Tuesday April 24th, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen faces a moment of truth at the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday. While his team mate David Coulthard will be aiming to seize the outright lead in the Formula One standings, Hakkinen has to fire up his slow-starting season soon or risk being left behind as an also-ran.
The former champion knows he will have few better places to do it than at the Circuit de Catalunya, where he has led Coulthard to a McLaren one-two finish for the past three years. Victory there would give Hakkinen a much-needed morale boost after four races in which he has scored a meager four points and seemed strangely absent.
If he fails to make an impression at the Spanish Grand Prix, in a race that sees the return of electronic traction control for the first time in seven years, he could find his hopes slipping away. Since his first career win at Jerez in southern Spain in 1997, Hakkinen has never been further behind at this stage of the season than he is now.
Time is not on his side and this year there are the added threats posed by both Coulthard and a resurgent Williams, who have turned the familiar McLaren-Ferrari battle into a three-way fight. Last year, Hakkinen arrived in Barcelona 22 points adrift of championship leader Michael Schumacher. The Finn won and went on to lead the standings by late summer before the Ferrari driver reasserted himself.
But in 2000 Hakkinen had been on pole for the first three races and had scored twelve points by this stage. This year he is 22 points behind Coulthard, who shares the standings lead with Schumacher on 26.
Hakkinen, who has not been on a podium now for five races, claims to be unconcerned in a season that has witnessed three different winners in four races.
"The results so far this season have not been ideal for me," said the two times champion. "However the championship is still a very open situation. No one is too far ahead and there are still plenty of points to be scored."
McLaren team boss Ron Dennis backed his chances: "Mika is a formidable racing driver and is more than capable of stringing together a series of GP wins," he said.
Although Coulthard has never won in Barcelona, he is the only driver to have finished on the podium in every race this year. The Scot is enjoying the best start to a season in his Formula One career and undoubtedly fancies his chances.
Last year he raced days after he and his fiancee survived a plane crash that killed the two pilots. This time, he is without the girlfriend but with far more determination. In the last two races he has broken Schumacher's run of wins and pole positions and is now poised to overtake the German.
Schumacher, who won the first two races of the season, believes Ferrari are ready to reassert themselves with the newly-legal electronic driver aids.
"I am in favour of this liberalisation which will bring more electronics into Formula One because we can drive faster and closer, for more time, to the limit," he said. "We had some very good tests on this track a month ago, we were the only top team to test there with the new car and this should give us a certain advantage," added the champion.
Schumacher's brother Ralf won the last San Marino Grand Prix - his first career victory and the first by a Williams driver since 1997 - but the team have been playing down their chances for Barcelona.
"We didn't test very strongly there at all in the last test," said team boss Frank Williams. "Quite a way off the pace, that's of some concern."
While Ralf will be looking for another win, his Colombian team mate Juan Pablo Montoya will settle for a first finish after four successive retirements. "Spain will be almost like a home GP for me and I am sure plenty of my fans will be there," said Montoya.
Two drivers will be having their first race outings with new teams after the first shuffle of the season. Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa returns to the fray at Jaguar after two seasons with Arrows, while Brazilian Luciano Burti will race for Prost after starting the season with Jaguar.