STEADY AS YOU GO
In Montreal, a patient Mika Hakkinen showed why he's world champ
For a journalist, the problem with having Mika Hakkinen as
reigning Formula One champ (and as points leader this season
after his victory in Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix) is that he
does his job too quietly, with too much focus and too little
flamboyance. Complains a British motor sports writer, "We've got
a bloody world champion with that"--he raps a wooden
desktop--"for a personality."
Hakkinen, 30, would have it no other way. Having nearly died
after a crash in the 1995 Australian Grand Prix, a wreck that
left him in a coma for a day and hospitalized for three weeks,
the Flying Finn has learned "to walk a little bit slower," as he
puts it, describing his approach to racing, which is to say, his
life. "I learned that you don't have to rush," he said last
Thursday. "People tend to forget that in their lives. They keep
panicking, panicking, until one day they realize: Finished.
Enough. I'm not going to do this anymore."
Never was Hakkinen's patience more evident than on Sunday, when
Michael Schumacher, the most aggressive F/1 driver of this or
any era, started on the pole in his Ferrari and immediately
began turning blistering laps in the 1:21 range around the
2.75-mile circuit. Hakkinen said after the race that his McLaren
Mercedes "was stable enough to go as quick," but he chose not to
challenge Schumacher right away. "I knew that there would be a
time when something would happen, either to Michael or to me.
Going at the speed Michael went at the start of the race, either
of us could have gone off."
Schumacher finally did go off, on Lap 30 of the 69-lap race,
when he ran over the curbing on Turn 13 and slammed hard into
the retaining wall. "After that I just concentrated on
maintaining the right pace to win," said Hakkinen, who prevailed
for the first time in eight tries at the Canadian Grand Prix and
for the second week in a row. Said his boss, McLaren general
manager Ron Dennis, "Of all the top drivers, including
Schumacher, Mika makes the fewest mistakes." That may not make
for scintillating stories, but it wins world championships.
F/1 Drivers' Lament
GROOVED TIRES CURTAIL PASSING
Few observers will deny that Formula One races have become grand
processions--single-file promenades with a dearth of passing.
Through six events this year there have been no competitive
passes on the course for the lead.
A growing chorus of drivers, among them former world champions
Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, offers a
solution: Get rid of grooved tires, mandated two years ago as a
safety innovation to slow cornering speeds, and return to
treadless slicks, which, contrary to what their name implies,
provide better traction. Grooved tires (like the ones on
Hakkinen's car at left) make cornering on pavement about as easy
as Rollerblading on ice. It's hard for a driver to pass when
he's struggling to control his car. "All we want is a small
chance of managing an overtaking maneuver," says Villeneuve.
"That has become nearly impossible."
To date, those complaints have fallen upon deaf ears. Max
Mosley, president of F/1's governing body, the Federation
Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), canceled a meeting to
discuss the tire issue with team owners on June 2 and then told
The Times of London, in essence, that the drivers should stop
complaining, be content to collect their enormous salaries of as
much as $41 million a year and just drive. "Because they're paid
so much, they are not entitled to like or dislike [the rules],"
he told the newspaper.
Meanwhile, the world's most popular form of motor racing
continues to lose pizzazz.
The Americans Are Coming
FORD IS BUYING AN F/1 TEAM
Move over, Ferrari. Ford is about to become the first U.S.-based
manufacturer to own a Formula One team outright, and--as only
Ferrari has done consistently since the 1950s--it plans to be
aggressive technologically and financially after it completes
the $100 million purchase of the team owned by three-time world
driving champion Jackie Stewart. The deal will not only continue
the resurgence of American involvement in F/1 (the U.S. Grand
Prix is scheduled for September 2000 on a new road course at
Indianapolis Motor Speedway) but also increase efforts to
develop U.S. Formula One drivers.
American drivers have been conspicuously absent from that
series. Only two have won a Formula One world driving title,
Phil Hill in 1961 and Mario Andretti in '78. No U.S. driver has
won a Grand Prix since Andretti's victory in Holland in '78, and
none has driven in F/1 since Mario's son Michael flopped in a
brief stint with McLaren in '93.
In Stewart's estimation, only one big-name American driver,
NASCAR's Jeff Gordon, has the nerve, skill and lightning
reflexes needed for F/1 racing. "But it wouldn't be possible for
him to give up NASCAR and go to the lesser formulas of Europe
[for training]," says Stewart. "I understand that."
The next F/1 driver from the U.S. will probably be someone who's
now an unknown in his--or her--teens who will take three to five
years to develop. Ford is moving rapidly to create "the best
farm system" for advancing American drivers into F/1, says Dan
Davis, the company's director of special vehicle operations.
"We're looking for young talent, but that isn't enough. We need
to have a process in place first. We could get a hundred kids
tomorrow who'd be willing to begin the training. Before that, we
need to develop the right selection process and then decide what
it will take to get them to the top."
Meanwhile, Davis believes, Ford can stimulate American interest
in F/1 by winning with Stewart's current drivers, Rubens
Barrichello of Brazil, who didn't finish in Sunday's Canadian
Grand Prix, and Johnny Herbert of England, who finished fifth.
"Would we love to see some American drivers in there? You bet,"
says Davis. "If there's a way we can make that happen, you bet
we'll do it."
BOBBY LABONTE: A CAREER YEAR
Bobby Labonte has beaten up a few Pontiacs in his time, but he
has only killed one Chevy. He was 23 and his father, Bob, had
asked him to haul the family's 1978 Chevy pickup--the one that
hemorrhaged transmission fluid--to the junkyard in Trinity,
N.C., where they were living. "My older brother, Terry, and I
just hated that truck," recalls Bobby. "Which is why we decided
to shoot it."
So, before hauling the truck away, the Labonte boys ventilated
it with Terry's .44 Magnum. Unfortunately, Bob stopped by the
junkyard after work and saw the damage done. As a prank, he
called Bobby and said, "Bring that pickup back home. I've got
the cab sold."
Shaken, Bobby frantically scrounged around in vain for a
replacement. "For two days I sweated bullets," he says, "but to
sweat over a mad dad is a lot different than to sweat over
passing Jeff Gordon on the final lap."
This year has been no sweat for the 35-year-old Labonte. Or very
little. Labonte's fifth-place finish on Sunday in the K Mart 400
at Michigan Speedway was his sixth straight in the top 10. He
has led all but one of this season's 14 races and two weeks ago
won the MBNA Platinum 400 at Dover Downs International. His
2,075 points are third on the circuit, 94 behind leader Dale
Jarrett and 432 ahead of brother Terry, who's in 10th place.
Should Bobby maintain his current pace, he'll improve on his
1998 season, in which he finished a career-best sixth in the
point standings and earned $2,648,970, enough money to replace
that Chevy 1,000 times over. --Franz Lidz
COLOR PHOTO: ADRIAN WYLD/AP After letting Schumacher falter, Hakkinen cruised to the winner's circle.
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN Labonte (green) has been near the front all season, earning six consecutive top 10 finishes.
Consecutive aerial flips done by the Mercedes CLR driven by
Peter Drumbeck before it crashed into trees during the Le Mans
24-hour race. Drumbeck, whose car was going 185 mph when it took
off, was not injured, but as a precaution Mercedes pulled its
other car out of the race.