When I watched Mika Hakkinen take his two World titles in 1998 and ’99, it’s the first time I remember feeling emotionally involved with an F1 season. The “Flying Finn” was also the first driver I supported.
After a difficult start to his career, and a near fatal accident at Adelaide in ’95, the odds were building up against a guy who was known by many as an extremely talented driver capable of driving incredibly fast.
At McLaren, who were struggling through an uncompetitive spell, he was enduring a tough run of results including several non-finishes and was outperformed by teammate David Coulthard for the majority of the season. But Hakkinen was very clearly placed as their number one driver at the final race of ‘97 when the team gave him the win over Coulthard. So, when they turned up in ‘98 with a hugely superior car, Hakkinen very quickly became favourite for the title.
That year he took eight wins and finished on the podium in nine of the first 11 races (DNFs). Coulthard, who again handed victory to Hakkinen in the opening race, was acting as a defence to the Finn’s title charge, taking points away from rival Michael Schumacher whenever he could.
Despite the dominance of the McLaren car, the brilliance of Schumacher carried his Ferrari to be level on points with Hakkinen with two races to go. It was at this point that Mika showed to me what it takes to be the best. He had not won since four races prior, and his World Championship chance was beginning to slip away.
It was the Luxembourg Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, and Schumacher had the lead as drivers pitted for the first time. Hakkinen drove four incredible laps and re-joined the race ahead of his rival. He then drove flawlessly to resist the relentless pressure from the Ferrari behind. That victory would prove enough to win his first Championship as Schumacher subsequently retired from the final round at Suzuka.
It was this season in particular that has put Hakkinen at the top of this list. He was just quick. There were no theatrics, he wasn’t the most exciting driver there has ever been. But he very rarely made mistakes. Whenever he didn’t finish, it was more than likely the car at fault. There was a finesse to his driving, overtaking always seemed to be easy. Drama is not a word you would associate with the Finn.
He was a perpetual podium finisher in the three-year period of ’98-2000. Hitting his peak in ’99 – strolling to the World Championship after Schumacher’s leg break. I feel it was the 2000 season that really proved his strength of character.
A tough start to the season gave Schumacher and Ferrari a head start. McLaren’s advantage had deteriorated almost completely, and they were on the back foot. But Hakkinen was relentless, and dragged his car to four wins and a further seven second places. It was a tremendous charge that saw him leading the championship. But an engine failure at Indianapolis would prove the definitive moment, and Schumacher took the title.
For me, Mika Hakkinen achieved more than could have been expected from the car he had. If McLaren were to have had a weakness at the time, it was reliability. And it tells that Hakkinen suffered eleven DNFs to Schumacher’s eight between ’98 and 2000. Schumacher having also missed seven races during the ’99 season exacerbates that stat.
Michael Schumacher said it all. The one man that the most successful driver in Formula One history felt threatened by? Mika Hakkinen.