MIKA ON MICHAEL
For more than a decade, from F3 through to F1, Mika and ‘The Michael’ (as Häkkinen always referred to Schumi) were coauthors of a classic motorsport rivalry. It reached its peak in the late 1990s, when Mika was at McLaren, Michael at Ferrari. Here – exclu
Häkkinen and Schumacher were two halves of a classic F1 rivalry. Here, Mika looks back at a late-’90s golden era
The race with Michael that sticks in my mind always is Spa 2000, which was just an amazing Formula 1 battle. Two guys at the very top of their game, two evenly matched cars – it can’t get any better than that.
But for a long time the battle was – how would I say it – invisible on TV. Me and Michael, we had many racing situations, heavy battles, but the overtaking that year at Spa was an ongoing process. It did not happen in the way of ‘follow somebody, overtake, and you continue’. No, it was not like that, because in the early stages of the race I spun when the circuit was still a little bit wet.
Luckily I was able to keep the engine running and, of course, Michael ‘neeeeeeyyyyyoooooowwwwwww’, takes the lead and I’m thinking: ‘wow’.
But the name of our game is always to nd positives. That’s part of success, being able to take positives; staying realistic and positive. So at the moment when I spun, I knew I still had a good car, and that I could continue, so I said: ‘that’s it, I’m going to go at-out and I’m going to catch him’. But it took a long time, you know? It took a really long time, many laps.
Spa of course is quite an amazing race track – I don’t think there’s any racing driver who doesn’t like it. It’s just beautiful to drive. So I was enjoying myself, and the moment that I started catching Michael, I had the full racing driver mentality – full concentration: how will I pass him? These are his strengths, these are his weaknesses… And he starts to do the same… pushing hard and responding to my pressure, because he knew that I wasn’t in a position to attack straight away.
But I was catching him comfortably, slowly. So, okay: the braking was slow, the acceleration was good, I was looking at different parts of the track where he was strong and where he was weak. And Michael, of course, was clever – he was always putting his ultimate concentration in those areas where he was a bit weak. Doing the best job in places where he was weak, and really focused on where he was quick. So he was balancing, you know?
But I really realised that in the last chicane before the pits [the old ‘Bus Stop’] that his braking here was not so good. Once I detected that, I started to brake late there to maximise the advantage. I was taking risks, because I knew that the only place where I could really make a difference was there, and I knew my straightline speed was better, too.
The wet/dry conditions had made a difference as well. It was not fully dry for the race, so the setup of the car was a little bit compromised. But I felt that McLaren had done a better job – we had a better compromised setup, which enabled us to perform better.
As I say, it took a long time to be in a position to try to overtake Michael and when I did get close to him, after Eau Rouge, he was always closing the door – always!
I was amazed really, because he saw me in the mirrors needing to come so fast, but every single time he closed the door. And I was like: ‘Ah, excuse me, this is not any more like I ‘close the door’, this was more like he was slamming a door.’
So I said to myself: ‘Okay, there are still laps to go, let’s cook him a little bit, let’s really wait until the right moment.’ And all the time I was pushing more and more, getting to Eau Rouge faster and faster – and really that way I could show him the sort of speed I had, so that he should understand not to close the door. But he did, all the time.
Then one lap there was a backmarker [Ricardo Zonta], who appeared there like a gift, and he was going pretty slowly. I saw him after Eau Rouge in the distance and I thought: ‘Hmm, this could be a chance.’ Michael made his move to pass him, and it was a logical move for him because the racing line for the braking was completely dry, and it was on the left. The inside line [into Les Combes] was still a bit humid – it was not fully dry. So he thought ‘right, he cannot brake as late as I can brake.’ But obviously I got the tow from Michael, then I got the double tow from Zonta. It meant my speed was so high he had to give up. I got the
“For some reason, Michael was always the man to catch”
impression it was a nice move for the spectators and commentators to watch: a great battle. When you were racing Michael – and I raced against a lot of great drivers in my career – you always knew about his car control and his concentration in a racing situation. He was always able to just keep that going. With some other drivers you could never know what they were going to do, but it wasn’t like that with Michael, which is why it was nice to race against him. Yes, of course Michael was aggressive, but when you sat side by side, he knew when it was time to give up. He never gave up easily, he was a tough guy to race against, but he did know when it was time to stop the battle.
