F1 - The Story so Far: Mika Häkkinen
Part IX of the series takes a look back at the original flying Finn.
Finnish driver Mika Häkkinen was born on the 28th September 1968 in Helsingin maalaiskunta (now calledVantaa) to parents Harri and Aila. He grew up alongside his sister, Nina, who would later run a fan site for him until 1998. Growing up, Mika lived on the same street as fellow racing driver Mika Salo. He began his life in racing at the age of five when his parents rented a go-kart for him to use on a track near their home. He turned out to have skill behind the wheel and after his first experience, he began to pester his parents until his father bought him his first go-kart. When he was seven, Mika won his first race and then went on to take part in both the regional and national karting championships. By the time he was ten, he was winning each championship that he entered.
From karting, Mika moved into open wheel racing and then in 1987, he took part in three Formula Ford 1600 Championship races in Scandinavia – the Finnish, Swedish and Nordic ones to be precise. He won all three. In 1989, he moved up into British Formula Three where he had what he called a ‘learning year’ as he finished seventh overall in the championship.
Over the course of 1990, Häkkinen applied to become a member of the “Marlboro World Championship Team” which was essentially a fully sponsored racing driver academy. Members were selected by a panel of judges which at the time, included Ron Dennis and James Hunt. Häkkinen’s ended up being the last application to be viewed and despite protests from Hunt who wanted to go to the pub for a beer after such a long day, they reviewed his file and offered him a test. Mika aced this and went on to secure Marlboro’s sponsorship and moved to the West Surrey racing team. He won the British Formula Three Championship which earned him a contract with the Lotus F1 team for the following year.
Part VIII of the series looks at the Brazilian icon Ayrton Senna.
Mika during practice at the 1992 British Grand Prix
In November 1990, he entered the Macau Formula Three Grand Prix where he drove to pole position and won the first heat of the event. However, he retired from the second heat as a result from a last lap collision with future rival Michael Schumacher.
In 1991, Mika made his F1 debut in the United States driving for Lotus. Sadly, he suffered from an engine failure and he was classified in thirteenth place. In Brazil he finished in ninth place before securing his first F1 championship points by finishing fifth in San Marino. For the remainder of the season, he was plagued with bad luck as he only finished five of the nine races he entered. At the end of his first season in F1, he was sixteenth in the Driver’s standings.
For 1992, Mika remained with Lotus and finished ninth at the season opener in South Africa. After some up and down moments, Lotus introduced their new car – the Lotus 107 – at Monaco in which he accumulated further points in the next two races. Repeated engine failures hampered him over the next four races, but he did manage to secure a fifth place finish in Portugal. He retired again in Japan but was then able to finish the season with a seventh place in Australia.
Meanwhile off track, Mika had become involved in a contract dispute with Lotus. Despite the fact that was he under contract to drive for them, he wasn’t satisfied with their performance so had opted to join Williams for the following season. Lotus team principle Peter Collins made it clear that they would veto Williams for the upcoming season if they signed Mika as they had not yet submitted their entry for the 1993 season. So when this fell through, Mika looked at other teams before approaching Ron Dennis for a contract with McLaren. Again, this was disputed and the matter was taken to the Formula One Contract Recognition board who ruled in McLaren’s favour.
Mika driving for McLaren at the 1994 British Grand Prix
Then in 1993, having joining McLaren initially as a race driver, Häkkinen became the test driver for the team instead as he was replaced by Michael Andretti. But when Andretti left after the Italian Grand Prix that year, Mika was called up to replace him and resume his career properly in F1. At the Portuguese Grand Prix, he out qualified is teammate Senna but retired in the race as he crashed into a wall. But things went better for him at the next race in Japan, where he claimed his first podium in F1 with a third place finish. He ended the season fifteenth in the championship and was re-signed to McLaren for the next three years.
