JULY 2, 2001

Hakkinen retirement decision in the balance

MCLAREN team insiders are predicting it is 50-50 whether twice world champion Mika Hakkinen retires from racing at the end of what has been a crushingly disappointing season.

The latest chapter in Hakkinen's catalogue of misfortunes saw his McLaren-Mercedes MP4/16 stranded on the starting grid in Sunday's French grand prix after an assembly fault caused the car's gearbox to seize.

This is the third time this year that Hakkinen has failed to get away from the start, having previously twice stalled on the grid in Brazil and Austria.

It is also being speculated that Jacques Villeneuve, who won the world championship in 1997 immediately prior to Hakkinen's back-to-back title successes, has been sounded out as a possible replacement if the 32-year old Finn decides to call it a day.

Villeneuve's contract with British American Racing expires at the end of this season and the Canadian driver is believed to be willing to explore other options apart from remaining with the team which was originally built around him by his business manager Craig Pollock. He is known to be deeply frustrated by the lack of performance from the BAR-Honda and is unlikely to stay with them if this is not urgently addressed.

Hakkinen impressed observers with his stoicism after the latest setback at Magny-Cours which decisively wiped out any lingering prospect of his regaining the championship this season.

"I feel nothing, because there is nothing to feel," he said in reference to his failure to get moving at the start. "If I'd let the race and then retired, there would have been something to feel. But as it is, there is nothing."

The McLaren management is playing its cards close to its chest, publicly confirming that it believes that Hakkinen can re-motivate himself. Privately they are concerned by his fluctuating form this season, particularly the way in which his confidence ebbed away during the European grand prix at Nurburgring nine days ago when he finished a lapped sixth, mistakenly convinced that his front wings were damaged.

McLaren chairman Ron Dennis reaffirmed his confidence in Hakkinen at Magny-Cours last weekend. "Motivation for all drivers comes from a lack of success and great racing drivers are just that, great racing drivers," he said enigmatically.

"We have options on continuing with the services of both Mika and David Coulthard. We have a pretty good indication of what we're going to do. We expect to make our announcement soon."

Hakkinen, who has not won a race since last year's Belgian grand prix, would not be drawn into the speculation. "I know how to win races and am certain I will again in the future," he said enigmatically.

However, former world champion Niki Lauda suggested that Hakkinen needs to be extremely disciplined in terms of his own self-analysis and must make a decision on his future without any advice from his team.

"Only he can decide what he wants to do in the future," he said.