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Hakkinen and McLaren Get Serious

One thing Mika Hakkinen was always good at was keeping us guessing. He is a complex character, in spite of his deadpan public utterances, and he delivered many surprises during his time in F1. Even his retirement from the sport came as a surprise although, in retrospect, it looks more logical today than it did at the time.

Mika

Mika Hakkinen in the days of glory

And now he sparks the rumors and counter-rumors by his increasing involvement with his old team, McLaren. Are they considering some sort of driving role for him? Or is this all a public relations stunt? Maybe he is to be a sort of mentor for Lewis Hamilton in his first year in F1. The possibilities multiply every day.

It seems to me that what has happened is this: Ron Dennis and Mika were chatting at the Brazilian Grand Prix and discovered that they shared a hankering for the good old days of championships and glory. This discovery set them to wondering whether there was some way in which they could combine their talents once again in a quest to restore the team to its rightful place at the top of the pile. Even driving was not ruled out as Mika wanted to know whether he still had the skills that brought him two championships.

What I think we are witnessing is Ron and Mika working towards an arrangement that will benefit them both – and I don’t think they have decided upon anything yet. Driving had to be tried but was never a likely option; at 38, Mika is getting a bit old for a return to F1 and no doubt Ron has unhappy memories of Nigel Mansell’s comeback attempt. The seats for 2007 are filled now, anyway, and testing is unlikely too since Mika’s strength was in racing, not in setting up the car.

The idea that Hakkinen should be a mentor to Hamilton, rather as Michael Schumacher is to be an advisor to the whole Ferrari team, looks possible. Mika has experience of driving as a number two to the supremely talented Ayrton Senna and handled the task well, stepping into his shoes when Senna left for Williams. It would seem likely that he could offer Hamilton useful advice and encouragement in his task as number two to Fernando Alonso.

Public relations is another field where Hakkinen could be useful to McLaren and this is underlined by Mika’s recent contract to do something similar for Johnnie Walker. But I wonder whether this would be sufficient for Mika; I get the feeling that he misses the excitement and pressures of the F1 team. That is what I think he is looking for: a useful role in the team, not the company.

I am sure that we would all like to see Hakkinen on track again in a competitive situation. Memories of his great races return and we wonder whether he could do it all again. Realistically, however, it is not going to happen. Niki Lauda may have been able to squeeze a last-gasp championship out of his comeback so many years ago but the pace of change then was nothing like as rapid as it has been over the last five years. The learning curve would be too great for anyone after such a long lay-off, especially as the dread “forty years old” approaches.

It pains me to say it, but the most likely outcome is that Mika will satisfy his curiosity as to driving in F1 today, accept that his glory days are over, and return to the DTM. The two old friends, Ron and Mika, have tried very hard to find a suitable role for the Finn but I think they will fail. When it comes down to it, the motivation is really that Mika wants to drive and the time for that has passed.

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Testing the Bridgestone Tires

Many of the teams have been testing at the Barcelona circuit, with Felipe Massa predictably fastest in the Ferrari and the other drivers getting used to the Bridgestone tires. Although the times are meaningless at this early stage, they are listed in an article in Autosport magazine if you’re interested.

Aguri

Super Aguri

Autosport also has a very revealing interview after the first day’s runs with Super Aguri’s new driver, Anthony Davidson. He confirms that the Bridgestones are very different from the Michelins he was used to and that it will take time to adjust the car to get the best from them. Apparently the tires slide more and, although he found this quite entertaining, it is difficult to post good times as a result.

Which would seem to confirm all the talk of last year’s Bridgestone customers having an early season advantage until we remember that these are not the 2006 tires but an older compound that all the teams are going to have to get used to. By the time the season kicks off in Australia next year, I think that everyone will know pretty well what to expect from their tires; it will, in fact, be the proverbial level playing field that was impossible as long as two tire manufacturers were involved in F1.

In spite of Davidson’s troubles with the tires at the test, he was still respectable in the Super Aguri, posting 11th fastest time, ahead of the Toro Rossos and Red Bulls. The news on Aguri is that they will be racing a development of this year’s Honda chassis, the RA106, and will slip through the loophole in the regulations identified by Red Bull with the Toro Rosso car of 2006. As long as components are manufactured by a third party, it seems, it does not matter who assembles them and Aguri has made sure that their car for next year will qualify accordingly.

Clearly the regulations are not stringent enough to ensure that each team builds its own car from scratch and it is probably impossible to achieve this anyway. All teams use parts designed and built by other companies. We now have two teams effectively running second squads under thin disguises, Red Bull with Toro Rosso and Honda with Super Aguri. Why they should want to spread their effort so thinly, I have no idea, but they have made me doubt the wisdom of the regulation in the first place.

Presumably the intent of the rule is to prevent places in F1 being collared by existing competitors when there are other teams waiting for a gap to open up so that they can become involved. This has not happened so why bother with regulating it at all? Running two teams will soon prove too expensive and wasteful for most companies (I doubt that Red Bull and Honda will keep it going for long) and the gaps will appear in the long run.

In the fifties there were no restrictions on how many cars a team could enter and it was quite common for there to be three or four cars run by a single entrant. At the time, there was no pressure on the numbers of cars racing and the arrangement worked well enough, even though it gave larger teams a greater chance of having a car finish the race. But nothing has changed in that respect; the larger teams still enjoy certain benefits over the smaller ones, not the least of which is money.

