THE HAKKINEN EFFECT
FORMULA ONE LEGEND MIKA HAKKINEN TEACHES US HOW TO WIN WITH GRACE AND HUMILITY.
Formula One legend Mika Hakkinen gives us a lesson in
greatness and humility.
Our meeting with Mika Hakkinen – double Formula One champion and former Mercedes DTM driver – is tinged with a mythic quality. Michael Schumacher says his toughest and most respected adversary was Mika in their 11 years as racing rivals, which is quite a compliment from a man who also raced against Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and later be locked in battles with Fernando Alonso. But though the bad blood between Mika and Schuey was well documented, Mika says he enjoyed their rivalry. “It’s a positive thing,” recalls the 45-year-old Finn with a stern face, before cracking a smile and adding: “We had a great past.
“I’ve always believed that when we’re on the race track, we’ll fight. But outside, we respect each other. Screaming your head off and saying stupid things is not the way to manage your life.”
Such sensibility was witnessed worldwide on the Spa-Francorchamps circuit during the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix. Four laps before the end of the race, Mika tried to overtake Michael, but the German responded with his notorious “lean” – driving across at Mika’s McLaren until the Finn was left with the choice to either back off or take to the grass at 300km/h. Mika chose the former, but his front wing touched the German’s rear wheel and he wasn't amused.
After the two men pulled up at the paddock, Mika got out of his car and walked over to his rival. A different character would have ranted at the German. Instead, Mika calmly went over the incident with Schuey using hand gestures. His rival merely nodded, chastened. The message was clear: That was out of line; don’t try it with me again.
Mika ultimately won that race thanks to his famous second overtake attempt on Michael’s Ferrari, one of the finest manoeuvres ever seen in F1. During the post-race press conference, journalists tried getting him to criticise the German legend’s behaviour. Mika didn't bite.
THE FEELING OF GREATNESS
Mika’s intelligence and penchant for understatement have given him a reputation for being frosty with the press. But not today. He’s chatting away like an old friend, regaling tales of his racing career with glee.
“Formula One is a fabulous sport,” he says, leaning back. “And when you’re winning, it’s paradise. Standing on the podium as the winner is a great feeling.”
Mika started go-karting at a young age back home in Finland. He moved to the UK in the late 1980s, raced with Lotus in 1991 before joining McLaren in 1993, where his teammate was Ayrton, whom he out-qualified in Portugal on his debut the same year.
Even better than doing this to the late, great Brazilian, however, was beating Michael to take consecutive F1 titles in 1998 and 1999.
“It was truly a great period for me,” Mika says. He’s laughing now.
A HERO IS HUMBLE
Nobody begrudges the success of this brave man, who was nearly killed before achieving it.
In the Friday afternoon practice session of the 1995 Australian GP, Mika’s McLaren Mercedes suffered a puncture on the high-speed entrance into a corner and hurtled into a barrier with sickening force. He sustained a fractured skull and his life hung in the balance for some time.
Thankfully, he regained consciousness and started on the road to recovery. But it was one of his most difficult periods. He leans in and lowers his tone. “After a bad accident, what you need most is time, which I didn’t have because the next season was starting soon. In F1, it’s all or nothing,” he says.
He resumed his racing life all right, and proved in 1996 to be as quick as ever in a private test arranged by McLaren. His skill, bravery and singleminded dedication are almost preternatural.
In 2000, Mika very nearly made it three titles in a row, but losing that year’s championship to Michael was the beginning of the end. A heavy crash in the opening race of 2001 drove the Finn away from the F1 circus and into DTM, the touring car race series in Europe.
At the end of 2007, Mika announced his departure from competitive motorsport. Far more sensible, he reasons, to
“IMAGE IS IMPORTANT BECAUSE I’M IN THE PUBLIC EYE ALL THE TIME. NO ONE WANTS TO DO BUSINESS WITH A RACING TEAM THAT’S MESSY AND DISORGANISED.”
invest his time in managing young motor-racing talents, and his corporate sidelines, including discharging duties as ambassador for partner companies of his beloved McLaren Mercedes. “One of the things I miss about F1 is working with these very intelligent and talented people as a team,” he says.
The talk turns to Gillette, one of the sponsors for whom Mika was recently made brand ambassador. “I’m very impressed with how organised the company is,” he says, “just like a Formula One team.”
The romantic era of F1 drivers is long gone. Racers today are admired as superbly fit, grimly serious professional athletes. It’s hard to imagine any of them wearing a patch on their racing overalls declaring “sex – breakfast of champions” or refusing to wear suits to sponsor events, as the legendary 70s British driver James Hunt did.
“Image is important,” says Mika, “because I’m in the public eye all the time. No one wants to do business with a racing team that’s messy and disorganised.”
Nonetheless, we aren’t the only ones missing the charming James, who died young. “I used to call him to talk about racing,” Mika says.
“He always said to me: ‘Mika, when you’re racing out there, have fun.’ But he wasn’t referring to the partying. He meant driving and working with people. I think people have a misunderstanding of what he stood for, being a playboy and what not. Hey, come on, that was when he was young. But when he raced, he was serious. Definitely a great man.”
To quote William Shakespeare, a known authority on eminence: “Greatness knows itself.”