The quiet star of Formula 1 was a much loved and respected figure. Notorious for his flat-out style, he came back from a life threatening accident early in his career to claim two championships
Like most of the greats, Mika Häkkinen began his racing career in karting back in the early Seventies when he was just five years old. His potential, even at that tender age, was there for all too see as the young Mika took the chequered flag race after race. His transition into single seater racing proved equally successful, and he notched up a bunch of Scandinavian Formula Ford 1,600 titles as if they were being handed out for free. By the late Eighties, he’d won the British Formula 3 championship in only his second season. Häkkinen was ready for Formula 1.
It was in 1991 that he made his debut for Lotus on the big stage at Pheonix, Arizona at the US Grand Prix but an engine failure cut his dream start short. Two years later, he moved to McLaren where he was employed as a test driver and understudy to Ayrton Senna and Michael Andretti, but when the latter quit, Ron Dennis promoted the young Finn. It proved to be a masterstroke as Mika confirmed he could hang with the best of them by out qualifying Senna in his first race with his new team, in Estoril, but he crashed in the race and was then suspended after causing a massive pile up at the start of the German Grand Prix the following season.
His temperament was being questioned though he remained unfazed and picked up his first podium finish in the Japanese Grand Prix the next year. No sooner was he making a name for himself; he suffered a horrific accident in 1995. A punctured tyre during the practice run ahead of the Australian Grand Prix saw him lose control of his McLaren on the fastest corner of the circuit and he smashed into a wall. He received severe head injuries and trackside medics had to perform an emergency tracheotomy to save him.
He was left in a coma but fortunately, made a full recovery and returned to F1, winning the European Grand Prix in 1997 in the Mercedes-powered MP4/13. During the title winning season of 1998, Mika won eight times out of 16, showing he’d matured into a cool and steely competitor. He was showered with praise, found fame and fortune, but he didn’t let it go to his head. Never one to say too much, he let his driving do the talking and it spoke volumes for the likeable driver. He again took the honours the next year with the McLaren proving too strong for Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, but his season was marred by a rare mistake at Monza. He spun out after selecting the wrong gear and cameras caught the usually unflappable Häkkinen jump out of his car, climb over the barrier and break down in tears.
By 2001, Mika had left it to team mate David Coulthard to lead the fight for McLaren and was contemplating taking a sabbatical. Following another crash in Melbourne which brought back painful memories of his near fatal accident in Adelaide earlier in his career, he decided to take a break from F1, but, was never to return.
He scored points in over half of his 165 races, secured 51 podium finishes and managed two championships. Schumacher, arguably the greatest driver of them all, has battled on the track with the best. He’s gone on record as saying the opponent he respected the most wasn’t Senna or Prost. It was Mika.