Mika Häkkinen seemed destined to make it to F1 from the very early days of his career. After all he had the support of tobacco giant Philip Morris, who in the 1980s and 90s operated a hugely influential and successful ladder of talent that stretched from the lower ranks all the way to Formula 1.
And then there was his manager and fellow Finn, Keke Rosberg, who applied the same canny approach to his protege’s career that he had to his own.
Nevertheless that first break doesn’t always come easy, even to the most talented of drivers. Indeed it took all of Rosberg’s nous and some sponsorship to propel Mika from winning the British F3 title in 1990 into an F1 seat with Lotus the following year.
The quiet birth of an F1 legend (1991 - 1993)
At the time Lotus was undergoing a slow slide from grace, but it still had a famous name, and employed some talented people. The team was to provide a useful apprenticeship for Mika, who was still very young, and eager to learn.
The 102B chassis was, let’s be blunt, uncompetitive, and his sole points-scoring result in 1991 was a fifth in only his third race. However, he fared well against more experienced team mate Johnny Herbert, and the 107 that came on-stream early in 1992 was a much better proposition. That season, Mika became a regular top six finisher, earning two fourth places.
At the end of the year Mika was ready to take the step up to a more competitive team, and indeed he did – but in unusual circumstances. Instead of landing a race seat he went to McLaren as third driver alongside Ayrton Senna and rookie Michael Andretti. At the time, this was a somewhat unconventional career move, but made sense – and actually validated the manouevure for a whole slew of other drivers.
Additionally, Senna hadn’t actually committed for the ’93 season, and there was a chance that Mika would race his car. In the end, the Brazilian would remain committed to the team – and blitzed to five of the most heralded and respected wins of his career.
Sitting on the sidelines was painful for someone who so obviously wanted to race. However, Rosberg had convinced him that there was a bigger picture, and that he had to be patient. He worked hard behind the scenes, truly shone in testing, and began to establish a close bond with the team.
When McLaren’s relationship with Andretti faltered, Mika was promoted to a race seat for the final three grands prix, starting at the Portuguese GP. On his first appearance with the MP4/8, he sensationally out-qualified Senna – and showed McLaren and the world at large that he was ready for the big time.
The thing is, the big time wouldn’t be ready for him for quite a few years yet…
The fallow years and the Adelaide crash (1994 - 1996)
As everyone knows, Senna moved to Williams for 1994, with tragic results, and Mika was joined at McLaren by Martin Brundle. The Briton had a decade of F1 experience behind him, and was thus a good benchmark. The other novelty was a Peugeot V10 engine, which was far from the benchmark power unit in F1.
It was to be a turbulent season for the sport, with the deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola, along with several other major incidents, putting a sharp focus on safety. In such circumstances it was not easy for any of the drivers. Mika also had to adjust to the role of representing a major team like McLaren as it went through a difficult dry spell after the glory years of Senna, Prost and Honda.
A lack of engine reliability and performance relative to the opposition was to prove problematical all season, and there were a few incidents, one of which earned him a one-race ban. However, Mika nevertheless logged an impressive six podium finishes, and crucially outpaced and outscored Brundle. Still, a first win remained out of reach – and, worse, didn’t even look close to materialising.
For 1995, McLaren had a new engine partner in Mercedes, and Mika had a new team-mate in Nigel Mansell. Up against such a famous name, Mika was keen to impress, but in the end Mansell started only two races for McLaren, calling time on his F1 career, and was replaced by Mark Blundell.
Mika thus established himself as the clear team leader; but the car had problems, and things were far from easy. After a season punctuated by frustrating retirements he earned second places at Monza and Suzuka, and expectations began to build for much improved form in 1996.
Everything changed in qualifying for the season finale at Adelaide. Mika’s car suffered a left-rear puncture and spun into the tyre wall. Hard. The impact was brutal: he suffered a severe blow to his head, swallowing his tongue in the process.
Marshals and medical staff were on the scene in seconds, and he was quickly extracted from the car where he received trackside treatment, including an emergency tracheotomy, that would save his life and stabilise him before he was transferred to hospital.
By the following morning the news was better, and it was soon apparent that Mika was out of danger, and that was the most important thing for his family, friends, and the McLaren team.
However for Mika himself, as he came to terms with the severity of the accident, only two things mattered. The first was the relatively straightforward act of getting back behind the wheel. The second was more complicated: after such a huge blow to the head, would he still have the speed and commitment of the old Mika? Plenty of drivers lose something after a big accident, and life never makes any guarantees…
The comeback trail & the Silver Arrows (1996 & 1997)
After staying in Australia until he was well enough to travel home, Mika spent the winter getting himself fully fit. All his focus was on returning to the track, and the opportunity came during a pre-season test at France’s Paul Ricard circuit on February 5th.
