A1-Finn! Hakkinen answers his critics at a canter

Remember Mika Hakkinen? You know the one: that burnt-out, demotivated husk of a man going through the motions? Well, he won the Austrian Grand Prix without breaking into a sweat, some 12.5s ahead of his on-the-boil McLaren team mate David Coulthard, and has now closed to within two points of DC and a mere eight of points leader Michael Schumacher in the battle for the world championship

A1-Finn! Hakkinen answers his critics at a canter

For his part, the Ferrari team-leader recorded his third DNF in four races after crashing out at the first corner. Not a crisis yet, but certainly a drama. Rubens Barrichello brought his Ferrari home third, some 18s behind Coulthard, but with the Brazilian's machine also damaged in the biggest first corner melee of the season, it's difficult to say if Schumacher could have taken the fight to the Woking equipe. Probably - actually, make that very probably - not.

But even with Coulthard as the benchmark, Hakkinen was in a class of his own. France two weeks ago had been touted as the race when Coulthard finally took from Hakkinen the mantle of McLaren's main man, but the A1-Ring proved that talk of the Finn's demise had been somewhat exaggerated, to say the least. With another seven races to go, and based on present form, if the championship does become a two-horse race, it's more likely to be between the McLaren duo than Coulthard and Schumacher. The tide has turned...

"I think we have a lot of reasons to feel confident going into Hockenheim," said the Finn afterwards. "We're always quick there, so I'll be going flat-out."

So much for demotivated...

"I'm happy to accept six points," said Coulthard, who had started his 100th GP in Austria. "I don't think there's any need to start thinking of world titles - I just want to look ahead to the next Grand Prix, that's all."

McLaren's second one-two in a row also finally gives it the upper hand in the constructors' points, with a lead over Ferrari of six points. What a difference a couple of weeks makes, eh?

At the start of the 71-lap race, with the weather deciding to behave itself and stay dry, Coulthard and Hakkinen both matched revs and clutch to perfection, the silver pair running side-by-side to the Castrol Kurve with a good hundred metres of clear air to the rest behind. But at the corner, with Hakkinen on the outside, Coulthard had to give best and tuck in to second.

"I took it as far as I felt comfortable," said Coulthard, "but Mika was on the outside and had the advantage. Where I was, which was the dustier, inside line, you have to accept you can't brake as late or as hard."

Behind the McLarens, both Ferraris had supplied a masterclass in how not to start, bogging in tandem and bunching the rest of the field behind. Schumacher had the inside line from Barrichello going into the first corner, but was tagged up the gearbox by Ricardo Zonta's BAR. Cue mayhem of fittingly Wagnerian proportions...

The Ferrari slewed the full 180 degrees, coming to rest on the outside kerb and forcing Barrichello and both BARS to ride the gravel. Worse still, the compressed pack behind - a legacy of the Ferrari duo's slow start - had nowhere to go. Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella ended their races there and then and Schumacher R was badly delayed too.

Schumacher was out of the car in seconds and waiting for the reds to come out. And waiting... And waiting... But for the first time this weekend, it seemed the FIA and its race director were not on the German's side. Safety car out, yes; red flag, no. Game over for Michael Schumacher, the culmination of a particularly disappointing Austrian Grand Prix weekend and his third retirement in four races.

Afterwards, Schumacher remained remarkably stoic, and was quick to deflect the bulk of the blame from Zonta: "That's pretty disappointing, but that's racing," he shrugged. "I don't think Ricardo does that sort of thing deliberately - he just over-estimated his own abilities into the corner.

"The marshals did a very good job, unfortunately..." he added wrily. "But that's the way it goes."

The safety car circulated for two laps, then let them go again with the order looking most unlikely: Hakkinen led from Coulthard, fair enough, but behind them Pedro de la Rosa's Arrows was challenging Mika Salo's Sauber for third and Johnny Herbert's Jaguar was holding off the sixth-placed Ferrari of Barrichello. You may need to read that last sentence before trying to take in the following too: Jenson Button (qualified 18th) was up to seventh, ahead of Marc Gene's Minardi (qualified 20th). Wow! Michael Schumacher spins off and the whole world changes shape...

Immediately after the restart, de la Rosa passed Salo for third, with Barrichello passing Herbert for fifth on lap five. Almost simultaneously with Barrichello's move, Heinz-Harald Frentzen closed another disappointing weekend for Jordan, spinning off on his own oil as the Jordan-Mugen Honda suffered a terminal moment.

With the top 10 looking pretty static and the McLarens pulling away almost at will from de la Rosa's Arrows, Ralf Schumacher pulled into the pits for a change of brake discs, losing eight laps, and Jos Verstappen got the chance to cheer de la Rosa on - yeah, right...! - when his Arrows gave up the ghost.

On lap 16 after much rumination and cogitation on the video evidence, and despite Schumacher's seemingly laissez faire attitude on the incident, the stewards called in Ricardo Zonta for a 10s stop-and-go penalty for the opening corner attack on the Ferrari. Deserved? Discuss...

