Schumacher's return is 'fantastic', says Hakkinen

Mika Hakkinen hails the return of his old rival and reveals he also had offers to make what would be a sensational return to the sport.

ABU DHABI // Mika Hakkinen, the retired two-time Formula One world champion, has hailed the return of his old rival Michael Schumacher and revealed he also had offers to make what would be a sensational return to the sport. The Finn won back-to-back drivers' titles with McLaren-Mercedes in 1998 and 1999 and, had it not been for mechanical unreliability in 2000, could have secured the first hat-trick of championships since Juan Manuel Fangio in the 1950s.

Instead, Schumacher won the crown with Ferrari. Hakkinen retired the following season, while Schumacher went on to dominate the sport and win five consecutive titles to complement the two he had claimed in 1994 and 1995. Schumacher, 41, returns to the F1 spotlight next month after accepting a seat with Mercedes GP, the race team formed following a takeover of last season's constructors' champions Brawn GP, and Hakkinen, also 41, said he has had similar proposals offered to him.

"My doors are definitely open in Formula One," he said. "When you are a champion, they always are, but I have made it clear to the teams that I am concentrating on the management of young drivers so these guys can, one day, become F1 drivers." But while Hakkinen has spurned the opportunity of a comeback, he says the return of the German is exactly what the sport needs and believes the former champion has the strength to shoulder the burden of expectation.

"It is great news for Formula One and great news for the fans that Michael is back. It's fantastic," said Hakkinen. "It is an unbelievable challenge what he has taken on, but he has a team behind him that is a winning team, so that alone means he will get his chan-ces [to win grands prix]. "Yes, the driver is the leader and has to motivate the team and get the best out of the car in all situations, but it's down to teamwork. You can't say a title victory is 60 per cent the driver and 40 per cent the team because it doesn't happen like this.

"It's like if you are talking about a runner; it takes maybe four years for him to win, but then people question his shoes and his coach, his nutrition. "It's the same in motor racing, when you aren't winning, nobody notices. When you finish third, fourth, fifth, people say: 'He's not doing such a good job'. "But actually, what he is doing is working very hard to become No 1. "Then when he reaches No 1 you see the results and people start asking whether it's the car or the driver."

Schumacher is looking in good shape for his return as he prepares for the new season with the Mercedes team. The team showed good pace in last week's Jerez test in Spain as they continue preparations for the new season, which starts next month in Bahrain. The German said of his and the team's progress: "We completed everything that we wanted and were able to increase our understanding of the car a step further so overall it's been positive.

"It's very tough to understand the order of the teams just yet as everyone can play so much with the fuel loads. So there is a lot of speculation going on but it is all very interesting!" gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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