Brawn Sympathises with Hakkinen's Plight

Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn paused for a moment at the French Grand Prix paddock, analysing another milestone victory for his team. Ferrari had done everything right, with World Champion Michael Schumacher chalking up his 50th Grand Prix win and taking a 31-point lead over title rival David Coulthard on a day to forget for suffering McLaren fans.

Brawn Sympathises with Hakkinen's Plight

Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn paused for a moment at the French Grand Prix paddock, analysing another milestone victory for his team. Ferrari had done everything right, with World Champion Michael Schumacher chalking up his 50th Grand Prix win and taking a 31-point lead over title rival David Coulthard on a day to forget for suffering McLaren fans.

But Brawn was not about to start gloating. Instead he offered his commiserations to the one man who has given Schumacher a harder time than any other rival over the last few seasons in Formula One but who has this year been living a nightmare.

"Poor old Mika, the poor boy must be suffering," he said. "I mean, when is his bad luck going to stop? I just feel a bit sad for him."

Finland's Mika Hakkinen, the two-times World Champion and runner-up last year, did not even start Sunday's race after a gearbox problem left his McLaren stranded on the second row before the formation lap. For the third time in 10 races, Hakkinen clambered out of a stalled car with his hopes destroyed.

"The engine ceased for some reason or other. They tried to start it but the starter motor didn't even turn it," he said. "I cannot believe it, I cannot believe how much bad luck I am having in this situation. I was super-disappointed."

The non-start left Hakkinen with just nine points, a massive 69 behind Schumacher with only 70 left to be won and with no hope of matching the German's three titles. He may yet win a race this season, particularly if team mate David Coulthard goes out or the title is settled early, but there can be no doubt that he is now a support act.

Nightmare

But how much help he can be to Coulthard for the rest of the year is a hard question to answer, despite team boss Ron Dennis facing regular questions from reporters about when he intends to introduce team orders. The reality is that Hakkinen has only once been remotely in a position where team orders might have been any use. And on that occasion, Coulthard's car expired before the situation arose.

Otherwise, the Finn has not won since last August and has trailed Coulthard, who now needs his teammate to keep Schumacher out of the top two just as the Scot did for Hakkinen in previous seasons. Hakkinen's lack of form has prompted inevitable speculation in the paddock about his commitment and the likelihood of him continuing in Formula One next year.

But McLaren and engine partner Mercedes have given him full backing and made clear they want him to stay.

"I do not see a Mika Hakkinen crisis at all," Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug said at Magny Cours before Sunday's race. "People can make their judgements. But if he wins the next race then it changes. He has had a problem in some races this season and he needs a little luck and he will be back to normal."

Hakkinen has been through tough times before, going 96 races before his first win and overcoming a near-fatal crash in Australia in 1995. McLaren have stood by him in the past when other teams might have given up. The Finn discounted before the season any suggestions that he might have lost his edge by saying how hungry he was to regain his title. And with a bit more luck his season could have told a very different story.

Although Hakkinen outqualified Coulthard in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, he went out in Melbourne with a suspension problem and managed only sixth place in Malaysia despite again qualifying ahead of the Scot. Brazil marked a terrifying new low when his car stalled on the grid and he was left waving his hands frantically to warn those behind him.

He could, and should, have won the Spanish Grand Prix at the end of April but the clutch on his McLaren exploded as he led with just five curves remaining to the chequered flag - a devastating experience for any driver. In Austria in May, he was again left stranded on the grid when he had a problem with his car's 'launch control'. The McLaren was pushed clear and Hakkinen joined the race in a doomed effort lasting less than two laps. Monaco also saw him retire with mechanical failure.

Simple Things

McLaren's reliability problems have not helped the 32-year old Finn any more than Coulthard, who has also suffered two frustrating stalls on the grid. But Coulthard has been able to limit the damage and score points consistently while Hakkinen has not.

"You never know why people are struggling, you never know whether it's something they can touch and put right or whether it's a concept that's not quite right," said Brawn, commenting more on McLaren's plight than Hakkinen's. "I don't know what their problems are.

"But I know when we've had difficulties in the past sometimes it's been a simple thing to put right and sometimes it's been a combination of things which takes a bit more time."

And time, after Sunday, is not on McLaren's side.

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