At this time of year – early November – I often find myself reminiscing about some of the most stressful yet most exciting times of my career. Yes, that is right, you have guessed it, I am referring to my world championship deciders.
I won two Formula 1 world championships, in 1998 and 1999, both of them for McLaren-Mercedes, and inevitably the first of them was the most visceral, the most intense. Let me explain why.
That year I flew to Suzuka via Shanghai, to appear in a series of marketing events in China’s most populated city for McLaren-Mercedes’ then title sponsor, West, and also to acclimatise myself to Far Eastern time zones. The first Chinese Grand Prix was held in 2004, six years after my promotional tour with West, and I can tell you without fear of contradiction that Shanghai was very different back then. It had none of the enormous neon-lit representations of iconic western brands such as you see there today; no, almost nothing was branded, the vast majority of the cars were clapped-out old Volkswagens, and 90 per cent of the people tottered about on rickety old bicycles.
But then, as now, the Chinese population was the world’s largest, and our sponsors saw great commercial potential there; that was why I was there, with West, of course.
I enjoyed myself there – and, as we had intended, I shed any symptoms of jet-lag in an effortless and enjoyable way during my stay. That being the case, when, after a few days, I flew on from Shanghai to Suzuka, I felt fresh, ready and confident.
I was just four world championship points ahead of my perennial world championship rival, Michael Schumacher, 90 points to 86, and clearly the world championship was all to play for. I knew that Michael’s Ferrari would be quick at Suzuka, and that Michael would be too, but I was also sure that my McLaren-Mercedes team had been leaving no stone unturned in an effort to find lap-time. So, although I was happy that my team and I had done and were doing everything within our power to set ourselves up for world championship success, and that is why I say I felt confident, so also I was edgy, nervous, ill at ease. The inevitable pressure guaranteed it.
That being the case, I did not allow myself to ponder the mathematical world championship permutations: no, I determined to win the race, at all costs, and the maths could go hang.
In qualifying, inevitably, Michael and I were the fastest two drivers, and by quite some margin. I carved a damn’ good lap, although I say it myself, but in the end Michael narrowly pipped me for the pole, by just 0.178s, the two of us a clear second faster than the third-placed man, my McLaren-Mercedes team-mate David Coulthard.
That night the press wrote headlines about ‘dramatic championship showdowns’ and the like, while I tried my best to sleep.
On race day morning, I pulled back the curtains that shrouded the single small window of my Suzuka Circuit Hotel bedroom, and I saw to my relief that the day had dawned fine and dry. I breakfasted with my manager, Didier Coton, after which we hurried to the paddock together. As the morning wore on, I tried to keep my pre-race routine as normal as possible: a meeting with my engineers, a chat with Ron Dennis, a chinwag with Norbert Haug, a bit of banter with David.
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As the sun climbed high in the sky, and I realised the race was about to start, I began to babble. I could not stop chattering – very unusual for a Finn and particularly surprising for me. In those days I used to keep myself to myself during grand prix weekends, the better to focus on the job in hand, but as I say on November 1st 1998 my nerves began to get the better of me, and I could not seem to shut up.
“Calm down, Mika,” I whispered to myself. I sat down on my own and began to meditate, forcing to the front of my mind all my pluses and all Michael’s minuses, the better to fill my mind with the right amount of confidence to take on the towering task ahead of me. Above all I reminded myself that my car was usually quick on full tanks, and that I ought to be able to press home that advantage in the race’s early laps.
As we drove the parade lap, I was keyed up, but my emotions were under control. We drew to a stop on the start-line. The five red lights shone bright on the start-line gantry, I revved my Mercedes V10 engine to the prescribed level, I let out the hand-clutch, and I powered away well. But it was to no avail because, behind me, 14th on the grid, Jarno Trulli had stalled his Prost-Peugeot and the race had to be aborted immediately, for safety reasons.
Inevitably, the tension mounted for all the drivers, but especially for Michael and me. After a while, we were waved out to drive another parade lap. I was conscious of the danger of putting my car under unnecessary extra strain – Formula 1 cars are designed to perform one start-line launch, not two in quick succession – so I drove extremely gently and slowly to the second start.
Ahead, I could see that Michael was being less circumspect. He arrived at his grid slot well before I did, and, by the time I rolled my McLaren-Mercedes up to its P2 position, his Ferrari had already been stationary for quite some time. I had driven the past 3.6 miles (5.8km) slowly, in order to safeguard the operating temperatures of my engine, my gearbox, my clutch, my everything. I had even been very careful with my steering inputs on that second parade lap, the better to make sure that I did not contribute to any early tyre degradation.
