Three days after the World Trade Center crumbled in New York City, and while former F1 racer Alex Zanardi lay comatose with newly-amputated limbs, Formula One team McLaren distributed a press statement explaining that Mika Hakkinen, whose commitment and courage had clearly waned, “will take a break” in 2002.

Not far into his so-called sabbatical, a whisper buzzed around the Monte-Carlo paddock, just as it had a year earlier when journalists insisted that Hakkinen had lost his nerve.

“Have you seen Mika?” mischievously excited hacks giggled. “He’s here! He’s fat!!”

Hakkinen, who re-popularised the monikers ‘Flying Finn’ and ‘flat out’ and won two titles in 1998 and 1999 despite nearly dying in the Royal Adelaide Hospital in late 1995, had hopped from his Monaco apartment with his toddler son to reveal an apparent new affection for crates of Finnish vodka and Karelian pasties. In other words, in his mid-30s, Hakkinen discovered what teenagers do when they’re not winning five karting titles by the age of 16.

Soon after proudly developing a belly, Hakkinen was busy burning it off, and factored strongly in the 2004-2005 ‘silly-season’ as Jenson Button decided whether to honour his Williams or BAR-Honda contracts.

Ultimately, Hakkinen tired of waiting for lawyers to make up their minds and signed a deal to race in Germany’s Deutschen Tourenwagen Masters. He won at Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps.

Some observers, however, always suspected that Hakkinen’s DTM foray was just training-wheels for a proper F1 return. Mere weeks ago, at Michael Schumacher’s last ever race in Sao Paulo, Mika popped up as a guest of McLaren. Days later, he was clocking up a total of 10 hours in McLaren’s sophisticated driving simulator at Woking.

At the first test of the 2007 pre-season in northern Spain last week, Hakkinen pulled on a set of silver overalls and lagged the pace by a few seconds after doing more than a Grand Prix distance.

“Nobody should draw the conclusion that Mika will switch back to Formula One,” Mercedes’ competition director Norbert Haug insisted. Team boss Ron Dennis said there are ‘no plans’ for a follow-up test.

But the Swiss newspaper Blick on Monday quoted 38-year-old Hakkinen as saying: “Of course I would like another test. If I got another chance, I would be stronger and faster.”

In late 2004, the cover of the specialist British magazine F1 Racing lamented that “The Hakk should have come back!”

Mika Pauli Hakkinen, it seems, is a subscriber.