US GP Hakkinen, M. Schumacher brace for battle

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2000 -- Jacques Villeneuve sat strategically between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher at the FIA press conference Thursday like an intermediary keeping the rivals at arms-length until the battle begins...

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2000 -- Jacques Villeneuve sat strategically between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher at the FIA press conference Thursday like an intermediary keeping the rivals at arms-length until the battle begins Sunday. That's when Finland's Hakkinen and Germany's Schumacher face off in a pivotal race in this F1 season, the inaugural SAP United States Grand Prix, at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Each driver has won two World Championships and one or the other is likely to win a third when the season ends Oct. 22 at Malaysia. Hakkinen leads, 80-78, in the points. The standings could continue to remain tight or Hakkinen could open an imposing gap with a victory. Asked about the implications of the race, Hakkinen mulled the question and finally said, "It's really important!" Schumacher waited with the media for something further, then looked over at his adversary and exclaimed, "That's it?' This wasn't an Old West six-gun showdown. Nor was it a world heavyweight boxing shoutdown. In fact, this was almost a first gear shrugdown. Schumacher, champion in 1994-95, sat to the left of Villeneuve dressed in his bright red Ferrari suit and wearing his bright red Ferrari hat. He is 31. On the right of Villeneuve was Hakkinen, winner of the last two F1 titles and wearing a gray shirt with the word "West" emblazoned over his heart. He didn't wear a McLaren team cap and his dark blond hair was relatively short-cropped. He'll be 32 four days after the U.S. Grand Prix. Schumacher has won 41 races to tie the late Ayrton Senna for second place on the all-time list, only 10 behind Alain Prost's 51. Hakkinen has won 18 races and ranks 11th on the list. So how does this pair of auto racing gladiators relate with each other? Is it possible to be friends in such a high-profile sport? "It's really bad, really bad," responded Hakkinen in a display of humor. Then auto racing's "Flying Finn" turned serious again. "Well, let's not leave it at that," he said. "I think it is good considering, to be honest, considering the pressure that we are under all the time from public, from the team, and generally. "We have to - well, I am a person, anyway, who is fighting all the time to get the maximum possible result, try to win races. But I understand it's natural for all of us, and I understand Formula One. So sometimes the fight is really tough and sometimes, because you want to win all the time, it's difficult to accept somebody else to win." Hakkinen said it was hard to explain the competition and why it is difficult to build what he called a good relationship with another competitor. "But at the end of the day, if you're a grown-up person and you look at your life a little further, you realize Formula One and motor racing are not everything in your life. You have another side of your life, too, and that's what you have to look at when you consider the people, what he really is." Schumacher listened intently, tugging occasionally at his red Ferrari cap. Then it was his turn. Just as on the track, he didn't back off. "Actually, as we race, we test, we travel so much, it is honestly very difficult from that base to have a real friendship relationship anyway," he said. "On top, we're fighting for the championship. "I mean, to have a friendship for sure is the wrong word. But I think we have good respect to each other. We sometimes see each other. We sometimes have a drink together and pretty natural, on a good base, I would say." There wasn't much they could say about the new 2.606-mile, 13-turn racecourse at the Speedway that soon will become their dueling arena, with their 220-mph cars as their epees. Each arrived at the track five minutes prior to the press conference. Schumacher quipped when asked what he might do later in the day that he would "go to the beach." The German is coming off a victory at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza two weeks ago. It returned him to the championship hunt, and he wept after spraying the traditional champagne. The win was accomplished before the frenetic Italian fans, who look on Ferrari as something as a national team. "The only thing that would surprise you, naturally, is that people suddenly see you as a human, which I thought I was before," he said. "Yeah, I guess there will be a few people thinking that it might be on purpose or whatever. I think it is natural situations that come or don't come. I mean, they have come in 10 years the first time, so maybe you have to wait another 10 years." Actually, Hakkinen should have been the one to cry at Monza. He finished second, and his six-point lead was trimmed to two. Last year, Hakkinen clinched the championship in the final race of the season at Japan. "To me," Hakkinen said, "our cars are pretty close and drivers are pretty close. The difference is what you make out of it." Hakkinen and Schumacher were asked what a victory at Indianapolis would mean to them. Neither has any inborn feeling about driving at Indy like so many American drivers do when finally getting their opportunity and calling it "a dream come true." "Whether this race could mean a lot to me or not really depends the way it goes," Schumacher said. "I mean, a victory is not always a victory. If you have to fight for it, if it happens under special circumstances, that is when it means a lot." Hakkinen admits to knowing the history of McLaren in the Indianapolis 500 and says it would be great to add to the lore with this race in his McLaren-Mercedes. "When you go around the track and you look at it, it probably will give you something, some kind of emotions later with that," he said. "And particularly after the Grand Prix and after the race here, you know, it's going to be something special to think about."

-Indianapolis Motor Speedway-

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Michael Schumacher , Mika Hakkinen , Jacques Villeneuve , Alain Prost , Ayrton Senna
Teams Ferrari , Mercedes , McLaren