In 1994, Senna was replaced by experienced driver Martin Brundle. Mika endured an unfortunate start to the season as he retired in the Brazilian Grand Prix with engine problems and then again in the Pacific Grand Prix due to gearbox issues and a collision with Senna. He achieved a podium finish at the San Marino Grand Prix but then suffered from four consecutive retirements in the following races. Even with a last lap collision with Barrichello, he managed to get on the podium again for the British Grand Prix. Mika received a one race ban suspended over three races for the incident but the ban was enforced when he crashed into David Coulthard at the German Grand Prix. When he returned at the Belgian Grand Prix, he was promoted to second place after Schumacher was disqualified and went on to get three third place finishes at the next three races. He finished the year fourth in the Drivers’ Standings.
1995 saw Nigel Mansell join Mika at McLaren. During pre-season testing, both drivers complained that the new McLaren MP4/10 was not wide enough to fit in which resulted in their hands and elbows striking the sides of the cockpit – not ideal when you’re racing at high speeds. Häkkinen began the season with a fourth place finish in Brazil but retired in Argentina. He got a fifth place finish at San Marino but then retired again for the next three races. When the French Grand Prix came around, McLaren brought a revised version of the car along – the McLaren MP4/10B. If anything though, this car was a step back as Mika finished outside the points and subsequently retired from the next four races. It was back to the drawing board for McLaren. Mika did manage to achieve a second place finish at the Italian Grand Prix but his success was short lived as an operation for appendicitis forced him to miss the Pacific Grand Prix. At Japan, he was able to finish second again.
At the Japanese Grand Prix
Then at the season finale in Australia, Mika’s car suffered from a tyre failure during the first Friday qualifying session. As a result, his car became airborne and he crashed sideways into the barrier on the outside of Brewery corner – naturally, the fastest corner of the Adelaide Street Circuit – at approximately one hundred and twenty miles an hour. Critically injured due to sustaining a skull fracture, internal bleeding and a blockage of his airway, Häkkinen was saved by the efforts of the trackside medical team who performed an emergency cricothyroidotomy on him. He was then immediately transferred to a nearby hospital where he remained in a critical condition. Both Ron Dennis and his wife remained at Mika’s bedside for several days – only returning to England when they were satisfied that he was out of the woods. After some time, Mika did manage to make a remarkable recovery and donated an undisclosed – but substantial – amount of money to the hospital to help them build a much needed helipad for the Royal Adelaide Hospital, returning there for the opening ceremony in March 1997. Despite all this misfortune, Mika ended the 1995 season seventh in the drivers’ standings.
For 1996, Mansell was replaced by David Coulthard. Mika was the more experienced driver of the team and went into the 1996 season confident that he could win lots of races. The season started well for him as he scored points in back to back races. He retired in Argentina and then finished outside the points in the following race but was able to bounce back and went on to score consecutive points in the next four races. Once again, part way through the season, McLaren brought a revised car (the MP4/11B) to the grid – this time at the British Grand Prix. With it he managed to score his first podium of the year with a third place finish. A gearbox failure put him out of the German Grand Prix but he was able to finish the next three races without any trouble, taking the third step on the podium at both Belgium and Italy. In September, despite rumours he might change teams, McLaren announced that Mika would be staying with them for the 1997 season. Both he and Coulthard collided at the penultimate race in Portugal but Mika was able to finish the year off with another third place finish in Japan, putting him fifth in the drivers’ standings.
Coulthard also remained at the team for the ’97 season and Häkkinen had his strongest start to the season yet. He finished in third place at the opening race in Australia and then finished in point scoring positions in the next three races. The rest of the season was a mixed bag of good results and retirements and he ultimately ended up a place down overall from the previous year, ending the year sixth in the hunt for the Drivers’ title.