By lap 30 of the scheduled 71, Hakkinen led Coulthard by 15.2s, with de la Rosa another 25s behind the Scot. Barrichello was a further 3.3s in arrears, with Salo and Herbert running in close formation in fifth and sixth, but almost 70s behind the leader. Button, Gene, local hero Alexander Wurz's Benetton and Nick Heidfeld's Prost completed the top 10, but for excitement, this certainly didn't look like being a repeat of France - especially when McLaren began to hold out the boards saying drop the revs. Cruise mode? Before half-distance?

"Once Mika had enough of a lead over David to cover anything untoward in the pitstops," said McLaren team boss Ron Dennis, "we decided to slow them down a little."

"It's something a driver doesn't necessarily want to see," added Hakkinen, "but I didn't know if it was a problem, or if there was just no point to push, so I dropped the revs by a couple of hundred."

Lap 32 and bad, bad news for Arrows: de la Rosa, comfortable in third, had his gearbox go kaput big-time after his and the team's most competitive showing yet - especially since they were running the same one-stop strategy as the rest of the field. No two-stop, ultra-lightweight, get on the telly strategy here!

"It's not enough just to know we were third at the time," said a frustrated de la Rosa. "Not finishing another race is not good for me or the team. We were on the same one-stop strategy as the others, not two stops, so it's unfortunate."

Cruelly, Verstappen's retirement turned out to be gearbox too, but the team can take heart from its A1-Ring form.

Lap 38 and the first of the big guns pitted, Hakkinen peeling in to the pits and stopping for 10.1s. Not a great stop, but good enough. Coulthard followed him in on lap 41 and left after 9.2s, status quo maintained.

No way would this race ever be decided by pit stops, but just for the record, Barrichello was in and out in 8.0s on lap 46, Button did it in 9.1 on lap 47 and Villeneuve registered a rather rapid 7.8s on lap 49, getting out ahead of the English youngster.

Oh, and just as an aside - for that, sadly, is all the beleagured Prost team is at the moment - the blue cars contrived to collide with each other going into the first corner on lap 42. Jean Alesi dived under Heidfeld, who turned in unaware of the French-Sicilian's presence, and both cars cannoned into the gravel in an explosion of carbon fibre. Alain Prost is rumoured to be close to selling the team to a Canadian concern - one wonders what they believe they are getting...

"I'd tried to overtake him once already," said Alesi, "and we'd already touched then. Afterwards, we had the definitive accident. The team knew the strategies we were both on and I signalled them to tell him to let me past, so..."

With the stops out of the way, things had settled down once again. Hakkinen - that's the supposedly stressed-out, demotivated Hakkinen of recent legend, remember - led Coulthard by 15s; Coulthard led Barrichello by 25s, and Villeneuve, now fourth, was 53s behind the Brazilian. Button was fifth, but a huge grassy moment - and brilliant recovery - on lap 54 meant he had Salo and Herbert breathing down his neck.

Gene held eighth, just ahead of Wurz and Diniz, with Luciano Burti making the most of his Jaguar chance by holding on to 11th.

Zonta's bad day got worse on lap 60 when his Honda engine decided to explode. The Brazilian pulled off into the gravel, but was nearly collected by the driver of the recovery digger, who in his haste to pull the BAR out of the kitty litter missed his head by all of six inches with his boom. Zonta gave the short-sighted Styrian the finger, but if he hadn't managed to see a whole Zonta, one solitary pinky probably went unnoticed.

The Schumachers' weekend to forget ended on lap 62, Ralf coming in to the pits to jack it in for the day after a spin. On the positive side, he'd put some more mileage on the BMW engine, erm, and the team had found out how long it takes to do an impromptu brake disc change, erm, and that's it really.

On lap 67, with things winding down, Coulthard threw in the fastest lap of the race with a 1m11.783 effort, but Hakkinen was still totally in control, just counting down the laps to his second win of the season. The Finn crossed the line after 71 laps with a 12.5s margin over Coulthard - easy stuff, and good for the title race. With seven races to go, Schumacher leads Coulthard by just six points, 56 versus 50, with Hakkinen a mere two further back.

Barrichello was another 18s back, with Villeneuve, Button and Salo completing the point-scorers. For Button especially, that was a pretty timely result, should the Englishman - as is expected - be forced to tout his wares elsewhere for a seat for next season.

"It's great to get some points again after such a long time," said Button. "The last time was Silverstone. I had my little excursion towards the end, but I told Patrick (Head) and Frank (Williams) that I did it on purpose, because it was getting a little bit boring!"

So, rested and relaxed, 'the Hakk' is back and Ron Dennis remains adamant that his drivers will be left to race each other until one of them is out of the running. Things are getting interesting... With the bit back between the Finn's teeth, the Scot still unable to stop scoring points even if he tried, and the German in the Ferrari reeling from yet another DNF, the German Grand Prix in two weeks' time - home ground for Schumacher and McLaren's engine-supplier Mercedes-Benz don't forget - could turn out to be the most crucial race of the season.

For full race results click here.

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