Mika Hakkinen has caught the imagination of many Formula One fans as he was the protagonist of many enticing duels with Michael Schumacher. The ‘Flying Finn’ is one of the few drivers to have beaten the legendary German driver to a world championship title. The two-time champion shared his career memories with Valhmor Camilleri...
Finland may not boast a great tradition in F1 drivers but in Mika Hakkinen they had one of the most talented racers in the history of the sport.
Born in the Finnish city of Vantaa, Hakkinen’s love for motor racing started at a very young age when he convinced his parents to let him race in go-kart competitions and from then on he never looked back.
“I started my career when I was only five years old,” Hakkinen, who was in Malta as special guest of Kindred Group, told The Sunday Times of Malta.
“My father worked very close to a go-kart circuit and I used to spend a lot of time watching car racing. It was love at first sight.
“After many attempts I managed to convince my parents to let me compete in go-kart races and as time passed they recognised that I had a special talent and they started to encourage me to continue in the sport.
“It was a wise decision as since then everything just worked fine for me.”
Hakkinen entered F1 in 1991 but his highest point arrived in 1998 when he was crowned world champion for the first time in his career with McLaren after a tight duel with Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher.
The following year, the 49-year-old managed to reconfirm his status with a second championship triumph.
“Winning the world championship is a memory that I will cherish forever,” Hakkinen said.
“That success was the fruit of a great team work. When you are in Formula One, you need to be able to communicate well with your team.
“During my time at McLaren we had 800 people working with the team and I think one of my strengths was the fact that I was a very good communicator with my car designers and engineers.
“I built a great relationship with them and our understanding was fundamental behind my F1 title success.”
Hakkinen’s title achievement takes further significance when one considers that he had to overcome the challenge of arguably the best ever F1 driver in history – Schumacher.
“Beating Michael Schumacher was not an easy task,” Hakkinen said.
“He is without doubt the greatest F1 driver of all time and for me his biggest virtue was that he worked really hard and never gave up.
“Racing against Schumacher was always a big challenge and for me and that was a great motivating factor. You have to remember that we are talking about someone who won the world championship seven times in his career- Hakkinen
“But we shared some great memories together.”
Hakkinen and Schumacher were the protagonists of a great rivalry in the late 1990s and one of the most memorable moments for F1 fans arrived at the Belgian GP in 2000 when the Finn completed an extraordinary overtaking move on Schumacher.
Racing at over 300km/h, the Finn managed to pass Schumacher despite having the slow-moving Riccardo Zonta alongside them on the track.
“It was a risky move, no doubt about that,” Hakkinen said.
“We were in a part of the race track where we reached a speed of over 300km/h. It was the only place where I could overtake Schumacher’s Ferrari.
“We were approaching the long straight and ahead of us there was Zonta who had a problem with his car. Normally, he would be positioned to the left or the right-hand side of the track but he stayed in the middle.
“That gave me the opportunity to try and overtake both him and Schumacher and it was a really an exciting move.”
Today, Hakkinen is still somewhat involved in Formula One as he is part of the management team of his compatriot Valtteri Bottas, who is racing for world champions Mercedes.
Asked whether he saw any similarities between Bottas and himself, Hakkinen said: “I’m really pleased with the development of Valtteri Bottas since he joined Mercedes. When you go into Formula One, you realise that the real works as a driver starts there and Valtteri is doing well.
“I think that one great virtue Valtteri and I share is that he is a good listener and that is very important.
“To have the opportunity to work alongside highly-qualified engineers and designers every single day is priceless as you are learning a lot from them and that knowledge will be useful for the rest of your career.”
This season’s title race is turning out to be one of the most exciting for many years.
Heading into today’s French GP there is a tight battle at the top with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel leading world champion Lewis Hamilton, of Mercedes, by just a point with Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo, of Red Bull, following just behind.
Hakkinen thinks it’s very difficult to say who will prevail this year.
“It’s very difficult to say who will be crowned world champion this year,” he said.
“In previous years you had Mercedes who were dominant but this year Ferrari and Red Bull are really competitive.
“Ricciardo and Bottas are doing very well while Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are very experienced so it’s tough to say who will be crowned champion.
“In my opinion, the driver who will have the mental strength to deal with race pressure and commits the least number of mistakes will be crowned F1 champion.”
Hakkinen’s former team McLaren are currently passing through a difficult patch in Formula One with the team struggling to challenge for the top positions after a series of mechanical and administrative problems.
The Finnish driver said that it’s sad to see such a glorious team encounter so many problems but he was confident that they will be able to become competitive again if they are patient enough to let their mechanics maximise the car’s potential.
“McLaren is a big company and it’s disappointing to see them struggle in the last few years,” he said.
“Their partnership with Honda didn’t work too well and that inevitably has cost them valuable time to develop the car.
“Now it seems that they have a very good package but they need a bit of time to put everything in place.
“They have a very young team of mechanics and designers who have still a lot of things to learn but I’m confident that they will come good in the next few years.”
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