Häkkinen and Coulthard were partners once again at McLaren for the 1998 season. Adrian Newey had also come on board at McLaren which boosted Mika’s confidence about the year ahead. The season began with controversy at the Australian Grand Prix as Coulthard let Mika past to win the race, citing a pre-race agreement by the team that said whoever led into the first corner would win the race. Häkkinen made it back to back victories by winning the next race in Brazil and then finished in second at the Argentinian Grand Prix. He retired in San Marino and Canada but was able to win the two rounds in between these races. He finished third and second in France and Britain respectively before winning the two races that followed. At the Belgian Grand Prix, he and Schumacher collided (joined soon after by the Sauber of Johnny Herbert) which led to his retirement from the race. But despite this and other woes in the season, he managed to end the season as he began it, with back to back victories in Luxembourg and Japan. This meant that he had finally been able to get enough points to clinch the World Championship for himself, beating his main rival of Schumacher in the process.
Mika was awarded the Autosport International Racing Driver Award for 1998 as well as being named Finnish Sports Personality of the Year. The Finnish Post Office even issued stamps to commemorate Häkkinen’s achievement.
Driving down the pitlane at the 2001 British Grand Prix
The dynamic duo of Mika and Coulthard remained at McLaren once again for 1999. Problems in pre-season testing led to a lack of preparation for the upcoming season but despite this, Mika still had confidence going into the first race at Australia. The confidence didn’t last long there however as he was forced to retire from the race with a throttle issue. More trouble plagued him at the next race in Brazil in the form of gearbox issues, but he still managed to go on and win the race. San Marino was not his finest moment as he crashed into a barrier and took himself out of the race but he did manage to recover at Monaco where he finished in a respectable third place – despite slipping on oil on the track earlier in the race. He won in Spain and Canada and started from pole position in Austria. Unfortunately, he was hit by Coulthard in that race early on but was able to re-join and ended the race once again in third. He won his fourth race of the year at Hungary but spun off at the Italian Grand Prix whilst leading the race, losing valuable points. Then at the final race in Japan, Mika took both victory and the 1999 World Drivers’ Championship. He was also awarded the Autosport International Racing Driver Award for the second year in a row.
Going into 2000, Häkkinen believed that he, Coulthard and Schumacher would be the main contenders for the title. However, the car was not up to scratch and both McLaren drivers retired from the opening race with engine failures before race distance. The highlight of the year came at the Belgian Grand Prix where a lap after Schumacher had overtaken him, edging him onto the grass at two hundred miles per hour, he performed a fantastic move on both Schumacher and Ricardo Zonta down the Kemmel straight. Schumacher and Mika were on either side of Zonta before Mika was able to outbreak Michael before approaching the next corner, overtake him and then go on to win the race. Before the end of the season however, Mika had to concede the World Championship to Michael which the German managed to seal at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Häkkinen came into 2001 with an increased desire to win but the season started badly for the Flying Finn with car issues and retirements. The season went so badly for him that he announced before the Italian Grand Prix that he would go on sabbatical for the 2002 season. Another infamous Finn that goes by the name of Kimi Raikkonen would take his place at McLaren for the 2002 season. By the end of the season, Mika was fifth in the Drivers’ Standings.
Then, nine months into his sabbatical, Mika announced that he would be retiring from F1. During 2004, there were rumours of a comeback to replace Montoya at Williams but nothing ever came of it. Instead, Mika moved to the DTM series for 2005 where he continued to race for a couple of years before retiring from an active level of motorsport in 2007.
He moved into driver management and joined Johnnie Walker as their Global Responsible Drinking Ambassador in September 2006. In 2008, his completed mansion in France burned down after a light in one of his trophy cabinets short circuited, subsequently destroying his collection of F1 trophies. He is also a global brand ambassador for Mercedes-Benz AMG and in 2017, McLaren announced that he had re-joined the team as a partner ambassador.
During his F1 career, Mika was known for being a reserved character who took his time answering questions – not unlike someone else on the grid today – and he would usually give nothing away to the media. He started one hundred and sixty five F1 races, won twenty races, achieved twenty six pole positions and fifty one podium finishes alongside twenty five fastest lap and two world championships. Mika has been voted one of the greatest F1 drivers and Michael Schumacher has stated that he was the driver he gained the most satisfaction from racing. Not a bad legacy.
What do you think of Mr Häkkinen? Is he up there as one of the best F1 drivers of all time? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.