It was an important moment. It would give Mika the information he needed about his own speed and abilities, and it would also telegraph to the team that the young Finn was still their man.
Happily, any doubts that he or anyone else had were soon addressed – he was immediately up to speed, quicker than ever, if anything. It was business as usual.
Appropriately his first race back was in Melbourne, the new home of the Australian GP, and he finished fifth. It was to be a much better season than the previous one, with the car proving more consistently competitive, and Mika generally getting the better of new team-mate David Coulthard. In the second half of the year, he logged four third places: the McLaren-Mercedes package was gathering momentum, and all thoughts turned to 1997.
For ’97, there was a change of sponsor at McLaren, and the familiar red and white of the past two decades was replaced by a silver livery that reflected both the new sponsor brand and the racing heritage of Mercedes. The new MP4/12 was to prove to be a much more competitive package than its predecessor.
That was apparent at the first race of the season, where Coulthard somewhat unexpectedly won, and Mika finished third. As the season progressed, Jacques Villeneuve of Williams and Michael Schumacher of Ferrari soon emerged as the main title contenders, and both began to log wins. Mika had to be content with finishes in the lower reaches of the top six, while also enduring some dispiriting retirements as the package consistently gathered momentum.
However, by the middle of the year chassis and engine developments saw the MP4/12 really make progress. At Silverstone, Mika led in some style and looked set to score his first victory, only for engine failure to stop him with just seven laps still to run.
Third in Germany brought further encouragement, but there followed retirement in Hungary, a frustrating disqualification for a fuel irregularity at Spa, and a lowly ninth after a puncture at Monza, where Coulthard won again.
In Austria, Mika appeared to be on the cusp of a first win when he qualified second and jumped into the lead at the start – only to suffer an almost instantaneous, heart-breaking engine failure.
His luck looked set to finally turn around at the next race, the Luxembourg GP at the Nurburgring. Mika took his first pole, and the first for McLaren since Ayrton Senna’s with the team four years earlier. As the race unfolded, Mika led from team-mate Coulthard, until the Scot’s engine blew – and then just a lap later Mika suffered a similar fate, and dropped out of the lead.
That first victory was tantalisingly close, but still frustratingly out of reach. It really seemed that fortune was never going to favour him.
After finishing fourth in Japan, it finally came together in the season finale, the European GP at Jerez, albeit in unusual circumstances. The race was all about the battle for the title between Villeneuve and Schumacher, and after the pair collided and the Ferrari driver retired, Villeneuve just had to bring his car home third.
Running in second place, Coulthard was told to let Mika by in the closing laps. Then right at the end Mika easily slipped by an uber-conservative Villeneuve, who had his sights set only on the title, to take the lead – and finally claim his first win. Mika was a little surprised by the strange turn of events, but a win was a win, and an important boost heading into the 1998. The monkey was off his back – finally.
King of the world (1998 & 1999)
McLaren had undeniably been gaining winning momentum in 1997, and all thoughts were on 1998 and the new MP4-13 – the first Woking car built under the direction of new technical director Adrian Newey, who had found so much success with Williams.
From the start of testing, Mika knew that he finally had a car with which to challenge for the World Championship, and with Williams fading after losing both its works Renault supply and Newey’s influence, the season would be all about the fight with Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.
Already a double World Champion with Benetton, Schumacher was in his third year with the Maranello team, and at the top of his game. Over the next few seasons Mika would enjoy a rivalry with the German that would largely remain respectful and cleanly-fought on and off track.
Mika struck the first blow by winning the opening race of 1998, again in unusual circumstances after a radio mix-up led to an extra pit-stop, and Coulthard was once again asked to let him past. As an unintended consequence, that decision gave Mika a slim psychological edge over his team-mate, one that would help him to firmly establish himself as McLaren’s title contender.
It was to be a finely balanced battle with Schumacher. Mika won in Brazil, Spain, Monaco (after taking a brilliant pole), Austria and Germany, and nearly every other victory went to his main rival. It was close throughout, but a difficult race in Monza was a huge setback, and with two races to go they were on 80 points apiece.
