Switzerland's Sauber motor racing team are reportedly on the brink of selling young Finnish driver Kimi Räikkönen to Formula One giants McLaren-Mercedes.
According to Germany's 'Bild' newspaper, McLaren are hoping to unveil Räikkönen as their new driver at this weekend's Italian Grand Prix in Monza, where the team's current driver Mika Häkkinen is expected to announce his retirement from the sport.
However, Mclaren on Thursday dismissed as speculation the report that Hakkinen was set to announce his retirement. The company added that a decision concerning the driver's future was expected before Sunday.
Peter Sauber, the head of the Swiss team, has already confirmed that McLaren have expressed an interest in the 22-year-old Räikkönen. In previous interviews, though, Sauber said he hoped negotiations would not interfere with the team's preparations for the last three races of the season.
"McLaren are interested in Kimi," Sauber told Italian television recently, "There will be negotiations in the next few weeks."
Sauber added that his Hinwil-based outfit wanted to concentrate fully on their bid to hold on to fourth place in the constructors' championship, but that the discussions over Räikkönen were distracting the team.
Sauber has also been keen to remind people that he is capable of blocking any move by Räikkönen, who is currently under contract to Sauber until 2003. However it is now widely believed that the Swiss team will release the young Finn from his contract in return for a sizeable compensation fee from McLaren.
The 'Bild' on Thursday suggested that the deal could cost the British-based team SFr 25-40 million ($15-24 million).
If a deal is done, the early termination of Räikkönen's contract is likely to come as a personal blow to Peter Sauber who fought hard to get the driver his Formula One licence when many in the sport were arguing that the Finn lacked the necessary experience.
Sauber are currently experiencing their best ever season on the Formula One circuit, with Räikkönen and his fellow driver Nick Heidfeld having already accumulated 20 points.
That tally has put the team in fourth place, behind the giants of Ferrari, McLaren and Williams, and four points ahead of their nearest comparable rivals BAR and Jordan.
swissinfo with agencies