That was a very, very interesting thing. I think because he had won the world title quite early in his career, it builds up a certain approach and discipline level. For example, when you’re thinking of making a move, you give yourself a little bit more time. I think that’s why, side by side, he’d know to wait for a few laps.
I would say that he certainly gave me the most exciting moments in terms of him following me. When he was behind me I really had to put in a little bit extra effort. If there were some other drivers behind me, it gave me maybe a little bit of a nervous feeling because you didn’t know what they were really going to do. But with Michael I knew he would be more logical. I think it was because I’d known him like that for such a long time, since we were kids racing. So I knew his mental approach.
I had moments of real learning up against Michael, like in our great Formula 3 race in Macau, in 1990.
In the rst heat, I won and Michael was one-and-a-half or two seconds behind me. Of course, there were two heats, and the winner would be the one with the best time calculated from both. This was the rst time I’d done two heats, two starts, so somebody should have given me a shake before the second race, ‘Do you understand – it’s the time that matters, not winning it!’ But I was a young guy and this is life, this is how I was learning, by making mistakes.
For the second heat I started on pole, then I think I made a mistake on the start. Michael got the lead, and I was following him. I was surprised at the performance of this car: it was quick. I was pushing hard to capture all the time – one second, two seconds, then suddenly – click – I forgot the time and just concentrated on staying close to Michael. It is a natural racing driver feeling to want to win, and the pressure was high and I knew the importance of the race.
On the second till last lap, everything was ne, I was following Michael, pushing all the time. We were both in fth gear and our top speed was 155mph, and we were taking the last corner at. But it was only at if you got it right, and Michael made a mistake on that corner. Then, when the last lap started, he made a mistake; he missed the apex. I suppose he was nervous. I was behind and he expected me to make a move. His mistake wasn’t deliberate. It was a human error, because the race was so demanding. He made a mistake at 150mph, I thought I would go past, then just as I started to overtake he changed the line.
I crashed into the back of his tyres, ew into the air and the game was over. It was like thinking you have won the lottery, and then you go the shop and you nd, ah, you missed it. So with Michael there were moments like this where the emotions were so high you didn’t know how to handle them. That’s quite normal when you think about the effort from the team, the preparation and the waiting to come to that race – everything was fantastic and then everything was gone: everything was destroyed.
Now, after two championships, I don’t have to think about these things any more, but at the time, well… racing is a hard game and people don’t forget. Sooner or later you can give it back. And I believe that without that moment in Macau, I don’t think I would have been twice world champion. It gave me more of an edge to understand ‘Okay, let’s continue this ght’. Everything has a meaning and reason.
By the end of the 1990s, now in Formula 1 with McLaren and Ferrari, we again found ourselves ghting wheel to wheel. It was an amazing time because while McLaren had the advantage in 1998, Ferrari were catching us all the time, they had a good momentum going. When you are winning, the next place is losing, so to keep winning is very pressurising to everybody: the designers, the mechanics, everyone. Every mistake feels like it is too big. So those three years were tough. We were racing, but every mistake I made as a driver felt like little ies to an elephant, which is not good. Monza in 1999, when I spun at the chicane… these things are not good, but we are all human, we all make mistakes. Ferrari were catching all the time, and I felt that, I saw that, and they had luck! They had luck. That was not normal – they had such a reliable car. Every time we had a failure, whether it was me or a team failure, or a car failure, they were there collecting points, and all the time getting closer. Then, in 2000, it happened. They were there and we were still losing points. It took right until the end of the season for Michael and Ferrari to take the title, so – wow – an amazing time. When I think about racing, I can remember many great team-mates: Alain Prost testing with me and David Coulthard at McLaren; Nigel Mansell, Johnny Herbert, Martin Brundle, Mark Blundell – the list is long. There were many great drivers and it was great to learn from them. But all the time in my consciousness, in my thinking, there was Michael. I had to beat the other drivers on track of course, but for some reason, Michael was always the man to catch.
Mika Häkkinen was talking exclusively to Anthony Rowlinson
For Mika and Michael it all began in F3 in Macau 1990, when the two collided as Mika tried to pass. Michael won; Mika retired: “Without that moment, I don’t think I would have been twice world champion. It gave me more of an edge”