DON'T EXPECT McLAREN MOVEOVER IN MELBOURNE Hakkinen, Coulthard on equal footing entering season opener By Dan Knutson indyf1.com Special Correspondent INDIANAPOLIS, March 2, 1999 -- Formula One's 16-race world tour gets underway down under on...
DON'T EXPECT McLAREN MOVEOVER IN MELBOURNE Hakkinen, Coulthard on equal footing entering season opener
By Dan Knutson indyf1.com Special Correspondent
INDIANAPOLIS, March 2, 1999 -- Formula One's 16-race world tour gets underway down under on March 7 with the Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne's Albert Park circuit.
West McLaren-Mercedes teammates Mika Hakkinen of Finland and David Coulthard of Scotland wouldn't mind dominating the race like they did last year when they swept to a one-two finish. But the McLaren duo would prefer a little less controversy in this year's Grand Prix.
Team McLaren decided last year that which ever of its two drivers was in front in the first corner would keep station ahead of his teammate. The strategy was to avoid the risk of the two knocking each other out of the points while dueling for position. Hakkinen grabbed first ahead of Coulthard but lost the lead after making an extra pit stop because of a mix-up by the team. In a superb display of teamwork and sportsmanship, Coulthard later moved over to let Hakkinen retake the lead and the win.
"I don't think that we will be in that same situation again," Coulthard said. "If I'm put back 12 months and faced with the same situation then we'd probably make the same decision because that was the right thing at the time. But times have changed. We are not going to be in that position now, and I want to go out and race and try to win fairly and squarely." Hakkinen's win in Australia last year was the first of eight Grand Prix victories on his way to winning the World Championship. In the second half of the season Coulthard, who only won once, played a support role in Hakkinen's title fight with Ferrari's Michael Schumacher.
"I can take a lot of satisfaction from the fact that the team achieved what they did because of a large contribution from myself," Coulthard said. "It wasn't just a two-horse race between Michael and Mika -- I certainly played my part.
"The whole situation was absolutely right given that the championship was McLaren against Ferrari. It wasn't Mika against me -- I was in third place (in the points.) If that happens again I will do the same again, and if it goes the other way I would expect Mika to support me." Asked if he feels that he owes Coulthard anything for his assistance last year, Hakkinen quipped, "I owe David one dinner." He then added: "This year is this year - it's a new year. So we will see what happens. David and I will get equal possibilities from the team."
It's a new season, and both McLaren-Mercedes drivers are indeed on equal footing again.
"McLaren is one of maybe three teams in F1 that are capable of providing equal equipment," Coulthard said.
"All I can do is influence the future. I can't change the past. Now it's a clean sheet. I'm now exactly in the same position as everyone in the championship, including the current World Champion. I intend to go out there and as always do my best, but with an absolute focus and determination to make sure that I hit the ground running in Melbourne." So does Coulthard feel he's under pressure to win the World Championship this year?
"I don't feel the pressure," Coulthard said. "I can't feel that until we get to the racing and I can see how I'm performing. If I go to Melbourne and perform well, there is no pressure. Pressure is when you start to lose control. At the moment I feel very much in control." Hakkinen sees his teammate as one of his main rivals this season.
"David is extremely fast and competitive," Hakkinen said, "so he will give me a hard time this year. To win I have to beat him first. But don't understand that it is some kind of (feud) between me and David. It's a natural racing relationship, so we both have goals in our life, which is winning, and we are going to fight for it. But at the same time we have to think about the team and to give the best to the team."
Coulthard believes that McLaren won't have the early-season advantage that it did last year, especially because there is no competition among tire companies after Goodyear's withdrawal from F1.
"It's going to be a much closer year because everyone is going to be on the same tires," he said. "That's going to take away what we had last year initially in the Bridgestone advantage. I still believe very much that we are going to be one of the strongest teams. And I have renewed confidence in what I'm able to do.
"I've shown on occasion that I'm more than capable of leading the field. I know that I need to do that on a consistent basis to go for the championship. Whether I have the speed and whether I have what it takes to win Grands Prix, I don't think is in question, so I'm just going to give it my best shot and see what happens."
One thing that happened to Hakkinen after winning the championship was stardom. On a recent flight between Nice, France, and Barcelona, Spain, he ended up signing autographs for virtually everybody on the plane. A long vacation in December and January in the Caribbean, however, gave him a chance to get away from it all.
"When you become a World Champion your private life changes," Hakkinen said. "You have no private life unless you go inside four walls and close the doors and windows and turn off the telephones. You cannot go anywhere, particularly when you are in Europe. So that's the way life goes at the moment. There's little kids and a lot of fans -- you cannot tell them, 'No, I don't want to sign autographs.' So the decision to go the Caribbean on the boat was to have the privacy, not to escape from the fans, but just to get the mind clear and relax.
"There were a lot of European people in the Caribbean, but they left me in peace. They understood I was on holiday, so they didn't bother me. That was really nice. Plus the boat gave me privacy." Winning one championship hasn't diminished Hakkinen's desire to win it again.
"I am hungry like no tomorrow," Hakkinen said. "I tell you I really want to win. I've been very careful with my preparation for this year and the way I've approached this year mentally. I don't want to be in a situation where I start the season and am relaxed and think I'm going to win automatically because I'm World Champion and I'm the best. I have to fight for it.
"This year, I can feel it won't be any easier than last year." Still, he agreed that being champion is an advantage.
"To start the season as World Champion in a team is an advantage because people have more confidence in you because you won the championship. Winning a championship and winning races can only do good for you. I do feel that I drive better. I do feel that I'm stronger than last year. In my time off, I've also been able to concentrate on my weak areas and improve myself to be a better racing driver and to get even better results in the future."
It's been four months since the last Grand Prix of 1998. Coulthard can't wait to race again.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I LOVE to race, and I'm missing it. I don't miss testing, and I don't miss the travel. But there is no substitute in my life for the feeling before the start of a Grand Prix and going into the first corner wheel-to-wheel with other cars, not knowing what way they are going to go and which way I'm going to go. Basically we just make it up as we go along. "That is a great feeling, so roll on Melbourne."
Where to watch: Television viewers in the United States can view the Australian Grand Prix on FOX Sports Net or SpeedVision. FOX Sports Net will show the race, taped-delay, at 10 a.m. (EST) Sunday, March 7. SpeedVision will air qualifying live at 9 p.m. Friday, March 5 and will show the race live at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 6.