

Coulthard, at least, managed to finish third but Hakkinen was bitterly disappointed as he failed to find any significant pace until late in the race. He set the fastest lap of the race on lap 48 but he failed to pass Ralf Schumacher's Williams and finished sixth.

"The best thing in this race was that it was over," said Hakkinen, who ended the race in sixth. "My feeling is not terribly positive."

Coulthard knows the team are on the back foot and is not happy to see their past dominance turned around by Ferrari, who completed a one-two finish with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello.

"Our car is not quick enough at the moment," said the Scottish driver. "Ferrari are the class of the field and they are getting what they deserve.

"They are doing to us what we did to them in 1998 and we have got to work hard to try and improve our car - and that's what we will do."

Hakkinen found hope from his much-improved performance in the latter part of the race when he was able to pick up the pace and challenge Ralf Schumacher at the end.

But the dismal early performance made it impossible to recover. "If you look at my lap times I got the fastest laps of them all and considering that my car gave a good impression," said Hakkinen.

"But it was much too late again and in rain it was terrible to drive. We know the problems and they are affecting in those things."

The Finn coped well with the rainy conditions and despite the MP4/16's ill handling, he kept it on the circuit. But that was only down to his driving. "I didn't spin," said Hakkinen. "But I was driving so carefully, so slowly."

Mercedes-Benz motorsport director Norbert Haug refused to become despondent despite the drivers' disappointed tones and declared himself happy that the McLaren team had not slumped down the field any further.

"We need to improve but we are certainly second behind Ferrari," said Haug. "I am fully behind our guys. They are doing a great job and will improve, they are reliable and this is a good sign to build on.

"You can see that all our competitors are struggling but we were the guys who did the best in the last years and we need to come back to that.

"Mika would like to win races and he does not like to be sixth, but he is a fighter and he is positive, David is positive and our whole team is positive."

Rivals Ferrari are comfortably on top, and the Italian team's technical director Ross Brawn went straight to the point when he said after the race: "They haven't been this bad for a few years."

But he knows the Italian squad will have to keep on their toes, and is already preparing for the return of the silver arrows again.

"I work on the fix that when they are down they are dangerous, so I don't under-estimate," he said.

"We have had them on the ropes in the last few races and they have had us on the ropes plenty of times in the past so obviously this is a nice experience but we won't relax."