Formula 1 Profile – Mika Häkkinen
The fact that the most-decorated Formula 1 driver of all-time says Mika Häkkinen was the only driver he ever feared and the one he most respected should tell you all you need to know, but to define the Flying Finn only by comparison to Michael Schumacher wouldn’t be doing him justice.
After trying and crashing a rented go-kart for the first time near his home in Helsinki at the age of five, young Mika pestered his parents until they bought him a kart of his own. Racing started out as a family hobby but quickly turned into a serious profession for the young Finn. By the age of 18, Mika was a five-time karting champion and had been brought under the wing of Keke Rosberg, a fellow Finn and 1982 World Champion.
Four years later, Mika had won three Scandinavian Formula Ford championships, the Opel Lotus Euroseries championship, and the 1990 British Formula 3 championship. He was promoted to Team Lotus in Formula 1 racing and quickly noticed by McLaren boss Ron Dennis, who signed him in 1993 as a testing driver and apprentice to Ayrton Senna and Michael Andretti. When the latter left the sport with three races to go, Häkkinen got in the car and out-qualified Senna, who was widely considered to be the greatest driver of all time. Needless to say, it was a wakeup call for the Brazilian, and if anyone hadn’t been paying attention to Mika before, they certainly were then.
His Formula 1 career nearly crashed to a stop as soon as it began when a punctured tire sent his McLaren straight into a wall in 1995. Mika took several months to recover from his brush with death, after which he said he had to return to driving “flat out” or he’d never overcome his fears. In early 1996, he was back and as quick as ever.
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In the following years, the Flying Finn became known as a deliberate individual who did most of his talking on the track. The 1995 crash had affected his hearing and contributed to a slightly slower way of speaking, which he often turned to humorous advantage.
Despite all his speed, Häkkinen struggled to convert it into wins. The first finally came in the last race of 1997 at Jerez, but only amidst controversy as both David Coulthard and Jacque Villeneuve moved out of the way to let him pass. The same thing happened at the 1998 season opener when Coulthard agreed to let him win should they both be in the lead. Every win after that was legitimate, however, and Mika won the 1998 World Championship with 8 victories out of 16 races, ahead of Michael Schumacher.
He won the championship again the year after, though this time it was Schumacher’s teammate he had to fight off. After that, his only real enemy was himself. He won four times in 2000 and twice in 2001, but with a newborn son now in his life, the dangerous realities of the sport were once more catching up to Häkkinen. He announced a sabbatical at the end of 2001 and never returned.