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Belgian Grand Prix Preview: Hakkinen the Hero!

24 August 1997

Andrew Frankl
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 1.

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 car.

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 tried harder.

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.