With a unique combination of a wry smile, the left-field sense of humor, and dry wit, Mika Hakkinen was a champion and a world-class entertainer as well. However, beneath this humorous, and at times, awkward sheen, he was deadly-serious about winning. Fighting through seasons with mid-shelf cars and a near-fatal incident at Adelaide, the young man with the famous blonde locks had to be determined to get to where he did.
Mika came from a part of the world where motorsport is in the blood; Finland has produced more rally and F1 World Champions per capita than any other country in the world. Like many young Finnish boys, Mika took to ice hockey, but sought a sport he could play year-round, and so he began karting.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Mika did not come from money. His father was a short-wave radio operator and part-time taxi driver, while his mother was a secretary. His parents scraped together enough money for the young Mika to try his hand in a kart at the age of five, and immediately, the cheerful young boy’s extravagant style shown through. He was involved in a serious accident on his first time out, but the eager child was insistent, and convinced his worried parents to let him back in the seat.
After dominating Finnish karting, rallying in a Volkswagen Beetle, and working as a bicycle mechanic to help fund his career, Mika moved into a full-sized car in 1987 when he purchased a Formula Ford off his fellow countryman J.J. Lehto. He promptly won the Finnish, Swedish, and Nordic championships his first time out. He then moved into the Opel-Lotus Euroseries, and unsurprisingly, won there too. Mika was making a name for himself, and after two seasons in Formula Three, he got his chance at Formula 1.
After outpacing regular drive Alessandro Nannini in the Benetton, Mika had already managed to turn some heads. With help from his manager, former Formula 1 star Keke Rosberg, Mika signed for the 1991 season with Lotus and found himself stuck in a team on its way out. Gone were Lotus’ glory years, and for two frustrating seasons, he never made it to the podium. Two fourths were his best finishes, but for the ’93 season, he got his chance with a front-running team – or so it seemed.
After the young Finn signed for McLaren, he assumed he would partner with Ayrton Senna, the most feared man on the Formula 1 circuit at the time. However, another big name – Michael Andretti – would take his seat for the first three quarters of the season, though the American’s poor performance sent him out the back door shortly after it started. Mika stepped in, and immediately outqualified Senna at Estoril.
Unfortunately, McLaren was going through a slump, and the car was never enough to propel the ambitious Finn to a win for the first few seasons with the outfit. However, that didn’t stop him trying – for better or worse, and managed his first podium at the 1995 British Grand Prix. Then only twenty-seven, Mika suffered a tire failure during Friday qualifying for that year’s Australian Grand Prix and launched over the curbs alongside Brewery Corner at harrowing speeds.
Contacting the barriers at over 120 mph forced Mika’s neck to stretch like a Slinky. He endured an estimated 200 gs to his neck, and suffered a fractured skull, internal bleeding, and blood in his airway; and needed a tracheotomy on-site to stay alive. The force of the impact put him in a coma for the next ten days, and he remained bedridden for a month afterwards.
Retelling his brush with death in detail and startling calmness, Mika adds, “I remember when I was in the car, I couldn’t move. I tried to move, but there was no chance, so I decided to just relax. Then the doctors came, and I passed out.”
“It helped me to slow down,” he recounts, “It helped me to appreciate life.” The event made him phlegmatic too: “Before my accident, I was always running flat-out, without knowing how to walk.”
His conviction and steeliness only added to his popularity, and like Niki Lauda, made a remarkable return to the sport only weeks after his accident. The next year was a struggle, though at the European Grand Prix in 1997, Mika would claim his first win. Another step towards his goal.
By 1998, Mika and his car came into their own. With Adrian Newey on board, the MP4/13 was aerodynamically superior, and with eight wins, finally won his first championship. After seven years of struggling, he could sleep a little easier; no longer having to “tell myself every morning ‘I can win’ to put pressure on myself.” After the long slog, he achieved his childhood ambition, though he was by no means finished.
Though still determined as ever, Mika began showing more of his humor and emotion in front of the cameras: joking when elated and venting his frustration when the time was right. Contrasted against a stern Michael Schumacher, Mika’s offbeat comedy helped give the sport some desperately-needed color. Though he was misperceived as dim, the truth was the highly-intelligent Finn was simply reserved and reticent, and had no time for answering stock questions from lazy journalists. So, he made the most of the press meetings.
Hakkinen’s approach was extremely determined and his style behind the wheel was always aggressive, or “maximum attack” as he prefers to say. Comfortable with a car that moves around quite a lot at the back end, Hakkinen was no stranger to oversteering and his tail-out antics support this. However, he wouldn’t necessarily chuck the car into the corner a-la Rosberg. His aggression was measured, and used a little yaw as he entered the corner so that he could accelerate quickly.
Nor was he the king of the late brakers. However, he could synchronize the two inputs very well; his release of the brakes and pickup of the throttle were done with exceptional precision and so the car remained well-balanced through the middle of the corner. This smooth transition from braking to accelerating could net him an additional few extra miles per hour at the apex, which might not sound like much, but over the course of a lap paid dividends. Additionally, he was a very brave overtaker.
After chasing a hard-defending Schumacher at Spa, Mika realized there would be no way the German would concede position, and would have to wait for a special sort of chance. He had a straightline advantage, but had to take Eau Rouge flat to stay in touch with Schumacher. At the top of the hill the two came upon a backmarker, Ricardo Zonta, who split the dicing pair with just fractions of a second to spare. Impressive, opportunistic, fair, and very brave, Mika knew how to keep in the hunt, when to strike, and timed it all to perfection.
After two drivers’ championships, a few scrapes with his maker, and years of frustration, Hakkinen confidently retired from F1. Intent on spending more time with his family and too aware of the dangers of the sport, he again took a very philosophical standpoint and left with grace. Liked for his humor and his hard-charging style, Mika endeared himself to a legion of friends and made few enemies, if any. Perhaps too kind for a world champion, some might say, but his approach only demonstrated that ruthlessness is overrated – refusing to give up is what makes a champion.