Mika and McLaren fought back with a decisive victory over Schumacher in the Luxembourg GP at the Nurburgring, handing him a four-point cushion heading into the last race in Japan. When Schumacher took pole it was advantage Ferrari – but on Sunday, the German stalled at the start, was sent to the back of the grid for the restart, and subsequently retired after a puncture. Mika duly sealed his first title with a victory. The success came just three years after the Adelaide accident.
Mika’s brilliant form continued into 1999, and he fought with Schumacher until the German broke his leg at Silverstone. Thereafter Ferrari number two Eddie Irvine became Maranello’s title contender, and by continuing to log points, he stayed in the fight.
Mika won in Brazil, Spain, Canada and Hungary, but there were some expensive frustrations such as a lost wheel at Silverstone, a nudge from team-mate Coulthard in Austria, and refuelling problems and subsequent (and spectacular) tyre failure in Germany. The odds seemed to be stacked against him.
He also faced some personal demons after crashing out of the lead at both Imola and Monza. At the latter, a TV camera caught his devastation at his mistake, capturing him fleeing into the Monza forests to cry away his frustration. With just three races to go, the title seemed to be slipping from his hands.
A controversial FIA decision handed the Malaysian GP victory back to Irvine after an initial disqualification, leaving the Ulsterman four points clear heading to the finale in Japan. Mika had every right to feel that this wasn’t going to be his year.
But he responded in style, utterly dominating the Suzuka race, and leaving Irvine trailing home third. For the second successive year, he demonstrated incredible resolve and composure by taking the title at the last gasp – something definitely not for the faint-hearted!
An ending. And a beginning (2000 and beyond)
It was no surprise to see the 2000 season develop into another battle between Mika and Schumacher, with both men absolutely at the top of their games – and their respective teams also pushing to the limit on development.
Schumacher had the edge initially, and retirements in the first two races were a huge setback for Mika’s hopes. In fact he won just once in the first nine races, in Spain. Consistent scoring kept him in the hunt, and in the summer a run of three wins in four races propelled him back into the title battle.
That sequence included a dramatic race at Spa that saw Schumacher rudely chop Mika when he tried to slipstream alongside the German’s Ferrari. At 200mph, Michael pushed Mika onto the grass, igniting that quiet fury that had always descended on the Finn when it mattered most.
Mika gathered himself up and, exactly one lap later, made one of the most famous overtaking moves in F1 history when Michael was wrong-footed by a backmarker. As Michael steered left, Mika pounced on the right. It was all over in a split-second, but it was a mesmerising piece of assertive racecraft.
After the race, Mika had a quiet word with his rival about the earlier blocking move, his hand movements clearly relaying the moment the two cars came alongside each other. Given his style, he chose to deal with matters man-to-man, rather than make a fuss in public.
With three races to go, Mika led by six points, and a hat-trick of titles was on the cards. His advantage shrank when he lost to Schumacher in Italy, but the real turning point was a retirement in the USA that handed Michael the title lead. At Suzuka, which had been so kind to Mika over the previous two years, Schumacher won the race, and Ferrari finally took its first drivers’ title for 21 years.
Mika and McLaren were determined to bounce back in 2001, and no one could have predicted that it would turn out to be his final season. The year started badly with a suspension failure and heavy crash in the Australian GP. The accident came without warning, and duly provided Mika with a reminder of the inherent risks of the sport. He knew the significance: he’d had a very similar accident in Australia several years ago, and the resonance from this accident would go on to become a formative influence on his decision to retire.
It was to be a difficult year, punctuated by frustrating retirements, the most painful occurring when he lost victory with a cruel, last-lap clutch failure in Spain. In Monaco, where he retired early after struggling with handing issues, Mika began to experience some doubts about his motivation. He bounced back to score his first win of the season at Silverstone.
Nevertheless, the relentless pressure of competing at the top level for so many years was taking its toll, and at Monza in September Mika and McLaren announced that he would he be taking a sabbatical from the sport in 2002, a move that had been in discussion since Monaco. He continued to give his all on track, winning in the USA, before finishing fourth at Suzuka, scene of both his title triumphs.
In 2002, Mika moved into a mentoring role for his replacement and fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen. Any questions about how a return from sabbatical would play out were answered in the summer when he confirmed that he was now officially retired from F1. He would later decide to race touring and GT cars for fun – and he even had a little taster of F1 when he tested for McLaren – but from now on the focus was on family life, his young son Hugo now replacing the void left behind by racing.
Mika’s impressive CV lists two World Championships, 20 GP wins and 26 pole positions, but those numbers only scratch the surface of what was a remarkable story – and one that, in the light of Adelaide 1995, could have been so different.