Five reasons Mika Häkkinen is F1’s greatest ‘Flying Finn’
For a small country of only 5.5 million people and a climate suited mainly to rallying, Finland has done remarkably well when it comes to Formula 1.
First there was Keke Rosberg, all moustachioed bravado and cigarettes, who snatched the final Cosworth DFV-powered world title through sheer grit during the bombastic 1980s.
Later came Kimi Räikkönen, the mumbling ice man who to this day still does all his talking on track, and has just chiselled out a 21st grand prix victory during a protracted F1 career that has spanned 17 years – and counting.
Great world champions, both. But between them came 20-time winner Mika Häkkinen: not the first ‘Flying Finn’ of F1, and not the last – but certainly the best.
Almost exactly 20 years ago, Häkkinen celebrated his first world championship after an incredible journey that had tested his talent and resolve in a manner that would have defeated most. The sport almost killed him. But he survived, and eventually… thrived.
Two decades on, Häkkinen deserves greater recognition. Here’s a reminder of why he was a true great of grand prix racing.
It was always obvious that Häkkinen was fast, but would he ever have the opportunity to deliver on that potential? He answered that one first time out at Estoril in 1993.
Stepping back from racing at struggling Lotus to become McLaren’s test driver had been a gamble, but when Michael Andretti quit before the end of his disappointing maiden F1 season, Mika grabbed his chance. He was promoted at the Portuguese Grand Prix – and promptly out-qualified his team-mate: some bloke called Ayrton Senna. OK, he crashed out of the race – but this kid had just confirmed what his stellar junior career had suggested: he was special.
2 He came back from a crash that nearly killed him
The career trajectory flattened after that as McLaren endured fallow years, before rejuvenation through a new partnership with Mercedes. Häkkinen shone when he could, but also made big mistakes: the multi-car pile-up he triggered at Hockenheim in 1994 earned a one-race ban.
But a year later Häkkinen nearly lost everything.
The practice accident in Adelaide, when his McLaren flew into a wall with sickening force following a puncture, left the Finn’s life hanging in the balance. Only rapid action from F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins, who performed a trackside tracheotomy, saved him.
Häkkinen’s physical recovery was remarkable, but the mental and emotional scars were of greater concern. Would Mika return, and if he did, could he ever be quite the same?
Not for the first time, he answered big questions the only way he knew how: flat-out. At a private pre-season test in early 1996, Häkkinen showed his astonished team the strength of his resilience. Near-death just would not defeat him.
Finally, in 1998 – armed with the first McLaren designed by aerodynamics wizard Adrian Newey – Häkkinen had the means to show the world what he could do. But again we wondered: did he have what it takes?
As Schumacher strived to end Ferrari’s near 20-year title drought, he came up against a defiant Finn with an armoury that would prove too strong. Not only was Häkkinen regularly faster over one lap than Michael – six-all on fastest laps, but nine-three on pole positions – he was also able to deliver on Sundays: eight victories to Schumacher’s six.
And at Suzuka, he faced down the German in a straight duel to become McLaren’s first world champion since Senna. This was big.
4 He won another world title
But what now? Could he do it again? Schumacher and Ferrari began 1999 with an even greater urgency to end that drought – only for a mid-season crash at Silverstone to ruin everything yet again. A broken leg would force Schumacher to miss six races, and surely leave the path clear for Häkkinen’s second consecutive title.
Then again, perhaps not. To the surprise of everyone, not least himself, Ferrari’s ‘solid number two’, Eddie Irvine, found himself in contention – aided in no uncertain terms by Häkkinen appearing to crack. Who can forget Monza? The McLaren was leading comfortably, when Mika unfathomably spun at the first corner – then hid in some bushes to cry.
When Schumacher returned at the first Malaysian GP, tasked with helping Irvine defeat Häkkinen (how that must have stuck in his throat!), Häkkinen again found his resilience tested to the maximum.
Schumacher was brilliant at Sepang, gifting Irvine a vital victory – only for a technical infringement regarding the size of Ferrari’s aerodynamic ‘bargeboards’ to apparently hand the title to Häkkinen. But when the FIA over-ruled its own stewards and reinstated Ferrari’s result, it seemed McLaren and its fragile driver were facing uneven forces.
But just as he had countless times before, Häkkinen dug deep. Again he was peerless at Suzuka. This time it was Irvine’s turn to crumble and to the relief of just about everyone not dressed in red, Mika prevailed.
In the years that followed, Schumacher would acknowledge Häkkinen had been his greatest rival, and an equal. Even when Michael overstepped the mark, as he did at Spa in 2000 when he drove the McLaren on to the grass at close to 200mph, Mika would not yield. The next lap, the pair famously went either side of Ricardo Zonta’s BAR, with Häkkinen emerging in the lead. Their stern conversation in parc ferme reminded a defeated Michael that this was not a driver to be messed with.
A man of steel in the cockpit, the awkward Finn with the floppy blond hair was awful in press conferences. But that was never a true reflection of the real Mika Häkkinen. Off-camera, he is and always was great company, with a twinkle in the eye, a ready smile and a wit to induce genuine belly laughs.
Now, two decades on from his F1 reign, Häkkinen no longer has anything to prove. The fastest ‘Flying Finn’ of them all is a gilt-edged F1 legend – and a shining example of how great racing drivers can face down life-changing challenges, and bat them away with a rare and dignified grace.