As we inch our way towards the start of the 2013 Formula 1 season, I find myself harking back nearly 20 years, to 1993; and, in a McLaren context, that means Ron Dennis, of course, and Ayrton Senna, of course, but also the arrival on the Woking scene of Mika Hakkinen.
During the summer of 1993, it became clear to all at McLaren - and to journalists and fans too, truth be told - that the high hopes that Ron had nurtured for Michael Andretti’s on-track performance were not living up to their pre-season billing.
Michael was the son of racing legend Mario Andretti, the 1978 F1 World Champion for Colin Chapman's Lotus, and, while there was no doubt about Michael’s robustly impressive credentials in the IndyCar racing environment, his bustling talent was destined not to kick forward at all effectively into the higher-tech cut-and thrust of the F1 front line.
In truth, Ron's decision to sign the Michael for 1993, announced during the 1992 Italian Grand Prix weekend at Monza, was a heady blend of inspiration, optimism and guesswork. And, despite our deep respect for Ron and our knowledge that even then he was already first among equals as an F1 team principal - having won Grand Prix after Grand Prix and World Championship after World Championship with Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna over the past decade - most of us F1 scribblers who were present on that balmy autumn day in the Parco di Monza were absolutely flabbergasted by what we'd just heard. By way of explanation, when we questioned him, Ron offered the view that he thought Michael could overtake as well as anybody he’d seen in either F1 or IndyCar.
It didn't work out that way, and as things panned out Michael didn't even complete a single season for McLaren, bowing out of F1 after a string of accidents and just one podium appearance, ironically at Monza, scene of Ron's bullish prophecies 12 months before. It was too little too late, and it was to be his final appearance on the Grand Prix stage. And who could argue with McLaren's decision to dispense with his services ahead of schedule when, in the other McLaren, Ayrton was showing what could be done by a man who really understood the complexities of how to supervise a Formula 1 car's violent and complex dynamics? The great Brazilian won five Grands Prix that year, including one of the finest victories any driver has ever scored, in torrential rain at Donington Park, on which afternoon he drove as though touched uniquely by the Gods.
The next 1993 Grand Prix after the Italian was the Portuguese, at Estoril. McLaren drafted in its test driver, Mika Pauli Hakkinen, to replace Michael, and the 25-year-old Finn outqualified Ayrton straight away. Rarely has any driver made a more auspicious McLaren debut, and two things were immediately clear: McLaren had another potential superstar on its hands, and poor Michael would never be seen in F1 again.
When Ayrton left McLaren for Williams at the end of the 1993 season, only to die in tragic circumstances the following spring in a Williams, young Mika stepped up to the plate, leading the Woking team through two tricky seasons, 1994 and 1995, serially outdriving his British team-mates Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell in so doing. Martin and Marky were both very good drivers, but Mika was already showing that he might perhaps become a very great one; neither the 1994 McLaren-Peugeot MP4/9 nor the 1995 McLaren-Mercedes MP4/10 was quick enough for him to be able to win Grands Prix in those years, but we who were watching closely saw and admired Mika's raw speed. So, undoubtedly, did the McLarenites, most especially Ron himself, then as shrewd a judge of a driver's in-cockpit ability as anyone, and massively if quietly impressed with his new 'flying Finn'.
By the time the F1 circus flew in to South Australia for the 1995 F1 season's finale, Mika was as beloved at McLaren as Ayrton had ever been. He had finished second in the previous Grand Prix, the Japanese at Suzuka, and we all thought that he was on the cusp of helping McLaren finally turn the corner, of assisting Ron's team's long-awaited return to greatness, no less. During first qualifying at Adelaide, though, Mika lost control of his MP4/10B in the 110mph fourth-gear right-hander leading onto the back straight. As he turned in, the McLaren snapped sharply to the right, vaulted over the right-hand kerb, flew sideways, and thudded into the tyre barrier that lined the concrete wall on the outside of the corner.
It was an enormous shunt.
Thanks to the calm but rapid intervention of the trackside medical team led by the late great Sid 'Prof' Watkins, the FIA's legendary medical delegate, Mika benefited from instant and efficient trackside attention. As he lay on the grass, one of Sid's men administered an emergency tracheotomy. He was then spirited to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, where his continuing recovery was managed personally by Sid.
At first we all feared Mika might be very gravely injured, or that even if his injuries wouldn't prove fatal he would never fully recover. The impact of the accident had fractured his skull, and had caused him to swallow his tongue, which had blocked the airway to his lungs. Brain damage was being rumoured in paddock and press room. Whatever the truth, and despite the fact that the trackside tracheotomy had saved his life, he was clearly still in a critical condition. Undaunted, Sid oversaw Mika's recovery at the Royal Adelaide - and, sitting by his bed, hour upon hour, willing him on, were Ron and his then wife Lisa.
Whatever happened next, Mika would always be special to McLaren.
Well, he did recover, and he recovered well. Less than three months later, indeed, he was back in the cockpit of a McLaren F1 car, at Paul Ricard, and his testing form was extremely encouraging.
Ironically, the first race of the 1996 season would be the Australian Grand Prix, in Melbourne, in the country of Mika's dreadful accident just a few months before. The 1996 McLaren, the MP4/11, was still not a race-winner, but few drives in F1 history have been much pluckier than Mika's brave run to fifth place that spring afternoon.
He drove well throughout 1996, in fact, making four podium appearances and very nearly winning the Belgian Grand Prix at the formidable Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
He continued to improve, but had to wait until the final Grand Prix of the 1997 season for his maiden F1 victory, at Jerez, and you could well understand the looks of pure joy on the faces of those who sat on the McLaren pitwall that afternoon, most notably that of the usually stone-faced Ron.
The rest, as they say, is history. Mika won eight Grands Prix in 1998, becoming World Champion in the process, and finally showing anyone who still doubted it that he was by now the fastest driver in Grand Prix racing. Granted, Michael Schumacher was already showing signs that he was about to restore Ferrari to their winning ways, which had deserted them for a generation, but motorsport historians will rank the Finn as faster in terms of raw speed than the German, and rightly so. Mika took the Drivers' World Championship in 1999 too, winning five more Grands Prix. He came close in 2000, too, finishing second overall and finally losing his crown to Michael, but only after scoring four more Grand Prix victories, one of them at Spa-Francorchamps, courtesy of one of the most magnificent overtaking manoeuvres ever seen on the F1 stage, vanquishing his hapless German rival, wheel to wheel, at 200mph, on a damp track, in the process.
Those three season - 1998, 1999 and 2000 - were Mika's glory years. He won 17 Grands Prix and two World Drivers' Championships in that time. By contrast, his McLaren team-mate, David Coulthard, himself a first-class F1 driver, won only six times during the same period.
In 2001 Mika was still as quick as ever when the mood took him, but in truth perhaps the raw edge of his will to win wasn't quite there unless he believed he could sniff victory. Besides, his McLaren wasn't quite as reliable that year as it should have been, and he lost points finishes as a result, not least of which was the bitterly disappointing Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona, which Mika lost cruelly on the final lap, owing to hydraulic failure, having been in an unassailable 40-second lead at the time. He won brilliantly at Silverstone and at Indianapolis, fair enough, but privately he'd decided that enough was enough.
At season's end he and Ron talked publicly of a sabbatical, but in truth it was the retirement that dare not speak its name. Or perhaps 'dare not' is the wrong phrase; 'bear not' might be more appropriate, because indubitably Ron would miss Mika more than he'd miss any retiring driver, and he knew it, and 'sabbatical' was perhaps a formula that made the parting more bearable for both of them.
They're still friends, 20 years on.