After struggling for much of the weekend, Mika Hakkinen got everything right on race day at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and claimed the World Championship lead for the first time this year in front of an estimated 20,000 Finnish fans at the ...
After struggling for much of the weekend, Mika Hakkinen got everything right on race day at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and claimed the World Championship lead for the first time this year in front of an estimated 20,000 Finnish fans at the Hungaroring circuit, outside Budapest.
Hakkinen had experimented with car setups for all five practice and qualifying sessions this weekend, but had not been able to find the right combination - not, that is, until it truly mattered. His best performance in practice sessions had been a third on Saturday morning, and in the Sunday morning warm-up he had been back in fifth place.
So he was on the second row of the starting grid for the sixth race in succession, an unthinkable situation considering his 21 career poles and his qualifying dominance over the past few years.
This time he was starting behind polesitter Michael Schumacher, with McLaren-Mercedes teammate David Coulthard sharing the front row. This posed a major challenge for Hakkinen, with the difficulty of passing at the extremely narrow and twisty Hungaroring circuit, but it appears the Finn had other plans.
As the starting lights counted up and then winked out, the Finn executed yet another perfect start, easily pulling past Coulthard, and nearly abreast of -and inside - Schumacher as the two approached the first corner. Hakkinen dared to stay off the brake pedal longer, though, and, when the two turned in, the corner was his.
"I think I said at Hockenheim that you make a start like that probably only once a year," mused Hakkinen. "But it's not true. I have done it twice in a year!"
So Hakkinen had a great start - but would he be able to fight off the German, who had been four tenths faster in qualifying, and over a second faster in the warm-up? As the two pulled away from the first corner, with Coulthard close behind in third, the pressure was clearly on Hakkinen.
The Finn was pushing his car hard, driving on the ragged edge, but managing to keep the red blur of Schumacher's Ferrari behind him. And then, gradually, his car came together, with the tires settling in, and the handling coming good.
So five laps in, the Finn had, seemingly miraculously, taken charge of the race. As he began pulling away, at half a second to a second per lap, some race observers thought that he might be on lighter fuel load, and planning on another stop.
But the three-stop window came and went, and none of the leaders came in. Hakkinen had pulled out a lead of nearly ten seconds at this point, and Schumacher had four seconds' advantage on Coulthard, so there was not much any of the leaders could do to change positions.
"Honestly, you have to say that today we were not fast enough to win the race," admitted Schumacher. "If [Hakkinen] hadn't overtaken me at the start, he would probably have done it later during the pit stops, because he was simply the fastest man on the circuit today."
Rubens Barrichello did manage to take advantage of a lightning-fast pit stop, though, to move ahead of Ralf Schumacher. The younger Schumacher had been holding back the Brazilian's Ferrari, but a 6.7-second stop moved Barrichello ahead on track for good.
After the stops, the race settled down, with relatively static track positions, and Hakkinen some 20 seconds ahead. Parade, you say? Not quite. Coulthard was staying close behind Schumacher, but not quite fast enough to make it past the Ferrari. The tension was definitely there, though.
As Schumacher ducked in for his second pit stop, it was showtime for Coulthard. Could he reel off some quick laps on an empty tank, and get ahead of Schumacher when he pitted?
Mysteriously, though, the McLaren driver pitted himself on the very next lap, losing the opportunity to make up substantial time. So when he exited the pits, the Ferrari flew past him just as he passed the pit exit line: a flaw in the McLaren strategy?
For the remainder of the race, Coulthard stayed close behind the bright red rear wing, but never really attempted to attack and force the issue, apparently content to settle for third place and four points. Had he attempted, and succeeded, passing, he could have outscored the German, and tied him for second place in the Championship.
"I did lose a lot of time behind the four Minardis that there seemed to be out there," recollected Coulthard. "Michael caught the traffic well, in that he caught them all in and around Turn 5. But I started 3rd and finished 3rd. That's all I deserve, really."
As it is, Hakkinen played it safe, slowing well down in the final laps to ensure a finish, and ended up just 7.9 seconds ahead of Schumacher, and 8.4 of Coulthard. Barrichello was fourth, another 35 seconds adrift, with Ralf Schumacher close behind.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen brought his Jordan-Honda in in the final points-scoring position, just barely avoiding being lapped by Hakkinen. Jarno Trulli, the only driver on a single-stop strategy, came through from twelfth on the grid to finish seventh, ahead of Irvine, Button and Salo.
So Hakkinen now holds the points lead, having scored an amazing 32 points - half of his points total - in the last four races, with Schumacher at 62 and Coulthard at 52. Barrichello now begins to look like a long shot, 15 points back of Hakkinen.
His mid-season blues long gone, Hakkinen is now clearly a serious Championship contender, and the pressure is on Schumacher to be able to be able to beat the McLaren in a straight fight. With the raw speed and the lightning starts Hakkinen has shown recently, though, that will be anything but a cakewalk.