As I looked forward and across at the familiar sight of Michael’s bright-red Ferrari, I could not help half-hoping that I had judged things right and he had judged things wrong. Quickly, I flushed that thought away, and instead I began to plan my run to Turn One, hopeful that I would make the better get-away. Michael was always a prodigiously tough competitor, robust to the point of aggressivity in defence, and I knew that my best chance of getting ahead of him would surely be at the start.
But – lo! – just as we were all about to essay our second starts, Michael’s Ferrari stalled! My suspicions had been right – surely he had indeed taken undue risks on the second parade lap. So, as the race got underway, I duly led, Michael languishing at the very back. Second was Michael’s Ferrari team-mate Eddie Irvine, and third was my team-mate DC. Eddie tried to harry me, but I was not having any of it, and I was able to keep him behind without having to over-extend my car too much. My race had started perfectly.
But Michael was already on one of his famous charges. By the end of lap one he was already 12th – and, three laps later, he was seventh. He was driving brilliantly – there is no other word for it. My team were keeping me informed of his meteoric progress via the pit-to-car radio, but I was determined not to panic. All along, my aim had been to win the race; and win the race was what I still very much intended to do.
After the first set of pit-stops had all been completed, I was in a secure lead, ahead of Eddie in second place, but Michael was now third. Soon Eddie pitted again for new tyres, clearly on a three-stop strategy, which meant that Michael was now in second place. Okay, I still had a decent lead, but I had to pay silent tribute to my old foe: to storm from last to second in fewer than 30 laps, on one of the most challenging racetracks in the world, was a stunning performance, nothing less.
Would he be able to catch me? If he did, and if he passed me, we would end up tied on 96 world championship points, with seven wins each, and two second places apiece, but Michael would be world champion on account of having scored more third places than I had (three of them, to my two of them). So I absolutely had to hold him back. I absolutely had to win the race.
I put my head down, and began to push a bit harder. My car was feeling good. It was responding well to my commands. “You can do this, Mika, “ I said to myself.
In the end, suddenly, it was all over. On lap 32 Michael suffered big puncture to his right rear tyre, and his race was over.
I felt… strange. I realised that I was world champion, but it was peculiar to have won it in that way. It took me a few laps to assimilate the information: I was already world champion, despite the fact that the race was not yet finished. My reaction was to resolve to win the race no matter what – I wanted to win the world championship in style – and I duly reeled off the last 20 laps faultlessly.
Ron spoke to me frequently in the closing laps, on the car-to-pit radio, drawing on all his experience to ensure that I kept my emotions under control and did not make a silly mistake. He was – and still is – a very wise man. I maintained my momentum all the way to the flag, only slowing down on the very final lap, eventually beating Michael’s Ferrari team-mate Eddie by a comfortable 6.5s. In third place was DC, which I was very pleased about, because it meant I would have a good mate on the podium with whom to share my moment of glory.
As I crossed the line, I began to sing Finnish pop songs on the car-to-pit radio – I have no idea why. Well, with hindsight, perhaps I do, actually. I think I wanted to make clear that it was not just my victory. No, it was our victory. DC had been the perfect team-mate all year, and the McLaren-Mercedes engineers and mechanics had been superb all season. Together, we had won not only the drivers’ world championship, but also the constructors’ world championship, and, although I doubt if my singing efforts will ever be in danger of winning me a Grammy, I think my team-mates knew that I was trying to share my joy with them.
On the podium, with DC, tears came. I am not ashamed of that. They were tears of joy.
And that evening, over drinks and more singing (karaoke actually) in the legendary Log Cabin bar at the Suzuka Circuit Hotel, we all shared quite a lot more joy. Ron’s and Norbert’s faces radiated pure pleasure.
As I think about it all again, now, 17 long years later, it is all still so vivid. And when I bump into any of the guys who worked for McLaren-Mercedes back then – many of whom work for McLaren-Honda still now of course, and a few of them for Mercedes AMG – we do not have to say anything to one another, but we know what we are thinking. The pride we feel for our collective achievement will last for ever.
It had been such a long slog. We had worked together for five long years, with so little reward. And now, at last, we had done it.
We had won the drivers’ world championship and the constructors’ world championship.
I will never forget it.
None of us will.