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Mika: The Flying Finn

A flash of silver. A crooked smile. Calm acknowledgement of another stellar win on the podium top step – a single hand raised, rarely two. As gracious and understated in victory as he was stoic in defeat.

From 1997-2001 Formula 1 grew used to this sequence being played out in the closing stages of grands prix, as Mika Hakkinen, a double world champion for McLaren in 1998 and 1999, shimmered his way to 20 wins – all for the team with which he contested nine of his 11 F1 seasons.

He was – and remains – the coolest of world champions, in a manner way beyond any “chilly Finn” cliché so often attached to those of his far northern European clan. Reserved in public, yet gregarious in the company of those he likes and trusts, he represents, in fact, a certain ideal of a McLaren driver; a champion who gave his all for the team (almost, once, his life) asking only in return that the team similarly gave their utmost to provide him with a car worthy of his mesmerising skills.

When they did, in that fin-de-siécle epiphany, the Mika-McLaren combination proved strong enough to take on and beat the mighty Schumacher-Ferrari juggernaut, earning Hakkinen a place in F1 legend as one of only two or three drivers demonstrably capable of vanquishing Michael Schumacher at the peak of his abilities and aided by a team constructed to service his every whim.

Did Mika want to shout about it? No. He was never, even, particularly interested in talking about how he did what he did, while he was doing it. That came later, when a slightly older, more reflective Mika Hakkinen opened up about matters such as beating Ayrton Senna in qualifying on their first weekend as McLaren team-mates (P3 to P4 at the 1993 Portuguese GP); or being the silver foil to Schumacher’s red meat as the pair contested a series of epic duels at the end of the 90s and into the noughties.

Hakkinen holds a particular place in the affections of McLaren personnel because above all he was so singularly fast and it’s this aspect of his driving that remains the most abiding: sheer speed, ice cold and pure as the winter snows of his homeland.

One who witnessed his wheelcraft up close throughout Mika’s magic years was team-mate David Coulthard – no slouch himself with 13 grand prix wins, 12 of them for McLaren. “He never made mistakes,” says DC, “despite always seeming to be on the limit – particularly when he was entering corners. I think he was a classic example of a very natural talent – actually more naturally gifted than Michael, and he deserves to go down in F1 history as one of those absolutely quick guys in the sport.

“And while he didn’t necessarily say much about what he was doing,” Coulthard adds, “he was a lot smarter than he let on in public. Which is pretty clever in itself when you think about it…”

A little mystery, then, to the Mika magic? An ability to keep his rivals guessing while setting lap times that had them scratching their heads as to how he was doing his stopwatch-defying thing?

That’s certainly a view shared by Alex Wurz, McLaren third driver from 2001-2006 and another who had the bittersweet experience of watching a peer take race machinery to levels of performance out of reach for most. “There was one particular thing he used to do – I saw him do it a number of times actually,” Wurz recalls. “He’d be talking to his engineers during practice or qualifying and they’d point out maybe one corner where he was losing a bit of time and missing out on pole or whatever. So he would go out and improve every corner of the lap, except the one that his engineer had singled out, and still set pole. It was as if to say ‘I’m the one who knows how to set the fast lap times around here’. It was quite funny in a way and I actually found Mika one of the funniest guys in the paddock, once you got used to his sense of humour.”

But for those outside the very small Hakkinen race retinue (no trailing entourage for this studied Scandinavian), that slightly distant persona was one he maintained scrupulously throughout his racing career. To understand why, it’s necessary to rewind to the darkest moment of his career: a near-fatal crash in a McLaren at the 1995 Australian GP.

The accident happened on Friday afternoon as Hakkinen hustled his MP4/10 around the popular Adelaide street circuit. On the approach to the Dequetteville Hairpin, braking from maximum speed on the main straight, he turned right, only to feel his car snap away instantly at the rear, a moment after turn-in, then loop out-of-control into the barriers.It later emerged a four-inch cut in the left-rear tyre had made it deflate suddenly as it took load under corner entry, leaving Hakkinen helpless at 130mph.

He suffered a serious head injury in the impact and had to undergo life-saving windpipe surgery while still in the cockpit. During a dark period for Formula 1, which had recently lost Ayrton Senna, Roland Ratzenberger and seen Karl Wendlinger suffer brain damage, it seemed briefly that Mika would be the latest addition to a morbid tally. Yet he survived to make a sceptic-confounding full recovery, in time for the the 1996 season. Not only that, he believes the accident forced a re-appraisal of aspects of his racing that would prove the foundation of his later success.

“Let’s put it this way,” he says. “I’m a positive person so I think that without that accident I wouldn’t have been a double world champion. So maybe that helped me to realise areas in my career that I didn’t realise before. Maybe it helped me to grow up and be more mature. Maybe it helped me to be a bit more laid-back and think ‘ok, let’s take it now easy and think twice about what am I going to do there with this and that’. So it had a lot of positive effects. Definitely it was something I would carry for the rest of my life. I damaged my hearing and that makes my life everyday a bit more difficult. Otherwise there are no physical problems.

