Archive for Monday, October 8, 2001

Hakkinen going out a winner

Notes and quotes from the U.S. grand Prix at Indy

October 8, 2001

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— Retirement seems to agree with Mika Hakkinen.

The normally reticent Hakkinen was positively bubbly after he won the United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Flying Finn announced at the Italian Grand Prix, two weeks before the U.S. race, that he would take a one-year "sabbatical" from Formula One.


The relief was palpable for the two-time world champion, as he smiled and joked his way through the race weekend. But he didn't let his upcoming vacation affect his driving. He piloted his McLaren-Mercedes through traffic, overcoming obstacles from other drivers and even the race officials, to snare the 20th victory of his 10-year career.

"After Monza (site of the Italian Grand Prix), obviously, I was relaxed," a joyous Hakkinen said after the race. "I was able to tell everybody what I planned to do in the future and I didn't have to anymore select my words what I was going to say.

"So I can now focus hundred percent for my driving and take everything out of these two last grands prix. And it was fantastic. I had a smile on my face."

Pit-lane insiders consider it unlikely that Hakkinen will return from his sabbatical. He is a new father who doesn't like to travel from his family in Monaco, keeps strong ties to his native Finland while driving for the British-based McLaren team and doesn't feel like he has anything left to prove in the sport.

Hakkinen and this year's champion, Michael Schumacher of Ferrari, have dominated Formula One in the mid- and late-1990s. They set the standards other drivers had to beat. Few did. At the postrace press conference, Michael couldn't say enough nice things about Mika and his legacy, and Mika was effusive about Michael and his accomplishments.

"We have had some great battles over the years ... He always takes points away from me," Schumacher said, who wrapped up the season title - his fourth - at the Hungarian Grand Prix in August.

"Sometimes," Hakkinen joked. Schumacher won the first running of the USGP at Indy last year.

"I mean, we have been racing in Formula Three days together and we keep on racing these days and that's a great part of my career. But that's what racing is about, competing," Schumacher summed up.

Hakkinen even left the press corps laughing, joking that his friendly rivalry with the German had finally gotten to him.

"That's why I'm leaving. I can't handle it anymore. Now even his brother is coming," Mika mused. Michael's younger brother, Ralf Schumacher driving for Williams-BMW, won three races this year.

But Mika is a man at peace with his decision. Asked if he would rethink his "sabbatical" should he win the season-ending race in Japan, Hakkinen gave his shortest answer of the weekend. "No, definitely not. No."

FERRARI: Settling for second

(www.ferrari.it)

The tifosi - the die-hard fans of the 2001 world drivers and manufacturers championships - were out in force at Indy, as they are at every F1 race. More than any other brand, loyalty to the Prancing Horse runs deep among its fans.

Their back-to-back world champ, Michael Schumacher, drew the loudest cheers for any driver. Mobbed where ever he goes, Schumacher - the most highly paid athlete in the world - seems comfortable with the adoration. He accommodated the crush of press and hordes of fans as best he could, and still had time to finish second in the race.

His teammate, Rubens Barrichello of Brazil, was on track for his second career victory while dominating the first half of the race. He outpaced his usually faster counterpart, but ran into trouble when he chose a two-stop pit strategy when other top runners only stopped once. When Hakkinen passed him on lap 56, Barrichello quickly started inching back. Shaving tenths of a second per lap off the Finn's lead, Barrichello's luck ran out just laps before the end of the race when his engine expired.

McLAREN: Making their mark

(www.mclaren.com)

First and third, not a bad weekend. McLaren put some shine on a disappointing second half of the season with two drivers on the podium at Indy.

Hakkinen had a tough weekend, crashing his car in Sunday morning warmups, and getting bumped from second to fourth on the grid by a stewards' ruling. He was penalized for leaving the pit lane during a practice session when the course was under a red flag. Mika, usually a poster boy for Scandinavian stoicism, was asked if he used the grid demotion as motivation. "I was pissed off. I was really upset," he said. "I was disappointed to get the information from the stewards that they were giving me a penalty. Rules are rules, but you have to use some common sense."

David Coulthard solidified his hold on second place in the season points race ahead of Barrichello. The square-jawed Scotsman drove a solid if unspectacular race and benefited from Rubens' departure.

"It's never nice to accept points that way," he mused, "but I've had a lot of misfortune in my racing career. So you have to take the points as they come."

