In a series of blogs written for McLaren.com, two-time world champion and McLaren ambassador Mika Häkkinen tells us all about his experiences Down Under during his time in Formula 1.
Nowadays the Australian Grand Prix is staged in Melbourne, but, during the course of my Formula 1 career, which began in 1991 and ended in 2001, the race was staged in two cities: Adelaide in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995, and Melbourne in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001.
I won the Australian Grand Prix only once, in 1998, and you could safely say it was a controversial victory.
As soon as my team-mate David Coulthard and I drove our McLaren-Mercedes MP4-13s out onto the Albert Park circuit that year, it was apparent that our cars were the class of the field. The MP4-13 was an utterly brilliant design, the work of Adrian Newey and his team of very clever men, and it was soon clear that David and I would achieve that much prized racing feat, the front-row lock-out. We duly did just that, I in P1 and DC in P2.
The margin of our superiority was staggering. That being the case, we knew that, barring disaster, we would be able to finish the race first and second too. However, what Ron Dennis was adamant that we should not do was race each other flat-out and potentially shunt each other off. “Be professional, guys,” Ron told us. “One of you is going to be world champion this year, and it’ll be a long season, so don’t cause us all a load of trouble by racing each other hell-for-leather here, which could risk DNFs for both of you.”
So we agreed a plan: whoever arrived at the first corner first would win the race.
It so happened that, as we powered away from the line, I it was who pushed the nose of my MP4-13 into the Turn One apex first, and I it was who was duly leading the race as we led the field into Turn Two.
David and I reeled the laps off – and, although we were not driving at ten-tenths or anything like it, still we pulled away from the rest of the field as easy as you like. As I say, our performance advantage was devastating. Were we driving flat-out? Absolutely not, no. I was taking things easy, in an effort not to over-work my car or my engine or my tyres, and David was doing exactly the same thing, keeping a few seconds behind me at all times so as to ensure that he was letting enough cooling air enter his car’s radiators. (Overheating is always a danger if you spend a prolonged period driving up another driver’s chuff, you see.)
Everything was going absolutely fine until, at the end of lap 36, just as I was approaching the pit-lane entrance, I heard the team say something to me on the radio. The message was not clear, so, as I was hurtling towards the pit-lane entrance, I had to make a decision: to box or not to box, that was the question.
I decided to box. But, as I drove down the pit-lane, I saw that my pit-crew had not assembled in readiness, and I realised that I had misheard the team’s radio message. Then Ron’s voice came over the radio: “Keep going, Mika. Keep going. Do not box. Repeat, do not box.”
So I drove all the way along the pit-lane, straight past my astonished pit-crew, who were still sitting on their chairs in our garage, and powered back out onto the circuit. But by that time, of course, DC had taken the lead.
I was in second place, and I was angry: not with my team, but with myself. And so I began to drive absolutely flat-out, leaving no margin anywhere, forcing that brilliant car to deliver fastest lap after fastest lap in my efforts to re-catch David.
By lap 50 I was on DC’s tail. Ron then asked DC to move over and let me past, on the basis that, as per our agreement, I had reached the first corner first, and, on that basis, it was ‘my’ race.
David did not have to obey. I guess he could have ignored Ron’s instruction – as Carlos Reutemann famously ignored an identical instruction in Brazil in 1981, communicated to him via a ‘JONES-REUT’ pit board held out repeatedly by Frank Williams, for whose Williams team Carlos and his team-mate Alan Jones were then driving, which Carlos coolly accelerated past without lifting his right foot, duly winning the race by 4.4 seconds.
After the race, I thanked David from the bottom of my heart. He had done a very honourable thing, which is not surprising, because he is a very honourable man. It cannot have been easy for him to do, but he did it because he is a gentleman.
In fact, though, although the way things panned out that afternoon must have pained him at the time, I think the long-term result of his chivalry was entirely positive for him. He had told the world – and Ron of course – that he was the ultimate team-player. He would go on to race in Formula 1 for McLaren-Mercedes until the end of the 2004 season, nine seasons in all (1996 to 2004), winning 12 Grands Prix for the famous Woking team. During David’s long and distinguished McLaren-Mercedes career, the team grew not only to respect him but to love him too.
I drove for the team until the end of the 2001 season, which means that DC and I were McLaren-Mercedes team-mates from 1996 to 2001 – six seasons in all. During that time, we became firm friends, and I regard David as a good mate still. If ever he and I bump in to each other in Monaco, where we both live, we always stop for a chat about the old days, and we often have a coffee as we do so.
DC is a class act and a lovely guy. He was also a really good driver – in fact I think he does not always get sufficient credit for his skill and speed. The 1998 season was a great one for both of us – I won the Drivers’ World Championship and he finished third in it – but he was often scarily quick. At Monaco, for example, which race I won, he may well have beaten me had he not suffered an engine failure on lap 18. He was pushing me incredibly hard at the time, both of us streaking away from the rest of the field at a rate of knots, and I am not at all certain that I would have been able to keep him at bay had his car stayed healthy until the end.
But you need that kind of luck in racing, and in 1998 it was my turn to have it.
Anyway, I digress. This blog is supposed to be about Australian Grands Prix – and, although I was delighted to win in Melbourne in 1998, despite the controversial circumstances, there is another Australian Grand Prix that looms even larger in my racing memory. Yes, that is correct, you have guessed right: I am referring to the 1995 Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide.