“But in these situations you have to stand up and you have to push forward and you have to believe in yourself, although I hope nobody has to go through an accident like that again.”

Without doubt it was a watershed experience for an ambitious young charger whose reputation for scorching pace was already well established, despite not yet having won a grand prix. It brought Mika even closer into the fold of a team in which he had emerged as lead driver and established bonds of trust that he believes enabled him to perform to the very peak of his abilities.

Then team principal Ron Dennis, who stood vigil at Hakkinen’s bedside until he regained consciousness a day after the accident in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, has spoken since of how the incident and recovery process brought him closer to Hakkinen than he had been to almost any other driver. Mika confirms the strength of their relationship was a cornerstone of his, and McLaren’s championship successes in 1998 and ’99: “I never forget the very first meeting I had with Ron,” he says, “and he asked me – we were facing each other, just me and him: ‘Mika, you think you are the best? You think you can win races?’ And I looked in his eyes and I said: ‘Of course I’m the best and of course I can win races.’ And I think from that day on he realised he had a driver who has full confidence; he had a driver who will give everything from his life to be a champion with McLaren. He knew also he had a driver who has respect for him and the McLaren team and he never lost that confidence in me. It created between us a fantastic relationship knowing we are together in this business – which is very hard – but that we wouldn’t give up. We were not losers. We just wanted to win. And I felt he had confidence in me and that I would never turn my back and say ‘this team is no good’. Ron gave me full trust. And that’s the kind of people he wants to be in the team: people who believe in that. It meant we were working always on the details and he pushed the people to get the maximum out of themselves, to get the result for the team. And of course for yourself.”

Here, then, is the key to Hakkinen’s place at the top table of speed: an immense natural gift, allied with absolute self-belief, itself founded on an unbreakable bond of trust with those in his team.

And, of course, like any top pilot, he needed a car tuned to his liking – although he was less fussy than some, remembers Phil Prew, Mika’s performance engineer in 1998-99 and now McLaren’s principal race engineer. “He would drive the car with a lot of front end and he needed a lot of corner entry stability,” Prew explains. “Then, as long as the car was balanced, he would be happy driving it on the limit. He was able to drive around problems, too, and very quickly adapt to what the car was doing – any changes in its behaviour. That wasn’t always the most helpful thing in qualifying, when you were chasing an ideal set up, but in the race it was a massive benefit, because as the car degraded, he was able to adapt his driving style.”

From such a potent cocktail could magic be conjured: the titles, wins, pole positions and fastest laps, yes – but also the manner in which they were achieved. When Mika was in his element, he was simply unstoppable.

Prew recalls Hakkinen’s resolve ahead of the 1999 Japanese GP, which Mika had to win, to guarantee his second title. “We were under immense pressure,” Prew says, “as we had to come from behind Eddie Irvine in the points to win the title.”

Their fight had gone right to the final race and Ferrari were able to play a wild-card to help Irvine’s cause: that man Schumacher. Back from injury since the previous round in Malaysia, after an accident at the ’99 British GP, Schumacher could act both as hare and tail-gunner for Irvine – whatever it took to keep Mika from a title-winning position. He had done so to perfection two weeks earlier at Sepang, helping Irvine to a win and Ferrari to a 1-2 finish. At Suzuka, however, neither had any answer to Hakkinen.

“He started from second, behind Schumacher,” says Prew recalls, “but before the race, he just said to us, ‘ok so we’ve got to win this race.’ And he went out and did it.”

"He was an easy guy to work with, but quite Finnish in that he kept his emotions very close." Phil Prew

Ice in the veins begat grace under pressure, Prew reckons. “He was an easy guy to work with, but quite Finnish in that he kept his emotions very close, in my experience. Sometimes that could make him difficult to read, but it also made him very resilient to things going on around him.” That resilience was surely never better demonstrated than during the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix, which, thanks to Hakkinen and Schumacher, delivered one of Formula 1’s defining moments.

Lap 40 and Hakkinen is closing down Schumacher for the lead. Mika heads Michael 64 points to 62 in the title hunt and both are chasing a rare prize: for Mika the prospect of a championship hat-trick; for Michael, the first Ferrari drivers’ world title since Jody Scheckter’s in 1979. Both are double world champions at the peak of their powers.

Pole-sitter Mika has half-spun on lap 13, but senses an opportunity to catch and pass Schumacher, six seconds up the road. Ace vs ace; grand prix motor racing distilled to its essence.

