Mika Hakkinen - The Flying Finn
Arguably the most legendary Finnish driver ever aswell as one of the few men to take on Michael Schumacher and win.
Born in the small town of Vantaa in Finland, Mika Pauli Hakkinen was born. And few knew that this young Finn would become a national icon and would go toe to toe with the greatest names to grace motorsport. Hakkinen is perhaps known best for his fierce rivalry with 7-time world champion Michael Schumacher that included extraordinary battles while maintaining an element of respect between one another. Possibly because Schumacher knew how quick the Flying Finn really was. Going against the grain of rally driving, he forged his way to the pinnacle of single-seater racing, a feat that few have been able to replicate. Hakkinen's illustrious career in Formula 1 spanned over ten years from 1991 to 2001 and during that time he competed in 165 races of which he won 20 and stood on the podium 51 times. The height of his career came in 1998 and 1999 where he won drivers championships driving for McLaren.
Son of a taxi driver and secretary, Hakkinen was never exposed to the world of motorsport however at the age of 5 his parents rented a go-kart for him to try at a local circuit and later bought him a kart that was previously owned by the late great rally driver Henri Toivonen. He began to drive at local circuits proving he was a natural talent behind the wheel. He then made the step up by competing in the Keimola Cup in 1978 as his first competitive racing championship. Hakkinen was immediately fast and proceeded to win the championship comprehensively. He continued his run of form by winning the Keimola Cup back-to-back in 1979 at the age of 8. Hakkinen mastered the kart and proceeded to win season after season, rising through the ranks of Finnish karting against the likes of future F1 stars Mika Salo and JJ Lehto.
Hakkinen decided after winning three consecutive Formula Nordic titles that he would take a giant leap forward away from karts and into race cars. Coming from a country whose racing heritage lies in rally driving - producing greats such as Timo Makinen and Rauno Aaltonen - Hakkinen went against the grain by moving into single seater racing at the age of 19 by buying a 1986 Reynard Formula Ford 1600 along with JJ Lehto. Hakkinen however was not intimidated by the new competition and went onto win titles in the Finnish, Swedish and Nordic Formula Ford Championships. By the end of the 1988 season, Dragon Racing approached him to race for them in the British Formula 3 Championship. In the late 1980s the Formula 3 Championship was the main feeder series into Formula 1, Hakkinen knew he would need to impress if he wanted a spot on the F1 grid in 1990. However sadly the Dragon Racing F3 car proved unreliable and uncompetitive and he finished the season in an uncharacteristic 7th place. His luck would change however as he was offered a seat by a more competitive West Surrey Racing Team. He resumed his winning ways by winning the 1990 championship by 23 points ahead of old rival Mika Salo. This was also the year where he met a talented Michael Schumacher at the Macau Grand Prix later in the season. Hakkinen won the first heat of the race weekend however the second proved to be the beginning of the Hakkinen Schumacher rivalry. Heading into the final stages of the race Hakkinen was closing in on Schumacher who was in the lead. With a lap to go Hakkinen went to pull alongside Schumacher to pass him and take the lead however he lost control of his car and slammed into the barrier, ending his race and gifting Schumacher the win.
Hakkinen impressed and got his call up to F1 for the 1991 season from Lotus who had finished 8th in the 1990 season the year before. In his rookie season he managed to achieve an admirable 5th place at the San Marino Grand Prix in just his third race. However a poor and unreliable car meant the rest of the season was uncompetitive and he finished the 1991 season in 16th place while Schumacher burst onto the scene at the Belgian Grand Prix with Jordan and immediately qualified 7th, earning him a full-time drive at Benetton for the rest of the season. Hakkinen continued at Lotus for the 1992 season and he managed to improve by claiming six points finishes including 4th place at the French and Hungarian Grand Prix, he finished the season in eighth place. Meanwhile, Schumacher claimed his first win for the Benetton team at the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix. Hakkinen was not happy about the unreliability of the Lotus and a contract dispute ensued between him and the team. He approached McLaren for a drive in the 1993 season and to his luck the Formula One Contract Recognition board approved.
Hakkinen originally joined as a race driver however was demoted to test driver to give way to Michael Andretti who had come off the back of winning the IndyCar World Championship in 1991. Andretti however disappointed and decided to leave Formula 1 with three races to go and thus gave way to Hakkinen to become driver for the remainder of the season. Partnered against three-time champion Ayrton Senna, Hakkinen was immediately quick and outqualified Senna in his first ever qualifying for the team. Following the qualifying session, Hakkinen was asked how he managed to outqualify the great Ayrton Senna, to which he replied, "he needed bigger balls". Just once race later at the Japanese Grand Prix he claimed his first career podium with a 3rd place finish. Having impressed in his short stint, McLaren decided to retain Hakkinen for the 1994 season alongside Martin Brundle.
