Mika Hakkinen started his final F1 season ten years ago.
The 1998 and 1999 world champion went on to race in the DTM and is now helping Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas on the way to an F1 seat.
Hakkinen talked exclusively to F1 Fanatic about his time in F1, his rivalry with Michael Schumacher – and what it’s like to discover your new car is a potential championship-winner.
F1 Fanatic: It’s ten years since your last F1 season – it seems to have gone very quickly. What have you been doing since then?
Mika Hakkinen: The time is really flying, that’s true. When I think about all these years it feels just like yesterday.
The time when you are in Formula 1, your life is so incredibly attached to the sport. Formula 1 takes from your life 24 hours a day. It’s not going into an office in the morning and leaving in the afternoon. It’s unbelievable, one hundred percent commitment to the job.
So in these ten years a lot of things have been happening. I’ve been experiencing a family life, I have three children in my life, so it’s been an amazing time. There have been bad moments, of course, and incredibly positive moments, but it’s just life.
In the racing world I experienced the DTM for three years with Mercedes. It brought me back years because I was racing with young guys and it was interesting to see their mentality and commitment for the sport –the girls as well, not only the boys.
F1F: You described how intense life is when you’re in Formula 1. When did you decide first to take a sabbatical from it, and then to leave it completely?
MH: It’s never so clear-cut to be honest. My career in Formula 1 was very complicated, let’s say it this way. Of course I had my accident in ’95 and [after that] I had to use much more effort to do my performance in Formula 1 compared to other racing drivers.
I was not able to go so far with my career in Formula 1 as other drivers – in terms of time, I don’t mean the results, I got the result that I was looking for.
I had to stop racing probably four or five years earlier than others because I was just finished. I felt that physically and mentally I was not doing the right stuff for myself and I was not doing the right stuff for the team and it was time to get new, young drivers to take my position and perform.
That was my decision. To be honest, it started after my accident. Not directly, you know, but something happened in my thinking and after ’95 I was still driven by the dream that I was going to be world champion, I was going to do everything for that and I was going to keep fighting.
As soon as I had that goal I thought “that’s it”. I was slowly realising in my mind that life has given to me so much, my sport has given me so much, I don’t want to try to step on ice and see if it’s strong enough any more, because I know what it feels like when you fall through.
F1F: You talked about how much the sport has given you: what was the time you enjoyed most in your career?
MH: That’s a really good question. Every year there was something. Motor racing gave me a great education in what you cannot just learn from reading books and going to university – those things are great but Formula 1 gave me something to educate myself in everyday life and the business world.
If you particularly want a year that was something I think years like ’97, that was an extremely fantastic year.
F1F: A breakthrough year?
MH:A breakthrough, yeah, I would say so. ’97 was a great year. Then going back I would say ’94 was an incredible year.
But I have to be honest every year there was something amazing. Without doing much I could think [of something] in a year I learned that which gave me the step towards the experience of winning the world championship one day.
I always picked up a lot of things every year which I could together and then attack. You cannot just one year, look in the mirror and say “I’m ready to win everything”. No, you have to continue working, year after year, collecting this knowledge in your head.
And then when you can put all these together and have a clear mind, you can do it. Bu, of course, you’ve got to be in the right team, you cannot do it alone, so I was grateful to be in a fantastic team with McLaren and we did it.
F1F: Which drivers at the moment are gaining the benefit of your experience?
MH: I’m taking care of [Williams reserve driver] Valtteri Bottas with Didier Coton’s management team. He’s doing GP3 this year.
For me it’s unbelievably positive to talk about my experiences in the past, when I was in Formula 1. But I have learned in my career, I had great management team behind me – Didier Coton and Keke Rosberg and Keke’s sister.
But at the end of the day, yes you can help and advise the driver, you can do a lot of things in the background, but at the end of the day the driver has to learn for himself. He has to study the life study the sport and put everything on the correct way. That’s why it is always good to give.
The basics of the driver have to be right. The parents have to do the right work when the driver is a kid and doing go-karting, the parents have to do the right education so the young man or girl one day can take information in the right way. They can use it to suit their style in their life because everybody is individual and different.
F1F: Is the life you had in Formula 1 something you’d want for your children, if they wanted it?
MH: Oh, definitely. I think that being a Grand Prix driver is the best job in the world. It’s absolutely fantastic.
It’s hard work but, hey, it’s a great job!
F1F: You had a lot of testing opportunities with McLaren and Lotus when you came into F1. But there’s not as many chances for young drivers to do that today. Is this a problem F1 needs to sort out for drivers like Valtteri?
MH: I don’t say it’s a problem because every driver who is coming into Formula 1 is in the same situation.