The 1995 Australian Grand Prix was the 17th and final race of that year’s Formula 1 campaign, and we (ie, my team-mate Mark Blundell and I) had not had a great year. Neither of us had managed to win a race – my best results had been twin second places in Italy and Japan – and as we arrived in Australia I have to admit we were pretty tired.
Even so, there was a fantastic spirit within the McLaren team, buoyed by the fact that we were in the first year of our new partnership with Mercedes, and we knew that, although success had not come yet, it would not be long in coming.
As I drove out onto the circuit for free practice on Friday morning, I remember thinking, “Let’s really go for it this weekend; let’s try to finish the season on a high.”
By Friday afternoon, I was really pushing, and, as I approached Brewery Bend, which was a fast-ish fourth-gear right-hander that you tackled at about 175km/h [109mph], and which you always wanted to take flat-out so as to maximise your speed onto the long Brabham Straight that followed, I felt something weird at the rear of the car. It was a puncture. In fact it was a blow-out – my left-rear tyre more or less exploded.
Brewery Bend was a very tricky corner. It had high kerbs on both entry and exit, and you had to be extremely precise there. Well, clearly, with a blown left-rear tyre, I was never going to be able to avoid those tricky high kerbs, was I?
I did not avoid them. I slammed the brakes on, but the car was running on three wheels, and it was bottoming as a result, which meant that even the three wheels it had left were not making proper contact with the tarmac, as a result of which the brakes were not managing to slow the car properly.
I remember thinking to myself, “This is gonna hurt.”
I missed the apex, hit the exit kerb with an almighty bang, and felt the car become airborne. I looked ahead and saw the tyre barrier approaching, and I knew there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to avoid it.
The car landed, bounced, and then smashed into the tyre barrier head-on.
We had no HANS devices in those days, and very little side-impact protection. All I could do was try my hardest to brace my body for the impact, and hope for the best.
It was a massive hit. Afterwards, I was still conscious, and I remember sitting still, staring straight ahead. Soon I realised I could not move. Even so, I was oddly calm. I remember thinking to myself that panicking would be a bad idea, so I simply sat and waited for the medical team to turn up.
They arrived very soon, and immediately began to work on me. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my throat – I later learned they had performed an emergency tracheotomy – and I then passed out.
Fortunately, the Adelaide circuit’s ambulance was always parked very near Brewery Bend, and the nearest hospital was just five minutes’ drive away. So I was rushed to hospital very efficiently indeed.
When I arrived there, the doctors determined that I had fractured my skull pretty severely, and that I had sustained quite a lot of damage to my inner ear. In the ambulance I had developed a massive headache, and soon after I had arrived at the hospital I started vomiting. The doctors did an MRI scan, shaved my hair off, operated, and sedated me.
Some hours later, when I came to, Ron and his family were at my bedside. They looked shocked, but it was hugely comforting for me to see their familiar faces. Didier Coton, my friend and manager then as now, was there too.
I stayed in hospital for many weeks. My recovery was painful and slow. Some of the muscles on one side of my face had been paralysed in the accident, and as a result I was unable to shut my eyes. At night-time the nurses used to tape my eyes shut, so that I could get some sleep.
My headache was more or less permanent, and intensely uncomfortable, and could be controlled only by potent medication. Day after day I remember watching the clock, willing its hands to move faster, so that it would be time for me to take my pain-killing meds again. I had lost a lot of weight – I looked unhealthily skinny, in fact. It was a dreadful time.
I longed to get better. I longed to walk again. I longed to do normal things. At that time I was not even thinking about racing.
Eventually, the doctors cleared me to fly home to Monaco. Didier accompanied me. That was a painful and stressful flight, but it was great finally to get home.
Gradually, I began to go for walks, and then, at last, for slow runs. But every time I would break into a jog, my head would begin hurting like crazy again. But I kept at the jogging, and eventually my headaches began to become less severe. One day I said to myself, “Yes, I want to race again. Racing is my life. It is what I do. It is what I am good at. It is what I must do. It is, in fact, what I will do to pull myself back to full health.”
And, that day, I felt the most amazingly powerful will to win rise up inside me. “Yes, I will not only race but also win. In fact, I will be world champion,” I said to myself.
I called Ron and told him how I felt. He was pleased but circumspect, as you would expect. He arranged for me to test our new car, the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11, at Paul Ricard.
It was a truly beautiful day – bright winter sunshine – just perfect. The car looked fabulous. The mechanics were clearly pleased to see me, although I got some funny looks from them, because my smile was still lop-sided owing to the fact that the muscles on one side of my face were still not working perfectly.
I climbed into the cockpit, raised my right hand, gave a thumbs-up, and the mechanics started that big powerful Mercedes V10. I gave the throttle pedal a prod, let in the clutch, pulled out into the pit-lane and drove onto the track.
Immediately, I was in heaven. Straight away, I knew that I still had all my old talent. I began to push, and the lap-times were good. Soon I was driving absolutely flat-out.
I came into the pits, and smiled my lop-sided smile, and everyone looked very happy. It was one of the greatest days of my life.
The McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 was not a great car, as things turned out, but it was reliable and predictable. I won no races in it, but I scored a lot of points. I ended up in fifth place in the 1996 Drivers’ World Championship, having scored four third places, two fourth places and four fifth places, one of them in the season’s first Grand Prix… in Australia. I was on my way again.
The following season, 1997, at Jerez, I won my first Grand Prix, and the season after that, 1998, I won my first World Championship… which is where we started this blog. But I could not have done any of it without the wonderful guys at McLaren-Mercedes, who supported me even when things looked utterly hopeless.
I thank, and salute, them all.