Hakkinen's first full season at McLaren in 1994 proved difficult to begin with as he retired five times out of the first six races including a first lap collision with Senna at the Pacific Grand Prix one race before his tragic passing at Imola. Hakkinen was however able to string together an impressive number of podiums including a career best finish of 2nd at the Belgian Grand Prix. He finished a notable 4th place in the championship with a relatively uncompetitive McLaren while Schumacher infamously won his first world championship ahead of Damon Hill. For 1995 Hakkinen saw Mark Blundell joining the team for the majority of the season however the McLaren proved even more uncompetitive than in 1994 and Hakkinen only managed 7th in the championship, meanwhile Schumacher was dominance once more and won his second championship with Benetton. However, in that same season at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide Hakkinen was involved in a near-fatal crash where he suffered a tyre failure and crashed into Brewery corner barrier at 120mph causing a skull fracture and internal bleeding. Luckily, the Adelaide Hospital was only a few hundred metres away from the crash site, he remained there for two months during his recovery before returning for the 1996 season. The 1996 McLaren improved its competitiveness and reliability which gave Hakkinen an impressive points streak, allowing him to finish 5th overall in the championship. Moving into the 1997 season the McLaren began to show some promising pace with the new Mercedes engines and this resulted in Hakkinen taking his first ever win at Jerez by overtaking the limping Jacques Villeneuve to take the chequered flag. This win was long awaited having driven in 109 races and having been in Formula 1 for six years. Schumacher began to show his 'inner bastard' as a world champion as he attempted to take Jacques Villeneuve out of the European Grand Prix which would gift him the championship. This failed however and Villeneuve became champion while Schumacher was disqualified from the 1997 championship altogether.
1998 would prove to be Hakkinen's year as he got one up on Schumacher since the infamous Formula 3 Macau Grand Prix eight years earlier. Adrian Newey also joined the team which proved pivotal for McLaren and Hakkinen. He took eight out of 16 wins that season to storm to the championship ahead of Schumacher by 14 points. The championship fight had been close with Schumacher and Ferrari showcasing strategic mastery at the Hungarian Grand Prix. However, Schumacher experienced unreliability towards the tail end of the season allowing Hakkinen to win the championship. This was the first championship for a Finn since Keke Rosberg in 1982. Hakkinen arrived in 1999 much more positive stating; "I've gained confidence and experience and am more relaxed. With this title I no longer have to tell myself every morning I can win, to put pressure on myself." The Hakkinen Schumacher rivalry resumed with both exchanging race wins until the British Grand Prix where Schumacher crashed and broke his leg. He was subsequently ruled out of the following seven races which meant his championship fight was over. However it could be said Hakkinen was surprised to see Schumacher's teammate Eddie Irvine put up a considerable fight, nevertheless Hakkinen retained the drivers’ championship, be it by only 2 points ahead of the Northern Irishman.
From 2000 onwards the Ferrari seemed too fast to compete with and Hakkinen won only four races including an emphatic win at the Belgian Grand Prix by overtaking Schumacher aswell as lapping backmarker Ricardo Zonta in the same corner, referred today as the greatest overtake of all time. This was not enough however, and he lost the championship by nine points. Much to Hakkinen's dismay this was the beginning of a new era for Schumacher and Ferrari. 2001 proved much more difficult with nine retirements and only two wins. He finished the season 5th and 86 points behind world champion Schumacher. Hakkinen decided he had fallen out of love with Formula 1 somewhat and decided to take a sabbatical year out in 2002 to spend more time with his family. An equally rapid Finnish driver Kimi Raikkonen took his place for the 2002 season, however the unreliable McLaren MP4-17 held back his true potential. Midway through Hakkinen's year out at the relatively young age of 33, Hakkinen announced his retirement from Formula 1. From 2002 onwards he aided McLaren and acted as an ambassador for the team aswell as later taking part in a McLaren test in 2006 however he would never return to an F1 car from that point on.
Mika Hakkinen ranks among the greatest and will forever be instilled in the Formula 1 Hall of Fame. Away from the racetrack he was known as extremely charismatic and larger than life and his rivalry with Michael Schumacher will forever be the stuff of legends. He ranks 16th on the all-time race winners list however it could be said if he hadn't retired somewhat prematurely, he would be even higher. It is fair to say that Hakkinen left Formula 1 in a better place than he found it, delivering McLaren great success along the way aswell as giving the passionate Finnish fans something to cheer for as he went wheel to wheel fighting for the coveted prize of being a Formula 1 world champion.