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Ferrari Gets the Jitters

Once again, Ferrari has affirmed that Michael Schumacher will be closely involved with the team, even when he is not present at the race. This time, it’s their technical director, Mario Almondo, making the announcement.

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The Triumvirate, Brawn, Todt and Schumacher

It all sounds wonderful, with Michael supplied with a remote connection to the team for instant communication, a big office at HQ for the man and even a role for him as talent scout at karting events. Well, okay, the karting is new but haven’t we heard all the rest before? Isn’t it a case of “methinks the lady (in red) doth protest too much”?

What this constant repetition and confirmation of Michael’s position within the team does tell us is that Ferrari too is a bit nervous about the coming season. For years they have relied on “the dream team” to deliver the results and suddenly it is broken and scattered. Who can blame them for wondering whether success has departed with the mighty three, Schumacher, Todt and Brawn?

So they cover their fears with frequent declarations that nothing has changed, Michael and Todt are still on board, even though in different roles, and the red machine will roll smoothly on into the future. It’s themselves they’re trying to convince, not us.

It is apparent too that Ferrari has begun to have doubts about Kimi’s suitability for the team. Last week he was promised a talking-to about his offtrack behaviour, this week we are given the promise that he will smile a lot more. Now there’s one that might not be so easy to deliver, and I’m not even sure I want to see what the frozen-faced Finn’s smile looks like. We are so used to the flat delivery of the men from the land of lakes and forests, after all.

My theory is that it’s not so much that the Finns have absorbed the icy nature of their homeland but rather that their language produces the deadpan, passionless sound that we hear when they speak English. We call them the icemen but in reality they are as passionate as anyone else – it just doesn’t come across that way when they speak a tongue foreign to them. Remember Mika Hakkinen’s despair and tears when he threw away an Italian Grand Prix through a silly mistake?

And now Ferrari wants Kimi to smile. Pardon me for saying so, but there is implied criticism of their new employee in that idea. And that is hardly the way to welcome your new hope for the future.

All signs of nervousness in the Ferrari camp. If I were to wish them well (and I don’t – you know I’m backing Button for 2007), I’d tell them that we already know that Michael will continue in an advisory role and just to get on with it. But as for Kimi, my advice would be to leave the poor guy alone; give him the car and he’ll produce the goods – who cares about his public persona if he’s the fastest man on the track?

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Hakkinen at Toro Rosso?

The silly season continues. Spyker’s Colin Kolles has suggested that Gerhard Berger might be interested in signing Mika Hakkinen to drive for Scuderia Toro Rosso.

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Mika in the good old days

Well, I’m all for bringing Mika back but why would Berger want him? In his recent test for McLaren, the Finn was slow, obviously rusty after all those years, and he would face a steep learning curve to get back into the swing of things. STR has two promising young drivers who have done their learning and are now ready to show their real worth; what sense does it make to throw that away on the offchance that Hakkinen could be as fast now as in his heyday? The man is 38 and is dreaming of the good old days, that’s all.

If Kolles is not talking of a driving job for Hakkinen, he must mean some sort of administative or advisory position. But why would Hakkinen be interested? If he was going to do that sort of thing, it would be with McLaren where he knows the team and the way it functions. Toro Rosso would be a whole new ball game.

I think Kolles is merely stirring up the press with his suggestion. Notice the arch way he refers to “a certain gentleman” – surely evidence that he’s having a bit of fun. And, if it keeps Kolles in the news, it does no harm at all.

Apart from all this, there is that rumor that Spyker offered McLaren $10m for the services of Lewis Hamilton (who looks to be worth it on the latest showing – fastest in testing yesterday). If that is true, why isn’t Kolles trying to get Hakkinen? He could use the same money as bait for the double World Champion and put him in the seat that Tiago Monteiro thinks is his.

Of course, it won’t happen. Hakkinen wants another test with McLaren for one reason only – to see if he can wring a little more speed from himself to get on terms with current drivers. He really isn’t interested in driving for another team.

Trust me, I ought to know. It’s a midlife crisis thing…

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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.

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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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Hakkinen to McLaren?

So Ferrari gets Michael Schumacher in an advisory role and, not to be outdone, McLaren is considering taking on Mika Hakkinen in a similar capacity. That would be quite appropriate since they were rivals on the track and Michael considers Mika the toughest opponent he ever faced.

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Mika Hakkinen

I wonder for how long this new trend for ex-drivers as advisors will continue, however. Michael always looked the obvious candidate for such a job at Ferrari, thanks to his team-building abilities and motivating skills. But Mika seemed a very different sort, a pure racer without Michael’s cold calculation and insistence that everything be done his way. To me, he looks less suited to the position suggested at McLaren and would probably be better in some sort of public relations role. Everyone loves Mika, after all.

The idea of jobs for veterans has its appeal, even so. Imagine Gerhard Berger employing Jacques Villeneuve as Toro Rosso’s unofficial mouthpiece – Jacques would be happy being able to agitate everyone with outrageous statements and Gerhard would have a great laugh, being the practical joker that he is. Juan Pablo Montoya could be taken on by Super Aguri as a balance for their eternal Japanese optimism – and he could carry on biting off the heads of newsmen.

We could even extend the concept and replace Max Mosley with Alessandro Zanardi, thereby changing the face of the FIA from grim dictator to open and friendly. And he would be a constant reminder to everyone of the dangers of swapping to American oval racing. Damon Hill could be made lifetime president of the Grand Prix Drivers Association and continue his quest to be taken seriously.

Johnny Herbert would be the obvious choice for organizer of the FIA awards ceremony at the end of the year – that would be a real knees-up, instead of the pompous round of self-congratulatory speeches of old. And Heinz Harald Frentzen could be employed as his sidekick, never saying anything but smiling, smiling, smiling.

But most of all, I’d like to cheat a little and have Bernie Ecclestone replaced by a non-driver: Murray Walker. I can see it now…

“Of course you can have a Grand Prix… No, wait a minute, where did you say you were from? Brunei? Well, yes, I think we can manage that… Ummm, where is Brunei anyway?”

“My bet for champion next year? Oh that has to be Kimi Alonso, without a doubt. Or maybe Jenson Hamilton – after all, you just can’t rule out those Renaults, you know…”

Well, a little confusion can go a long way in any sport.

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