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McLaren bid for Hakkinen's successor

THE McLaren-Mercedes team has made a bid to hire 21-year old formula one prodigy Kimi Raikkonen as a long-term successor to fellow Finn Mika Hakkinen who is expected to retire at the end of next season.

It is believed that McLaren chairman Ron Dennis is willing to pay up to £5m to secure Raikkonen from the Swiss Sauber team who whom he is contracted until the end of 2003. McLaren would then use Raikkonen as a test and development driver next season prior to promotion to the race team on a long-term five year contract the following season.

Raikkonen's current boss Peter Sauber has today changed his tune and admitted that McLaren are stepping up the pressure after several weeks of steadfastly denying that he would release the young Finnish driver under any circumstances.

"Yes, McLaren are interested in Kimi," he told the Italian television network RAI. "There will be negotiations in the next few weeks.

"Kimi is a driver of the future and we will for sure take that into account. Two top teams are currently after him, but we would prefer not to let him go. It depends what and how much I am offered. If he will (does) go then I will surely make a good deal."

Raikkonen graduated to formula one this season with only a season's car racing in the minor-league formula Renault category under his belt. His lack of experience very nearly caused the FIA to deny him the necessary super licence as he had not graduated through formula three and formula 3000, but his pre-season testing performances were so outstanding as to allay the governing body's concerns.

However, the bid will throw McLaren into direct confrontation with key rivals Ferrari who are also keen to keep Raikkonen within their orbit. On the face of it they have a strong card in that they lease Sauber their V10 engines at an annual cost of around £18m and could adjust the fees in Sauber's favor in exchange for an option on Raikkonen's services.

Yesterday McLaren would neither confirm nor deny the stories. "As previously stated we will make an announcement regarding our 2002 driver line-up when we are ready," said a team spokesperson.

"We are currently looking at a number of different factors regarding the overall structure of our driver program. However, we know exactly where we are going and are waiting for final details to fall into place."

McLaren insiders are known to be deeply concerned about Hakkinen's fluctuating form throughout the current season. Although he has shown extremely competitive form in several races, most notably on his run to victory in the British grand prix at Silverstone and his decisive domination of the Spanish race which he lost due to clutch failure on the final lap, there have been other races where he has looked much less convincing.

There is also a worry that the 32-year old Finn might decide to quit in the middle of next season if he loses his motivation. Under those circumstances McLaren would want to be in a position to move Raikkonen straight into the race team alongside David Coulthard who is also expected to stay in 2002.