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?
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.
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 – 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.
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.
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.
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.
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Read more about Mika Hakkinen: Mika Hakkinen biography