Mika Hakkinen: How good was he?

Mika Hakkinen at the 2006 Goodwood Festival of Speed

Mika Hakkinen at the 2006 Goodwood Festival of Speed

Mika Hakkinen was the last driver to deliver a world championship for McLaren, winning the 1998 and 1999 titles back-to-back along with 20 Grands Prix.

How do we now view his accomplishments, seven years after his retirement? Was he the radically quick racer who even Michael Schumacher had to give best to? Or a competent but not sensational pilot who had some very good equipment at his disposal?

Wild days

Mika Hakkinen was very much a McLaren man. In fact, apart from his career beginnings at Lotus, he spent his entire time in F1 with the team.

His early seasons with McLaren showed great promise mixed with a degree of wildness. On his first appearance for the team at Estoril in 1993 he out-qualified Ayrton Senna – and this was in the days before the trivialities of ??race fuel qualifying?, when starting position actually meant something.

In the race he crashed heavily at Parabolica and it became clear that this exciting new talent needed the temperament to balance it. The following season he was suspended for dangerous driving after he was blamed for a huge crash at the start of the German Grand Prix.

But it was car failure, not driver error, that caused the biggest crash of the early part of his career. In practice for the final Australian Grand Prix to be held at Adelaide he suffered a tyre deflation and crashed at the fastest corner on the circuit. For a few days his life hung in the balance, but he recovered quickly enough to be able to start the following season.

McLaren’s recovery

It wasn?t just Hakkinen who was on the road to recovery, it was the entire McLaren team. After seasons of flitting between engine suppliers – Cosworth in 1993 and Peugeot in 1994 ?ǣ the team settled on Mercedes-Benz in 1995.

The first year of their partnership was short on success, but Mercedes were in it for the long game and comfortably outlasted McLaren?s previous engine suppliers Honda (1988-1992). Completing the transformation symbolically, sponsors Marlboro left to be replaced by West in 1997, and McLaren traded their white-and-red paint scheme for the silver look they retain to this day, reminiscent of Mercedes pre- and post-war Grand Prix racers.

Another new arrival at McLaren was David Coulthard, who joined in 1996 and would be Hakkinen?s last team mate. But it wasn?t as harmonious a relationship as their six years together might suggest.

In his recently-published autobiography ??It is what it is?? Coulthard made it plain that he felt, although he got the same equipment as Hakkinen, team boss Ron Dennis favoured his team mate. Dennis has since admitted that Hakkinen?s near-fatal crash made the two closer.

The outside world became aware of this at the end of 1997 when Hakkinen won his first F1 race at Jerez. This was on the day of the notorious championship-deciding collision between Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve. As the McLaren closed on Villeneuve, who was leading but had slowed, Dennis asked Coulthard to let Hakkinen past to win his first race at his 96th attempt.

Coulthard had already won twice for the team that year but Hakkinen had lost likely victories at Silverstone and the Nurburgring. Debate raged about what had gone on at McLaren and the events of the following race, the 1998 season-opener at Melbourne, intensified that.

Hakkinen led from pole with Coulthard second, but suddenly pitted for no apparent reason, not stopping at the McLaren garage but losing the lead to Coulthard. He then caught his team mate and drove past, with Coulthard offering no resistance. Later McLaren said he had pitted because of a radio communications error, suggesting outside interference was responsible, and Coulthard had given the win back in accordance with an agreement between the two which stated whoever led at the start would win the race.

Two titles

Hakkinen needed little help from Coulthard over the rest of the season, and never really looked like being beaten by him. The MP4/13, with its Mercedes engine, Adrian Newey-designed aerodynamics and Bridgestone tyres that suited the new grooved tyre regulations perfectly, started the season with an enormous performance advantage which Hakkinen exploited to full effect.

He won eight times during the season but the title still went down to the final round. Hakkinen won a tense finale where he showed all his steely resolve and coolness under pressure.

The 1999 championship is sometimes considered the title Schumacher would have won but for the broken leg he incurred at Silverstone. But the reality is more complicated than that. Schumacher had started the season strongly but Hakkinen hit back with a win at Montreal and a fighting drive to recover second having started 14th at Magny-Cours.

By the time of Schumacher?s crash Hakkinen had an eight point lead over his rival and had out-scored him 26-6 over the last three races. This is not proof that Hakkinen would certainly have been champion, but it’s an indication that Hakkinen and McLaren were too strong for Schumacher and Ferrari to overcome in 1999.

Advantage Schumacher

The following year Schumacher took an early lead in the title race but Hakkinen hit back and scored what was surely his best win at Spa-Francorchamps in 2000. Having dropped behind Schumacher he fought back and passed the Ferrari driver as the two went either side of Ricardo Zonta.

The title swung in Schumacher?s favour when Hakkinen suffered an engine failure at Indianapolis, and Hakkinen lost his crown at Suzuka.

Early in 2001 it seemed the fight had gone out of Hakkinen and it was Coulthard who took the fight to Schumacher. A crash at Melbourne in the season-opener brought back memories of his Adelaide shunt, and Hakkinen left F1 at the end of the year.

Final reckoning

So how good was Mika Hakkinen? Martin Brundle, who was team mate to both Hakkinen and Schumacher during his career, once said he thought Hakkinen was quicker over a single qualifying lap but Schumacher?s consistency gave him the edge over a race distance.

I think that analysis is quite accurate, but we shouldn?t underestimate how good Hakkinen could be. At the Nurburgring in 1998 he passed Schumacher?s team mate on the track then used the pit stops to overtake Schumacher himself for the lead.

Hakkinen?s victories weren?t entirely down to the quality of cars he enjoyed in 1998 and 1999. Schumacher counted him among his most respected rivals, which I think is a clear sign of just how good Hakkinen was.

