Mika Hakkinen remains a part of modern McLaren history.
Today marks 15 years since the Flying Finn earned his first Formula One world title, and alongside David Coulthard he forms the last partnership to deliver the Woking squad the Constructors’ title, in 1999.
Hakkinen is rightly spoken of as a popular champion. He was incredibly quick and often delivered single-lap efforts which beggared belief, a fact exemplified by him featuring in the top 10 all-time lists for pole positions and fastest laps.
A member of an exclusive club as twice F1 world champion, Hakkinen rightly earns his place alongside some of the greatest drivers the sport has produced.
Is he unfairly overlooked when remembering the best drivers? Some point to the time it took him to record a first victory and the mistakes make in his final years with McLaren as proof he was a very good, if not great, F1 driver.
However, that is a harsh way to remember him.
Paying his dues
Hakkinen had to earn his big chance, and when it came, he had to wait a bit longer.
Combine that with a life-threatening injury and you gain a better perspective of just how talented the Finn was.
He arrived in F1 in 1991 as the reigning British F3 champion, where had garnered the reputation for being incredibly fast over one lap.
He duly transferred this into two seasons with an uncompetitive Lotus team, with which he scored two and 11 points in each season, finishing 1992 eighth overall in the championship with a best finish of fourth (twice).
Revelling in the underdog role, his impressive efforts at Lotus earned him a test driver role with McLaren. By the end of 1993, and with Michael Andretti underperforming, Hakkinen stepped into the final three races of the season.
With the pressure significantly greater, he ran close to No. 1 driver Ayrton Senna at Estoril, his first race with the team, and was very impressive—netting his first F1 podium in the process.
His first full season with the team was successful in every area bar one—victory. Six podiums ensured Hakkinen ended the season fourth in the points, but that was as fruitful as it would get for a while.
This was a time when McLaren was enduring a lean spell, particularly the '95 and '96 seasons that followed. In a car rarely capable of challenging for podiums, let alone wins, Hakkinen finished seventh and fifth in the next two campaigns, picking up two and four podiums, respectively.
The end of the 1995 season was slightly premature, but the sport is incredibly fortunate it was not a graver conclusion.
Having equaled his career-best result of second in the preceding Japanese Grand Prix, Hakkinen crashed heavily in qualifying at Adelaide. An emergency trackside tracheotomy saved his life, and despite having to miss the race, his recovery process began.
That was concluded following a private test with McLaren at the start of 1996 in which Hakkinen’s personal concerns about continuing were laid to rest. His partner for that season was David Coulthard, who had the year before notched up his own first victory in the much more competitive Williams.
Hakkinen had the measure of his Scottish stablemate in '96 but the following year was left in the shade. Despite retiring from nine of the 17 races, Coulthard won twice (including the opener in Australia) and finished third in the points race. By comparison, Hakkinen toiled in seventh.
Despite the points disparity, 1997 heralded Hakkinen’s own breakthrough: the season finale. As title rivals Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve came to blows, through came the Finn to take the first of what would become 20 Grand Prix wins.
Reaching the top
That breakthrough win for Hakkinen coincided with input on the new McLaren from new designer Adrian Newey, architect of the all-conquering Williams of 1996 and 1997.
Hakkinen duly made the most of his team’s newfound competitiveness and stormed to consecutive world titles in 1998 and 1999.
A critique levied all too often at successful drivers is that their triumphs are entirely down to the cars. While there is an element of truth in the argument, it’s also very harsh to suggest that these drivers are not deserving of their titles.
While Coulthard peaked earlier than Hakkinen at McLaren, his results were arguably just that—peaks. Hakkinen’s efforts had been blighted by the limitations of the car, and when the car was able to access greater performance, it was the Finn who was able to unlock its maximum potential.
Some drivers can perform at 95 percent of their potential, and of their car’s potential, week in, week out. Only a select few can get the absolute maximum from themselves on a consistent basis, and even fewer can maximise the result for their car every weekend.
Hakkinen might not have been able to drag better results than might have been expected from his car, but he was certainly able to reach the peaks better cars were capable of.
It’s a chink in his armour that he was unable to completely get on top of the slower McLarens, but his performances in the 1991 and 1992 Lotus cars, as well as his foray into Grand Prix racing with McLaren, serve as proof that Hakkinen’s talent far exceeded “good driver in a great car.”
Did he lack the resolve, the mental strength or the outright talent to make it a hat-trick of titles when Schumacher overhauled his points advantage in the climax of the 2000 season?
Again, that is probably harsh. That was probably the tipping point for Ferrari mastering its car and succeeding McLaren as F1’s benchmark team.
Up against a hungry and determined Schumacher, there is no shame in Hakkinen being beaten; and after a decade in the sport, he decided that a relatively underwhelming 2001 campaign would be his last season.
The bottom line is that Hakkinen was a great F1 driver whose talent went beyond “very good” status. Two world titles prove that.
Perhaps a steelier demeanour would have heralded three, but his recovery from that horror Adelaide shunt, and the long wait for a win, is a testimony to the resolve that belied his amiable nature.
Hakkinen has a place among the greats of F1, and it would be foolish to suggest it was undeserved.