WILLIAMS: Bummer at BMW

(www.williamsf1.com)

Hopes were high at the beginning of the weekend. Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia was making a homecoming of sorts, he won the Indy 500 last year, and was coming off his first F1 win. The track's long front straight would seem to favor the BMW engine, the most powerful on pit row. Montoya started third. Teammate Ralf Schumacher joined his brother on the front row, having been moved up from third by a stewards' decision.

The race started well for Montoya, while he battled Michael Schumacher for the race lead early on. Montoya, who had a huge fan base at the track, stayed in contention until midrace, when he retired with a mechanical failure.

Ralf Schumacher's race was run early, when he spun into a gravel trap on lap 36. Ralf's hope of finishing second in the championship likely sputtered in that gravel trap too.

BENETTON: Ciao

(www.benettonf1.com)

The Benetton team has only one more race to run, and the team is going out with a whimper. Teammates Giancarlo Fischicella and Jenson Button finished seventh and eighth, but the team is years removed from the type of results they saw when Michael Schumacher was putting the team on the podium nearly every race. French carmaker Renault bought the team at the beginning of this year and will assume full control next year, relinquishing the Benetton name to history.

Button and "Fisi" were running midpack all weekend and their final results depended more on whose car ahead of them expired. Renault is running an experimental engine that may eventually prove to be a winner, but 2002 will be another year of shakedown.

JORDAN: Trulli disappointed

(www.f1jordan.com)

Hours after the checkered flag fell, Jarno Trulli lost fourth place. A stunning drive went for naught when race officials disqualified Trulli when a skid block on the undercarriage of the car was found to be too thin, and therefore illegal. The team said it will appeal the decision. This sort of technical decision, however, is rarely overturned.

One teammate's nightmare was small consolation to another. Jean Alesi, who signed with Jordan just two races ago, was moved from seventh into the sixth and final points-paying position because of Trulli's disqualification. The USGP was Alesi's 200th Formula One race, which places him fourth on the all-time list. He made a magnificent debut for the Tyrell team in the USGP in Phoenix 1991, nearly knocking off the legendary Ayrton Senna. But for all his considerable talent, Alesi has only one F1 victory to his name, in Canada 1995.

BAR: Jacques itch

(www.bar.net)

Jacques Villeneuve has a long list of accomplishments: 1995 Indy 500 champ, 1997 world champion, 11 grand prix victories. So it is all the more puzzling why he seems to merely be going through the motions this season, a dangerous thing to do at 200 mph. Aside from a third place in Germany, the team's first podium finish in their three years of operations, they have been midpack racers at best.

A former champion like Jacques, who won his title with Williams, ought to be leading the charge for the team to improve at the factory and on the track. But he seems content to occasionally drive quickly and pick up his sizable paychecks.

How bad was Jacques' weekend? He was five places behind teammate Olivier Panis on the grid and was outqualified by a Minardi! Panis brought the second car home in tenth place.

ARROWS: Straight to the back

(www.orangearrows.com)

This perennially midpack team seems to be going nowhere fast. Jos "The Boss" Verstappen has made a name for himself this season with a hard-charging style that often has him running among the leaders early in the race. But the drivers and the team can't sustain that pace over an entire race.

The USGP wasn't even that good for the team. Enrique Bernoldi started 19th and Verstappen was 20th. Verstappen's race lasted on 47 of the 73 laps when he pitted with mechanical problems and drove straight into the garage. Bernoldi's car lost traction control at the start and he was dead last coming through the first lap. He would coax the car through 72 laps, taking 11th place.

SAUBER: Edging toward the front

(www.redbull-sauber.com)

The Swiss-based team continues to solidify the quantum leaps in results they have made this year. Nick Heidfeld finished sixth and was bumped to fifth after Jarno Trulli's disqualification. Heidfeld is showing the speed and precision he demonstrated when dominating Formula Three for McLaren. Heidfeld is still under contract to McLaren, and he must have felt that he had the inside track to be David Coulthard's teammate in 2002 when Mika Hakkinen leaves. But it was not to be.

His teammate Kimi Raikkonen, this year's rookie phenom, was plucked by McLaren for the prized ride. Raikkonen, who surprised everyone early in the season with his speed and poise, has been a less-consistent points scorer in the second half of the season. In his first USGP, the 19-year-old Finn, lasted only two laps, coming together with Jarno Trulli in the first corner of the first lap and then parking the car a few miles later.

JAGUAR: Is the Cat back?

