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A reflection on Mika Hakkinen

 by G. Venkat Ganeshan
September 25, 2001

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In the cutthroat world of Formula-1, one driver who epitomizes loyalty is Mika Hakkinen. The Finn continued a record ninth season with McLaren despite getting offers from various other major teams. A man of few words, it's clear that Hakkinen is not a public relations powerhouse.  A testament to his skill comes from the recognition that he does his talking on the track, not off. 

A stoic figure, with the classic Finnish ice-cold eyes, he has a fire in his belly. This has catapulted the Finn to stardom. He’s not winning as much anymore and the Finn recently announced a one-year sabbatical from the sport, a sabbatical many insiders consider as a prelude to his retirement. 

Hakkinen has lived up to his expectations as the Flying Finn. Hailing from a country infested with rally champions, Hakkinen opted for the open-wheeled racing series. He followed the traditional route to Formula-1, following the footsteps of his predecessor Keke Rosberg, who later became his manager. 

After a flurry of Finnish national karting championships in the bag, Hakkinen entered the European Opel Lotus series and simultaneously took part in the British Vauxhall Lotus Series in 1988. He was a quick learner; bearing testimony to the skill of Hakkinen was his championship triumph in the Opel series and a second place overall in the British Vauxhall series. 

Having enjoyed great success in junior Formulae, Hakkinen made the step up to British Formula-3 Championship. His first stint in the series was with Dragon Motorsports team and in his debut season placed seventh. This caught the attention of the various top rung F-3 teams. 

Right from the early years, Hakkinen's amazing car control placed him in good stead. This prompted the West Surrey Racing team to rope in the Finn for the 1990 Championship. It was a crucial point in Mika Hakkinen's career. He not only clinched the British Formula-3 Championship, but also won one-off races in the German and Italian Formula-3 Championship. 

In the same year at Macau, Hakkinen waged a high-octane battle with a one Michael Schumacher. Though a coming together with the German put paid to Hakkinen's hopes, Macau was the breeding ground for their fierce rivalry, and was a harbinger of things to come. 

Hakkinen was one of those rare products in motor racing, who bypassed the Formula 3000 Championship. His exploits in the F-3 machines landed him a drive in Formula-1 with the legendary Colin Chapman’s Lotus team. However, the team was at its nadir, with the outdated Judd engine under the hood giving Hakkinen a torrid time. 

Despite the under-rated machinery, Hakkinen secured a fifth place at Imola. He was placed fifteenth overall, no small achievement considering the archaic quality at Lotus at the time. 

He stayed with the Lotus team in 1992 and had a few strong finishes, but the car was eons behind its counterparts. Yet, the Finn was placed eighth overall in the championship. Hakkinen soon became a hot property in Formula-1. Both the McLaren and Williams teams were keen on signing the Finn. 

But Hakkinen's management found the McLaren offer interesting and he shifted gears to the Woking-based outfit. However, Hakkinen almost sat out the whole season, as Ayrton Senna drove for the team on a race-by-race basis. But Hakkinen got his break when he drove in the final three rounds and got his first taste of champagne with a third place finish at Suzuka. He actually out qualified Senna in his first start, but that was short lived in the race as Senna blew him away.

After Senna's move to Williams, McLaren started to rebuild its team with Hakkinen. It realized the tremendous potential the Finn had. As Hakkinen became the fulcrum of the team and the whole organization was built around Hakkinen. 

Formula-1 is a dangerous sport. Hakkinen had his fill of thrills and spills over the years. He suffered a horrendous crash in Adelaide in 1995 and fractured his skull. His chances of survival were in doubt, let alone racing again. The Finn's sheer will power and a determination to reach his goal quickened his healing process. Soon, he was back at the wheel of the McLaren.. 

On several occasions he had come close to winning a race, through 1996 it still eluded the Finn. That was until Jerez , Spain, the venue for the 1997 season finale. The agonizing wait was over. 

A win opened the floodgates for Hakkinen. In 1998, Hakkinen oozed with self-confidence and the Mercedes power churned out almost 850bhp and was mated to a fantastic chassis design by Adrian Newey. 

The McLaren duo of Hakkinen and David Coulthard decimated their rivals that year. The car had its downside, it was too unreliable, hence this paved the way for a mid-season Schumacher surge. The title battle went to the last race. But Hakkinen held on to win the title at Suzuka. In the process, Hakkinen registered eight victories for the year. 

In 1999, the confidence level reached its peek, with Hakkinen fighting hammer and tongs with Schumacher. The pressure mounted on Schumacher by the Finn forced the German to commit a mistake in the British GP leaving him with a broken leg. Eddie Irvine took the daunting task of waging a lone ranger battle with Hakkinen. The mid-season disaster for Hakkinen continued. The reliability of the McLaren still proved to be an Achilles heel for them. Despite this Hakkinen annexed another F1 crown.

Like Schumacher, Hakkinen clinched back-to-back titles, yet the team couldn't get the car’s reliability up to where it needed to be. On the other hand, Ferrari came out with a strong package for 2000. Schumacher took the early initiative, forcing Hakkinen and company to play catch-up. But Hakkinen halted the Schumacher show in the mid-season with several wins. Call it role reversals. However, gain, the car let down Hakkinen down late in the season and he failed to perform the title hat trick. 

2001 has been a major disaster to the twice World champion, having won just a single race. The Finn has convincingly been beaten not only by his teammate, David Coulthard, but also by the Williams duo of Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya. Compounded to that Hakkinen's wife gave birth to their son, Hugo, which took him to a threshold of a new life. 

In one short year, Hakkinen went from the stature of ‘Flying Finn’ to ‘Following Finn’. Though he has shown flashes of brilliance, he is but a shadow of his former self. 

The Finn will always be remembered for his daredevil driving skills, mental tranquility, calm countenance and a serene outlook. He has accomplished the mission. No longer does the fire burn in his belly, even if he never comes back, he has etched his place in the annals of motor racing.

The author can be contacted at contacts@autoracing1.com

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