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Belgian Grand Prix Preview: Hakkinen the Hero!
24 August 1997
European Bureau Chief
There are moments in Formula One that people talk about for a long
time. One of them happened here in Belgium earlier today in
preparation for tomorrow's Grand Prix. During unofficial practice
Mika Hakkinen was really flying in his McLaren-Mercedes when the rear
suspension on the car broke. It could have been very, very nasty
indeed. As it was the unlucky Finn had to lie down once he got out of
the car as he was badly shaken. We were concerned that he may have
suffered a mild concussion but after a few minutes he got up and got a
lift back to the pits. Having had a quick medical he got into the
spare car and during official practice qualified an astonishing fifth,
way ahead of his team-mate David Coulthard who should have done better
bearing in mind that he just had his position in the team confirmed
for another year.
There were major dramas off the track as well, most of them relating
to Damon Hill's future employment. Hill may be a very good driver and
current world champion but when it comes to negotiating deals he is a
total beginner! As is his lawyer in my opinion. They went to Sauber.
After a lengthy conversation Peter Sauber produced a multi-million
dollar contract for signature. Oh no, said Damon, it's too early for
that, I am talking to other teams as well. In that case Mr Hill, said
the Swiss team owner, let my secretary show you the exit! Blunder No
Blunder No 2 came a few days later and became public here in
Belgium. It transpired that Hill also rejected what seemed like the
best offer-the one from McLaren-Mercedes. It is understood that the
money on the table consisted of 2 million dollars as a retainer plus
100 thousand dollars per point gained. Therefore a victory would have
added 1 million dollars, a second place 600 thousand dollars and even
a 6th place would have meant 100 dollars. All my fellow journalists
are in total agreement with me - a huge mistake! First of all
McLaren-Mercedes are the only team who have as much money as Ferrari
so they can afford to test, to experiment. They have just signed up
Adrian Newey from Williams who was the mastermind behind last year's
What does Damon do? I quote. "There were negotiations over
recent weeks during which an offer to drive the McLaren-Mercedes was
made. After considering the terms I was left with no alternatives but
to reject it.. etc etc." Ron Dennis of McLaren was not impressed "the
team sought to objectively analyse all driver options and placed
commitment to winning as a principle criteria for the selection
process". Which, if I understand it correctly means that the team
were not interested in paying out a fortune regardless of results.
Can't say I blame them. Hill did not drive with any great enthusiasm
for the first half of the season and only got his act together for
Silverstone and later for Hungary. I know that it's difficult to be
motivated in 18th place but for 6 million dollars a year he could have
Anyway, the saga continues.. will Williams take him back?
Will Prost find enough money? Can Benetton afford him? We will just
have to wait a while longer. It is getting rather tedious.
In the meantime Jacques Villeneuve proved that fast circuits
really suit him and the Williams as he stormed into pole position
ahead of job-hunting Jean Alesi who will be alongside him on the front
row. Michael Schumacher was third with the two young tigers
Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher fourth and sixth. With Finnish hero
Hakkinen in fifth place the start should be particularly interesting
as the first corner is just a hundred or so yards from the front row
of the grid. Traditionally there have been crashes galore at this
hairpin over the years so with hot-headed Alesi, over-anxious
Hakkinen, impetous Ralf Schumacher and hot-blooded Fisichella don't be
too surprised to see several cars drop out almost immediately . They
may even have to re-start the race.
Last year Michael Schumacher won from Jacques Villeneuve with
Hakkinen third. The race is 44 laps long, a distance of 306 kilometres
or 190.5 miles.