Tuesday May 8th, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
The Alpine backdrop to Sunday's Austrian Formula One Grand Prix reflects the mountainous task facing Mika Hakkinen. But, putting behind him the heartbreak of his last lap breakdown while leading the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona nine days ago, the McLaren driver knows he has every chance of victory at the A1 Ring.
Whether the Finn can make significant inroads into Michael Schumacher's commanding 32-point lead over him in the world championship standings is another matter but the circuit, with its uphill start to the first corner, has favoured Hakkinen in the past. It has also been good to his team mate David Coulthard, but has never smiled on Ferrari's world champion Schumacher.
Hakkinen won in Austria last year and in 1998 and has been on pole for the last two seasons. Schumacher went out at the first corner in 2000 after missing the race through injury in 1999 and he has only once finished on the podium in three attempts.
"Last year we were very unlucky and so the fact we have never won at Zeltweg is just a question of circumstances," said the German.
Coulthard has been runner-up in Austria for the past three years and, second in the standings eight points behind Schumacher, will be eager to go one better. But nobody is counting Hakkinen out, least of all Schumacher who said only last week that he still considered the Finn to be his biggest rival for the title.
Those words might have been also aimed at Coulthard, as Schumacher has wasted no opportunity to run his chances down at a tense time for the Scot.
McLaren boss Ron Dennis accused Coulthard of "brain fade" after the driver stalled on the grid in Barcelona in a rare public spat between the two. He later agreed the new electronic systems were at fault and exonerated the Scot.
But Coulthard will nonetheless be out to ram home a point or two in Austria and his run of form means Hakkinen must win soon to prevent the Scot becoming the sole focus of the team's title aspirations. But that scenario could still be some way off.
"Don't underestimate this guy," Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug said of Hakkinen. "Everyone thought it was over (last year) and he fired back."
Hakkinen, who clawed his way back from a 24-point deficit to overtake eventual title-winner Schumacher at one point in the 2000 championship, is ready to climb mountains again. Huge leads have vanished before, with Briton James Hunt winning the title by one point in 1976 after Austrian Niki Lauda suffered a horrendous accident at the Nurburgring.
Lauda had led Hunt by 35 points after seven of the 16 races in a season in which a race win was worth just nine points, rather than the 10 at present. Lauda will be back in the paddock as a Jaguar boss while Gerhard Berger, the last Austrian to win a race, is BMW Motorsport director at Williams.
The race will be the first in 20 years without a home driver on the grid following the departure of Alexander Wurz last season, but Germany's Ralf Schumacher - younger brother of Michael - considers himself a local.
"I decided to move to Austria, therefore at the A1 Ring I am going to have my first home race of this season," said the Williams driver, who won the San Marino Grand Prix. "In recent years I haven't had that much luck and I hope this time it's all going to change."
His Colombian team mate Juan Pablo Montoya - second in Barcelona - has good memories of the circuit having raced there twice before in European Formula 3000. Weather could be a greater factor than last year.
The 2000 Austrian Grand Prix was held in August and the change to May means there is more chance of rain, which would put more of a premium on tyres and the electronic traction control systems.