What is it about Finns and F1? They set the track on fire, race like the wind and slide their way in and out of the tightest of corners. Off-track, they have a deadpan sense of humour, frustrate journalists with their monosyllabic replies, and light up a podium with their rare smiles. The fans may have different affiliations, but they adore the Finns, simply because they are the racers who consistently deliver on that eternal F1 promise: to give the best possible racing they ever could.
Flashback to the late 90s: I was hunched over my computer at the newspaper office where I worked, struggling to finish my story. Voices rose and fell in argument. “No, he is not the best,” a colleague yelled, banging the door shut. “Mika Häkkinen is the best. Not Schumacher,” another voice yelled, fading away.
I personally couldn’t have agreed more. In my F1 timeline, Häkkinen was the original Finn, the fastest of them all. Yes, his determination and single-minded devotion to victory made the two-time world champion special. But so did his passion for the sport. However, more than that, for me, it was the fact that he was one the few racers who had the capacity to make Michael Schumacher sweat. The German would have agreed. He did, after all, call Häkkinen his toughest rival.
The rivalry and the Finn’s quick manoeuvring was most apparent in that famous Belgian Grand Prix in 2000 at the historic Spa. Häkkinen won the race by 1.1 seconds ahead of Schumacher after pulling off a breathtaking overtaking maneuver that stunned the F1 world.
It was a rainy Sunday that day. Schumacher had a wet weather set-up and the Finn had shifted to dry. The end of the race was near and it was obvious that the German and the Finn were headed for what was an inevitable face-off. The track had dried and Häkkinen tried to overtake Schumacher. The German almost pushed Häkkinen onto the grass. But the Finn was not easily bullied and exacted his revenge in the next lap, at the very same spot. He seamlessly pulled an overtaking move, passing both Schumacher and Ricardo Zonta. Häkkinen had scored a win – a phenomenal one at that, putting his name in the list of great F1 racers.
It was this determination to succeed that made Häkkinen special. It was enough to push him to return to racing after a terrible accident in 1995. The season was coming to a close – it had been a tough one for the Finn, who was racing a particularly uncompetitive McLaren. The last race was at Adelaide. During the practice session, debris punctured Häkkinen’s tyre and the McLaren hurtled into a wall. The impact was terrible. The rescue team reached Häkkinen and found him critically injured. Prof. Sid Watkins performed an emergency tracheotomy and saved his life.
Would the Finn return to racing? Would he still have it in him? These were oft-asked questions until Häkkinen returned a few months later, in 1996 and laid all doubts to rest. He is quoted as saying: “You can only get over your fears, if you attack them head on. So I had to driving again flat out.” And he did. A private test organized by McLaren proved it undoubtedly. Häkkinen went on to win the driver’s championship twice in a row – in 1998 and then in 1999.
But fans saw a different side of Mika Häkkinen in 1999. It was Monza and the fight for the championship was at its peak. Häkkinen was leading by points and was defending his championship. But it soon became stressful. The Finn was leading, quite comfortably, until he shifted into too low a gear, spinning off at lap 30. He later burst into tears at the trackside, in front of his fans. For that brief moment, we saw behind that cool façade, to an emotional Mika, one that touched a deep chord.
Häkkinen had a phenomenal F1 career, one that came to an end in 2001. He wanted to spend more time with his family, and stay safe.
Was Mika Hakkinen the best of the best? It is a question that is debated among many. But for me, he belonged to an era that gave us brilliant, competitive racing. For me, with 20 Grand Prix wins and 26 pole positions to his name, he was definitely the fastest Finn of them all.
You should know that…
– Mika Häkkinen started his career racing go-karts when he was 5 years old. He had an accident in his first lap, but that didn’t stop the little Finn. He pestered his parents until they got him a little kart of his own.
– Häkkinen trained as a circus acrobat and also started to study metal working. But the call of racing was too strong. By 1986, he was a five-time karting champion.
– Häkkinen’s manager was F1 champion Keke Rosberg.
– He made his debut at McLaren at the Portuguese Grand Prix in 1993, pairing with the great Ayrton Senna. He stunned the F1 world and the Brazilian by out-qualifying Senna.
– After the infamous incident at Monza in 1999, he said: “Formula 1 is a mind game, no question. You have to think so hard sometimes smoke comes out of your ears. And if you don’t keep your head in gear, the car will overtake you.”
– Following his accident at Adelaide in 1995, Häkkinen and Ron Dennis became close friends.
– In 1997, David Coulthard famously handed Häkkinen the second spot at the European Grand Prix following team orders.
– Michael Schumacher recently told BBC: “Mika Häkkinen was the best opponent in terms of his quality, but the biggest admiration I had for him was we had 100 percent fight on track, but a totally disciplined life off track. We respected each other highly and let each other live quietly.”
– Mika Häkkinen and Michael Schumacher may have been one of the biggest rivals in F1, but now, they often feature together in commercials for Mercedes Benz. Here are a few:
Watch Hakkinen overtake Sunday Driver Schumacher here:
– He returned to motorsports in 2005, racing for DTM for Mercedes-Benz, but announced his retirement from competitive motorsports in 2007.