How do you think Mika Hakkinen compares to other recent champions? Leave your comments below.

Thanks to Jolene for suggesting this topic on Skribit. Use the Skribit box on the right of the page to suggest and vote for new topic ideas.

Read more about Mika Hakkinen: Mika Hakkinen biography

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47 comments on Mika Hakkinen: How good was he?

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  1. Journeyer said on 15th August 2008, 13:08

    Hakkinen was a good, really good racer. We saw that as early as Macau 1990, where he almost beat Michael. We saw that in 1998 and 1999, where he consistently beat Ferrari for the titles. We saw that in that mind-blowing pass on Michael at Spa in 2000.

    Did he have good equipment? Sure. But look what DC did with it.

    How does he compare with other champions? He’s definitely ahead of Damon and Jacques. And he just edges out Alonso (as of now, anyway) with his cool, calm demeanor.

  2. SeanG said on 15th August 2008, 13:12

    Hakkinen was in my opinion the best racer of his day. Right there with Schumacher. The difference is that he wasted many days with the Peugeot and Mercedes grenades that would explode without warning.

  3. I’ve been a Ferrari/Schu. fan since ’96 , and no fan likes to see the team they support get beaten , but I respected Hakkinen’s talent to the extent that I felt relaxed when he won , knowing how deserved it was. I clearly remember many instances during the 1998 to 2000 seasons , when during the qualifying sessions , Hakkinen & Schumacher would trade fastest laps 3-4 times before the pole was won by either one in the dying seconds of the session. By then , they would be around a second clear of the nearest rival. If I were asked to class 10 best drivers going back from 1990 to date , it would be in order of preference : Schumacher / Senna / Hakkinen / Alonso / Raikkonen /Hamilton / Massa / Montoya / Kubica & Coulthard.

  4. Alex Cooper said on 15th August 2008, 13:52

    I have very fond memories of Hakkinen – especially when he was pulling a qualifying lap out of the bag and you could see he was RIGHT ON IT!

    Remember those occasions when he used to take everything the track was willing to give him, and he’d just flick up a bit of dirt with one of his rear wheels.
    Fantastic driver!

  5. Jolene said on 15th August 2008, 14:32

    Thanks for doing an article on this Keith as I feel that Hakkinen was overrated,much like Kimi is today. I do not discount the fact that he was quick,or good, but one of the greatest drivers of his generation as some people have suggested? I dont think so. Rather give me controversial drivers like Schumi,Hamilton and Alonso any day as they provide the complete package. Brilliant,exciting,passionate drivers that can actually interact with people.Ciao!

  6. Paul Sainsbury said on 15th August 2008, 14:41

    I remember Martin Brundle once saying that he would follow Hakkinen into fast corners and think there was no way he was going to make it, such was his entry speed. But he always did, of course.

    In addition to this he was a humble guy with a dry sense of humour. Top racer, top bloke.

  7. Phil B said on 15th August 2008, 14:54

    I loved those championship battles and have always rated Hakkinen. I think the Brundle quote is right on the money, Schumacher couldn’t quite match him over a lap but always seemed to have the edge on race day. How much of that was due to clever strategy or greater skill/fitness is still an interesting question.

    It makes me think that the current ridiculous race-fuel qualifying would have completely neutered Mika and therefore deprived us of those championship battles. That is a great shame.

    Please please get rid of race fuel qualifying.

  8. Paul Sainsbury said on 15th August 2008, 15:11

    @ Phil B.

    Totally, totally agree, I am so stressed out by race fuel quialifying it literally makes me depressed………….:(

  9. cyanide said on 15th August 2008, 15:24

    Definitely one of the best of his time. Only started appreciating his skill after he left F1 after his wretched season of 2000 because he was the only one taking the fight to Schumacher those days. Some people might say that he was lucky to be in good machinery, but why haven’t Barrichello, Irvine, Coulthard or any of the other teammates of these champions won a championship themself?

  10. Häkkinen, to me, has the image of a cruiser. A relaxed racer who can do nice things with a car, yes, but seems somewhat out of place, too. However, with his fist WDC now ten years ago, I realise how good he actually was. With Alonso, Häkkinen was the only driver who could beat Schumacher in equal or even lesser equipment, either in a single race, or over the course of a full season.

  11. Paige said on 15th August 2008, 16:04

    It’s well known that the only competitor who Schumacher truly respected was Hakkinen. That should say something.

    Mika Hakkinen is one of the greatest drivers in Formula 1 history. He was horrendously quick and got the absolute most out of his equipment, and he had arguably the steeliest nerve of any driver in F1 history. Anyone who doubts his skill and instinct needs to give this video another look:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAmbIdwcmSo

    Greatest overtake in F1 history. Period.

  12. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 15th August 2008, 16:09

    Paige – I was there that day and it was a stunning pass. But here’s nine more I think were better.

  13. I started watching f1 in 1996 and mclaren was the team i loved. Then when 1998 came slicks unfortunately were banned however i did not want to see the tifosi win and Hakkinen beat schumacher and Ervine in the next 2 seasons. I remember the start he had at suzuka 99 in the title decider which was stunning. However i do feel he should of only taken a year sabbatical and maybe have gone to williams. In 2000 and 2001 if the car had been more reliable i’m sure he would heve won the title.

  14. Good, not great, he belongs with Hill. Good but not great. Never compare to Schumi.

  15. I thought Hakkinen was a good racer, a good champion but by no means a great racer or great champion. He won his first race on his 96th attempt but because DC let him win. I think he was a good driver and deserved the championship but how well would he have done without DC being so good to him.

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