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Standing beside his broken car, smoke spewing from its rear, Mika Hakkinen could do nothing more than throw his arms up in the air and shake his head in disbelief.
Less than a minute earlier the double world champion had seemed destined to ignite his limp championship campaign with a first win of the season, having started the 56th and final lap of the
2001 Spanish Grand Prix with a commanding 42s lead over chief rival Michael Schumacher.
But lady luck wasn’t smiling on Hakkinen, and midway around Barcelona’s uphill Turn 3 his McLaren-Mercedes MP4-16 suddenly lost drive - a hydraulic leak leading to clutch failure. For several agonising seconds he freewheeled on in vain, desperately trying to breathe life back into his ailing machine as Schumacher’s Ferrari grew ever closer.
But there was to be no miraculous recovery, and as innocuous white smoke turned to bright orange flames Hakkinen ground to a halt, just in time to see Schumacher sweep gratefully by.
Still reeling from what had just happened, Hakkinen graciously waved to the large and sympathetic crowd as he hitched his way back to parc ferme on the sidepod of team mate David Coulthard’s car, but later there was no hiding his disappointment.
"It would be good to get a punch bag in the motorhome right now,” said the normally placid Finn. “I need to hit it a couple of times to relax...”
That Hakkinen was less phlegmatic than usual was entirely understandable. He’d arrived in Spain 22 points behind Schumacher in the driver standings, with unreliability contributing to a paltry tally of four points from the opening four races of the season. Worse still the McLaren ace had not won since defeating Schumacher with an electrifying move in Belgium the previous year.
But after qualifying alongside the German in Barcelona, shadowing him for the opening two stints of the race and then jumping ahead after the final round of pit stops, a fourth successive win at the Spanish venue looked nailed on for Hakkinen, especially when Schumacher began to drop back from his rival with tyre issues.
“It was going so easy,” sighed Hakkinen afterwards, “I didn't have to push, but it just didn't work out…”
Having settled for second place, Schumacher could barely contain himself as he rounded the final corners, gleefully waving his arm from the cockpit long before reaching the chequered flag. However, the reigning champion was quick to acknowledge his good fortune:
“We have been bloody lucky,” he told Ferrari’s strategy guru Ross Brawn moments after crossing the line. “But you have to finish and we did it, so good job.”
Though delighted to have secured a maximum points haul for the third time in five races, Schumacher’s joy was tempered by huge sympathy for his most-respected rival. He even broke parc ferme protocol in order to publicly console Hakkinen after the race.
"I feel very sorry for Mika," Schumacher said. "We had a very entertaining race and then he jumped me at the last pit stop. It reminds me of the old days, last year, and seeing him retiring on the last lap, five corners from the end or whatever, it's just, I mean, it's shocking."
Sadly for Hakkinen, there’d be plenty more heartbreak to come in what turned out to be his final year of Formula One racing. But for sheer gut-wrenching drama nothing could quite compare to Spain.