It all makes me think that there needs to be less regulation in F1, not more. At the moment the rules are so complicated that lawyers are sometimes needed to decide on finer points that arise. That can hardly be good for the sport.

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Drivers for 2007

With McLaren’s announcement of Hamilton’s promotion to second race driver for the coming season, it looks as though there is only one seat left to be filled in F1: the second Spyker drive. That is assuming that Gerhard Berger is telling us the whole truth when he says there will be no changes at Toro Rosso for 2007 – the official announcement has yet to be made.

Button

Jenson Button in the Honda RA106

My bet is that Tiago Monteiro will get the Spyker drive. The team know him and none of the other drivers have been outstanding in their tests for the team. A threat of sorts came from Christian Klien but he has now been confirmed as a Honda test driver so that takes him out of the equation.

The teams that are sticking with their drivers for next year are Toyota, Honda, Spyker and, if you count the last few races of 2006, BMW Sauber. These are the ones that know exactly what they can expect from their drivers, have already established a working relationship with them and are satisfied with their choice. And that should give them a slight advantage over other teams that are still settling down after changes and learning how to get the best from their new drivers.

Or so it would seem. In fact, we all know that Spyker will not be challenging for race wins so any advantage they have will make little difference to the leaders. And Toyota’s choice seems typically conservative to me, a driver pairing that has already shown itself to be subject to some strain, with Ralph tending to underperform and Jarno more interested in his own career than in the success of the team. This is one team that could have done with a good shake-up on the driver front; I’d have sacked them both and looked for a good veteran and a promising youngster.

But that is not Toyota’s way. The reputation for reliability of their road cars is founded upon their philosophy that nothing new goes on the car until it has been tried and tested to the point of boredom. And this seems to be spilling over into the race team; they are not known for their introduction of fresh and innovative new designs in F1.

Which may go a long way to explaining their failure to deliver on the success we expect from a big manufacturer in the sport. Had they decided to go with a more radical driver line-up for 2007, their chances would be better, I think.

The other two unchanged teams, Honda and BMW, are the bright hopes for the future, of course. Both of them are looking very good, they have potentially exciting drivers and the ambition and ingenuity to succeed. My only doubt comes from BMW’s caution when it comes to their prospects for next season; they are low key on this and clearly do not expect to be challenging for a championship just yet.

That may be realistic but it also indicates a certain surprise at their progress so far. They are ahead of schedule and seem a little unsure of themselves as a result. And one thing we do know: any team that is going to win the championship must be absolutely convinced that they can do it.

Things are very different at Honda. They expected to be in amongst the leaders in 2006 and their disappointment at their results in the first half of the year showed in changes in personnel and rumblings from upper management. The fact that they did turn things around in the last races of the season shows that, whatever they changed, it was a step in the right direction and they are motivated now to erase the embarrassments of 2006. Conviction and determination will not be lacking in the Honda camp next year, methinks.

All of which is good for Button and Barrichello. Both drivers have made a habit of being in the wrong place at the right time or the right place at the wrong time. It may just be that, at last, they have managed to get everything right and 2007 will be theirs for the taking.

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David Coulthard and Young Drivers

I see that David Coulthard thinks that Lewis Hamilton has been given his F1 chance too early. The Scottish veteran feels that a year testing for an F1 team would have been better experience for Hamilton, rather than having to be compared with his teammate, Fernando Alonso.

David

David Coulthard in the Red Bull RB2

There is some sense in what Coulthard is saying; there have been drivers who have been pushed too far, too soon (I think Jos Verstappen was one) and who never reach their potential as a result. But, equally, there have been others who rose to meet the challenge and did well.

Ironically, David himself was one of the latter. His chance came after Ayrton Senna’s death at Imola, when he was promoted from test to race driver in the Williams team. And, although he had to relinquish his seat a few times for the returning Nigel Mansell, he did well enough to beat “our Nige” to the Williams drive the following year.

Coulthard went on from there to become the solid, dependable driver he is today and he never looked to be out of his depth in F1. So it may be a bit unfair for him to doubt Hamilton’s ability to survive such an early entry to the sport.

I presume that it is Coulthard’s position as spokesman for the Grand Prix Drivers Association that is producing his recent cluster of controversial statements. If so, he is doing an excellent job, keeping the association in the eye of the press and not allowing issues to die a death through lack of attention. It may well be that he will prove better at handling the media than his waning reputation as a driver leads us to expect of him on the track.

But I think David could well be a surprise to us in 2007. If the Adrian Newey-designed Red Bull is any good, it is entirely possible that Coulthard will make better use of it than Mark Webber, whose reputation for speed is not as badly dented as the Scot’s. In fact, this coming season is the make or break year for both of them and they know it. Webber is thoroughly fed up with having to compete in inferior machinery and has already made noises about giving up if the Red Bull is less than hoped and Coulthard is having to fend off rumors of retirement, being the new grand old man of F1 that he is. It will be the last stand of the old guard and I wish them well.

It’s that business of being compared to a very quick teammate that is the most telling point in Coulthard’s latest statement, however. If Hamilton can stay within a reasonable distance of Alonso, we will know that he has made it; if he cannot, it could easily turn the current expectations sour and lead to him following the usual route of such drivers – a career of second drives, occasional hopeful flashes intersperesed with long periods of mediocrity, and the soul-destroying task of trying to be noticed while driving machinery that is less and less competitive.

Which Coulthard should know all about. But, give him his due; he has not given up and is as eager for next season as a chance to prove himself as any young blade. I just hope that he’s wrong about Hamilton, however.

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