(www.jaguar-racing.com)

Jaguar's season has been an exercise in publicly shooting itself in the foot, or paw. Although the team is looking better on the track, with Eddie Irvine finishing a strong fourth and Pedro de la Rosa eleventh at Indy, the team has been through bruising internal political battles, driver and personnel changes, horrible publicity and questions from their ultimate bosses at Ford about the direction and cost of the team.

New team boss, three-time world champion Niki Lauda, ousted CART veteran and former Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal, the most prominent American in F1, after Rahal had served only a year as team boss. Lauda is unrepentant. He wants Jag on the podium and he wants it now. Irvine is the same. Together the two men sealed Rahal's fate, who wanted the team to take a patient, long-term approach to success.

The team enjoys a huge fan following. Now they need the results to match.

MINARDI: Life in the slow lane

(www.minardi.it)

You can't help but root for perennial backmarkers. They have little money and sponsorship, no test time or data, and decide on drivers by which ones bring the most sponsor dollars with him. This is on the verge of changing.

Airline millionaire Paul Stoddart bought the team, he has hired two fast young drivers - Fernando Alonso of Spain and Alex Yoong of Malaysia (the first F1 driver from that Asian country) - and the team has an engine deal for next year with Ferrari.

Alonso qualified 17th at Indy, the best qualifying slot for a Minardi in years. Sadly, though, the team's fortunes soon lapsed back into form. Near midrace, Alonso lost a drive shaft and Yoong lost a gearbox. There is nowhere to go but up.

PROST: Starting over, again

(www.prostgp.com)

As a driver, Alain Prost was one of the best ever. As a team owner, his record is far less stellar. Four years into his ownership, the team is still searching for a workable car, quick drivers, rich investors and consistent results. His performance at Indy won't help attract any other those.

When Jean Alesi left the team for Jordan, Prost quickly signed Jordan refugee Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Frentzen returned the favor by qualifying fourth for the Belgian Grand Prix. But he stalled at the start and was sent to the back of the pack. And then there has been driver "Unlucky" Luciano Burti. He barrel-rolled at a crash during the start of the German Grand Prix and was hospitalized after a high-speed crash in Belgium. He has been replaced by Tomas Enge, the first driver in F1 from the Czech Republic.

Frentzen finished ninth and Enge 13th. That's about as good as it gets for this team.

Musical chairs

The patriotic prerace ceremony was as red, white and blue as any Fourth of July celebration. Women's World Cup soccer star Brandi Chastain was emcee. She kept her jersey on all the while. Songbird Patti LaBelle belted out "America the Beautiful." Then a chorus of what seemed like every schoolchild in Indiana sang the national anthem. All this was warmup for a homeboy. Hoosier native John Mellencamp sang his hit "Peaceful World" while nearly 50 Indianapolis residents from 50 different ethnic backgrounds in 50 native costumes sang along.

Star power

Part of the allure of F1 are the famous people who hang around the fast cars. Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson was a guest of the Williams team. Singers Macy Gray and Lenny Kravitz were wandering through the VIP tents. John Mellencamp and Patti LaBelle offered musical entertainment. Actor Jason "Beverly Hills 90210" Priestly was a pit lane reporter for ABC's live telecast. And then there were the glamour gals. McLaren driver David Coulthard brought his current girlfriend, Brazilian supermodel Simone Abdelnour, to the track. Jacques Villeneuve was lip-locked with his new gal pal, 19-year-old U.S. ballet dancer Ellie Green. And disappointingly, Benetton team leader Flavio Briatore just ended his long relationship with supermodel Naomi Campbell.

On the road again

The diversity of town names never ceases to amaze me. On the way to Indianapolis (take I-70 east for 10 hours and then turn left), you pass through Mexico (Mo.), Louisiana (Mo.), Paris (Ill.), Brazil (Ind.) and most surprisingly Kansas, Ill.

Rude homecoming

Having breakfast before leaving Indianapolis, I asked some British fans - dripping in heavy accents and Jenson Button paraphernalia - where they were headed. I expected London, Manchester, someplace else in the UK.

"Wichita," one said. "We work for Raytheon Aerospace. About 200 of us Brits were transferred there about 6 years ago."

A story in the business section two days later told of Raytheon laying off 700 workers in Wichita.

Swiss miss

And to the fans who left the Swiss flag tied to a tree in front of the track's administration building, it's hanging in my garage. Call me and I'll drop it in the mail to you.

- Phil Wilke can be contacted at pwilke@ixks.com

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