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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46 comments on Mika Hakkinen: How good was he?

  1. Jolene said on 16th August 2008, 8:09

    Lily, you are very lucky to have met them. Unfortuntely, millions of F1 Fans like myself have ever and will ever only get to see them on the telly so my “judgement” is based on what I saw there. My opinion is not only based on his lack of emotion but I also think that he was just a good driver in a very good car. Sorry you dont agree but I’m entitled to my opinion.Ciao

  2. Paige said on 16th August 2008, 12:41

    Paul,

    great account of the Michael and Mika convo after Spa.

    Michael has said many times that the only competitor he truly respected was Mika. I’m thinking that if Mika felt that strongly about something, then Michael probably took it to heart. Mika was not a driver who would really complain about things or stir up drama, as opposed to DC who was the epitome of Billy Connolly’s “Evil Scotsman,” or Villeneuve who was a verifiable drama queen. I think this is something that Michael admired, as many drivers complained about his aggressive racing and tactics. (Which they certainly had a right to do on occasion.)

  3. sChUmAcHeRtHeGrEaTeStEvEr said on 16th August 2008, 13:24

    I dont think theres any doubt hakkinen was good, he was very fast on his day, nurburgring 97 he absolutley dominated until engine failure stopped him. he was pretty much well and truly beaten by dc in 97. at the start of 98 mclaren were miles ahead and he made the most of it. what id say is that when he had the best car on the grid like in 98,99 and arguably 00 he was good, as soon as the advanatgae went to ferrari in 01 he looked crap to be honest only really showing his true potential in silverstone that year.

    All in all id say he aint one of the all time greats but he was on his day unbeatable.

    just to get in on the all time top ten mine are:

    1.Schumacher
    2.fangio
    3.senna
    4.prost
    5.clark
    6.stewart
    7.mansell
    8.lauda
    9.moss
    10.shinji nakano :-)

  4. Hakkinen has ultimate respect from me as one of the only guys who could give Schumacher a decent fight, the others being Alonso, Raikkonen and (to a certain extent) Montoya.
    Also, Daniel, if you’re listing the least talented world champions since 1991, surely you’ve forgotten Jacques Villeneuve, the worst world champion of all time.

  5. Paige said on 16th August 2008, 18:44

    Jack,

    I don’t know if I’d say that Villeneuve is the “worst world champion of all time.” He had some pretty quality moments behind the wheel in F1, and he made one of the best overtakes in F1 history around the outside of Schumacher at Estoril in 1996.

    With that said, I wouldn’t call him one of the greatest drivers in F1 history or one of the most talented. He was a very good driver who was in by far the best car on the track at the time, the Williams-Renault. Among the contemporaries of his hay day (1996-2003), I would rate him on the level of Panis, Hill, Irvine, R. Schumacher, Berger, Herbert, and a few others, which isn’t a bad group to belong to.

  6. Paul Sainsbury said on 16th August 2008, 19:38

    Mmm…….Yes, ‘worst would champion of all time’ does indeed seem to be an oxymoron of comical proportions.

    Let’s try to give these guys the respect they deserve, all of the WDC’s are exceptionally telented.

  7. Daniel said on 16th August 2008, 20:30

    Jack, I think it’s unfair to call Jacques Villeneuve, one of the four drivers that won the two most competitive open wheel series in the world, Formula 1 and CART/Champ Car/IRL/Indycar, (the others being Mario Andretti, Emmerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell), the worst champion…

    Despite his shameful late years in Formula 1, his arrogance and his terrible choices, he was a great driver.

  8. Yeah, maybe I let personal prejudice get in the way slightly…after all, he did win the championship, so he does deserve some respect.
    I still can’t think of a less talented champion than Villeneuve though.

  9. poaaibly Alonso. He cruised and collected in 05 and a engine failure saved his title in 06.

  10. *possibly

  11. Alonso is one of the most talented world champs Nick, he is the youngest ever world champ not to mention the fact he be michael schumacher MICHAEL SCHUMACHER! I think you are being a little hard on the guy especially as he came within 1 point of winning it last year too!

  12. Oddball said on 18th August 2008, 5:07

    I became a fan of Mika Häkkinen when he outqualified his team-mate (Senna) who happened to be the arch-rival of my other favourite driver (Prost) on his first outing. Therefore, when on my first overseas race in Adelaide ’95 and having to watch my hero fight for his life less than 50 meters away from me (the first time I’d ever treated myself to a grandstand ticket) I promised myself that if he survived that ginormous shunt I would support him for life (probably the most nail-biting 25 minutes of my life).

    And having since had the great fortune of being present and watch live two of his greatest racing moments (Jerez ’97 and Spa ’00) along with a fair few other treats, I feel that he rewarded me handsomely for my loyalty.

    He had his ups and downs (who hasn’t)… When he, despite his normally icy cool and stoic nature, had to hide behind some bushes in Italy to cry his eyes out on his way to his second driver’s title, he reminded me that these guys – however good drivers some of them might be – are all mere humans.

    I’m still greatful for all those memories, Mika!

  13. Jolene said on 18th August 2008, 7:05

    Oddball, yes, even though I dont think that Mika was an all time great, him crying behind the bushes is my best memory of him.It was the one and only time I saw him displaying any emotion and reminded me that he was only human after all.

  14. Jean said on 18th August 2008, 7:26

    Keith (or any one else who would be kind enough), would you have any stats. between 1986-2001 , showing the number of times Schu. and Hakkinen out-qualified each other ? I think that would tell a story on its own , esp. considering the “real” qualifying format of that time.

  15. Oddball said on 19th August 2008, 2:34

    Jean,
    The Mika/Michael outqualification stats are 35/112 over their 147 battles during the time they were in F1 together (Belgium’91 to Japan’01). Their average QF positions are MH: 6.5 vs MS: 3. This stat is quite distorted e.g. by the fact that Mika’s best QF result over the first 11 of those races was 18th (the worst 27th)…

    Keith,
    Thanks for another great article. I can email you (I haven’t found any upload link on your site) a spreadsheet I made comparing all the qualifying results of MH and MS, showing their grid positions, QF times and gaps for each event if you want to add this info.

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