So I’ll just tell you: I don’t think it is a problem. Because if there’s a problem somewhere there’s always ways to mange that problem and analyse that problem.
F1F: Turning to F1 today, what’s your view on the adjustable rear wings – a positive step for a F1 or a gimmick?
People have been thinking a lot about this wing. There has been a lot of thought, a lot of reasons why it is like that.
Personally I think, from the drivers’ point of view, it makes life more interesting. But we’ll find out how it works when the season starts.
F1F: Fernando Alonso recently said “the most dangerous rival for me is always Michael [Schumacher]”. Some people were surprised by that because Michael had a tough season last year. Do you understand what Fernando means when he says that?
MH: I understand that every driver has their opinions, their feelings, before the start of the season. The drivers are always being asked questions before the season starts. So that’s just one thing that’s been picked up from these comments.
In my opinion when you’re starting a season in Grand Prix racing you have to focus on working with your team at the highest level possible. And the first driver you have to beat is your team mate so he’s the biggest threat. That’s the reality. Then comes the rest.
And you can, of course, look at the drivers in the Grand Prix field in 2011 and look at the level of professionalism it is absolutely amazing what the level of performance Grand Prix drivers today are delivering. They’re doing a great job in terms of the physical side, marketing side, professionally with the team, the performance they do at the track, the technical knowledge they have – the list is long.
I would not pinpoint one driver out there and say “this is my threat for 2011”. This is just my way of thinking. Michael is definitely a driver who I have experienced in the past, he’s an amazing individual who can work very hard and not give up even when thing are not going so well. He keeps going until he gets the result. And he has shown that in his career when he was racing in any category.
So when we are heading for the first Grand Prix of the season we will know who will perform and who will not. And it’s not only about the driver himself who will be doing the result, it’s also the team. Both sides have to deliver the maximum attack performance.
F1F: After your rivalry with Michael it’s amusing to see you now appearing in adverts together.
MH: I talked with Michael, we talked about last year and the future. It was good, I could see he has this incredible commitment now he has decided to go back to Formula 1.
It was funny doing the commercial with him together and overtaking him. We enjoyed doing it. There’s humour in it and it gives people the opportunity to laugh about the past.
Yes, when we were racing it was very tough and very serious. But at the end of the day it’s just a sport and when we did the commercials it was nice. I think you always have to put the humour in your life because otherwise you just don’t survive. You have to learn to laugh and have fun.
F1F: It looked a bit easier overtaking him in that advert than it was in Spa in 2000.
MH: Oh yeah! Much easier.
F1F: Sebastian Vettel drove this incredible car last year, designed by Adrian Newey, who was also behind your world championship-winning cars. What is it that makes his cars different and special?
MH: How could I say it? What Adrian was able to do, in my opinion, was really think about everything. Every single part of the car has gone through a lot of thinking and he was able to create this car that could perform at the highest level and be better than any other.
I can’t really explain it. I’ve driven many cars in the past and I know there have been possibilities for people to design these cars however they want. But Adrian was able to find ultimate performance in every part of the car. Whatever it is, he was able to do that.
The cars he did for me, in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001, were just amazing. I was many times working with him, looking at the numbers and collaborating, looking at this and that and how much downforce it was developing. He understood the language when you communicated, what problems the driver was experiencing. He was able to understand what you need.
F1F: What’s it like when you drive a car like the  MP4-13 for the first time – and realise that you’ve got a car that could win the world championship?
MH: Oh yeah it’s an unbelievable feeling. When I first drove that car, when I was driving out of the pit lane and I was steering the wheel and changing gear I thought “what is going on here? This is it!”
I didn’t even have to get to the first corner, I felt on the steering this was it. I went on the accelerator and felt the traction and the acceleration of the car and I thought, “hey, we’ve got something here”.
You want to jump up and down in the pit lane and say “I’ve got it, I’ve got the best car here” – but you cannot do that! The team are keeping their feet on the ground and you know that even if you have a good car, the season is long and people will be catching and developing their car. So you just have to keep your emotions down and keep working, making it even better.
Adrian and the McLaren team, the engineers and mechanics, they gave me this great car and we had a meeting and said “that’s where we are, now we just have to get even better.”
It was about creating the overall package and complete performance because it’s not just about the clock that says you are fast, you have to have so many elements right to win the world championship. The driver’s part in that moment is even more important because you really have to start working seriously hard.
When you have the chance to win the world championship that’s the only chance you get. It’s maybe never going to happen again in your life if you miss it once. You have to do everything you can to win it that year when you have the chance.
This interview was conducted thanks to Johnnie Walker, for whom Mika is a Responsible Drinking Ambassador.
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Images © Johnnie Walker, F3 Euroseries, Mercedes GP, Daimler