Hakkinen’s recollection of that unforgettable Sunday is, unsurprisingly, pin-sharp: “What an amazing race that was,” he grins (lopsided, of course). “It was a really amazing grand prix. Conditions were very difficult – dry, wet, changing – but we got the set-up right and it was great. The moment when I tried to overtake him before the end of the race [lap 40] he was really blocking me very heavily. [The cars touched at nearly 200 mph –Schumacher’s right-rear touching Hakkinen’s left front-wing endplate.] And I was shocked because it was not 80km/h. It was like 300 easily and in those type of speeds if you lose control it’s guaranteed you will hurt yourself and seriously. Automatically I had a word afterwards with Michael to understand what was the purpose of the exercise. Racing is racing, but there has to be certain limits to what you do. And I’m not trying to speak like the angel of the racing track! I’m a tough guy on the track and I don’t give any millimetre where things are tough. It’s very important here to say that it’s not the purpose to stab the knife in Michael’s back and say he’s the bad guy. I don’t want to look back in history and say what a horrible grand prix, what a bad guy. What is gone is gone and this was Michael’s way of functioning, but he’s the only person to justify his way of operating to people. All I would say now is that I would hope he doesn’t ever do something like that to someone again, because you really have to squeeze your legs together to do something like what I did, you really have to go for it. [Laughing] You need big balls, you know.”

The ‘big balls’ thing that Mika did next became instantly the stuff of grand prix fable. On the run up to Les Combes, with an unwitting Ricardo Zonta separating Hakkinen from Schumacher, he passed Michael on the inside line at 200 mph, into the wet-dry braking zone.

He admits that their earlier touch had empowered him not to back off, but inside that white-and-blue helmet, a cool head was keeping any bloodrush well in check.

“I suppose that adrenaline is an important part of your performance when it comes to sport,” Mika reflects, “but it has to be something that you can control to be able to make right decisions. And I was able to turn that moment to my advantage. And of course it gave me more courage to be able to say ‘ok, you wanna play the game? Let’s play the game’.

“Eau Rouge corner at that time was flat in sixth gear in qualifying but in a race configuration it was not flat because the tyres were a bit knackered and the suspension was already tired. But in that moment I said to myself when I was chasing him: ‘Ok, I’m going to have to do it flat, otherwise I’m never going to have enough speed to be able to overtake him’ and I went flat. [YouTube clips confirm Mika’s unwavering right foot.] And when I was going through Eau Rouge – I will never forget this – I couldn’t believe what a stress the whole machine was going through. I thought it was going to explode, the whole machine, and I was holding the steering as hard as I could and keeping the correct line, because if I lost the line I would have flown off I think into the centre of Spa! So I managed to get it right and as soon as I was on the straight following Michael I thought ‘That’s it. Now I’m going to go for it and at the same time I could see Zonta in the distance and I thought ok: ‘now I have a plan A and I have a plan B’.

“But when I actually did overtake I was very worried because the inside line was wet but the racing line was dry and that was the line where the Michael was and I thought if he’s going to push now, there’s no way I can brake as late as he can. I was hoping that he would be so surprised that he was going to brake early and he was going to give up. And he did. It gave me just an unbelievable feeling.”

Ice on fire – it was as pure a moment of grand prix theatre as the sport has ever produced, though the touch between the cars didn’t pass without repercussions.

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who admits to a special fondness for Hakkinen, was outraged by Schumacher’s potentially catastrophic blocking move and post-race headed for the stewards’ office, brandishing a piece of damaged Hakkinen front-wing endplate that bore rubber marks from high-speed contact with a Schumacher rear Bridgestone.

“I didn’t take it off and think ‘what a great memento’,” he says. “It was me being enraged and wanting to throw it on the desk of the stewards, and say ‘you can’t allow someone to do this stuff. This is what this guy is doing. He’s going to kill someone.’

"He wanted to win by doing the best job. That’s who he is. That’s what he stood for." Martin Whitmarsh

“But Mika was cooler than any of us, despite having every reason to be enraged. Rather than have a head full of rage, he’d had the clearness of thought and ability to react and pull that stunning manoeuvre.”

All classic Hakkinen, Whitmarsh reckons, going on to relate how, from an early stage in his career, Mika focused simply on “being quick”.

“He decided that would be his philosophy,” says Whitmarsh, “as he’d worked out that devoting energy and time to anything other than things that made the car fast would be a waste of focus. So he isolated himself as regards paddock politics, or any team issues, and kept this calmness about him. It meant that on his day he was the quickest man on the planet and a driver who could intimidate others – even Michael Schumacher – by his sheer speed.”

More than this though, more, even, than “absolute fearlessness” or “huge bravery” is a quality Whitmarsh has found to be incredibly rare in individuals as driven as world champions must necessarily be: sporting integrity.

“Some drivers will win at any cost,” he says, “and they bend good sportsmanship, ethical behaviour and morality in the quest for success.

“Mika wanted to win as much as any of them, but he had such high ethical moral standards that he was not prepared to win at any cost. He wanted to win by doing the best job. That’s who he is. That’s what he stood for.”