Former F1 drivers Érik Comas (47 today) and Mika Häkkinen (42 today) are celebrating their respective birthdays today!
Part of the glut of French racing stars who rose through the ranks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Érik began karting at the relatively late age of 19, and almost immediately switched to car racing, buying an old Renault 5 from none other than Jean Alesi.
He won a place at the Volant Elf finals at Paul Ricard in 1983, winning the competition and moving to Formula Renault in 1984, finishing fourth in the season with a race win to his name. He dominated the championship in 1985 with eight wins, and moved to the Renault works team in the Superproduction series, winning that title as well.
He then stepped up to Formula 3 and then Formula 3000, finishing equal on points with championship-winner Jean Alesi in 1989 (losing on count-back) and winning the title in 1990.
Very much the new darling of the French motorsport scene, he debuted with Ligier in 1991 as the rookie partner to Thierry Boutsen in the Lamborghini-powered car. But it was a dreadful year and neither driver scored a point, and he was lucky to survive a huge practice accident at Hockenheim, where his car flipped as the Ostkurve chicane (pictured).
Switching to Renault power in 1992, he finished in the points on three occasions, peaking with fifth at Magny Cours.
For 1993, he joined Larrousse – running its own chassis design for the first time in its history – and he picked up a solitary point at Monza.
Staying on for 1994, he earned two more sixth place results at Aida and Hockenheim in the underpowered car. But his morale took a huge hit when he was inexplicably released from the pit lane during the San Marino Grand Prix race stoppage for Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash, and was devastated to arrive on the scene when his friend – who had himself come to Comas’ aid during a heavy crash at Belgium in 1992 – was critically injured.
With funds quickly running dry, Comas was stood aside for the final race so Jean-Denis Délétraz could bring some desperately-needed cash to the operation.
Comas now carves out a successful career in the Japanese Grand Touring Championship series.
As soon as Mika Häkkinen qualified his one-year-old Lotus in 13th position on debut at Phoenix, people immediately sat up and took notice. This man was a future World Champion in the making.
A prolific talent in the junior series, Mika took the 1990 British F3 crown after a titanic fight with his compatriot Mika Salo, and jumped straight into the top flight the following year.
His first season proved a huge test, but he made the grid on all but one occasion and earned two points with an impressive drive to fifth in the wet-dry race at San Marino.
The arrival of the promising new Lotus 107 for the 1992 season saw Mika progress further, and he achieved an outstanding fourth place in Hungary, which saw him being snapped up by Ron Dennis at McLaren.
But with Ayrton Senna and Michael Andretti on the books for 1993, Mika was consigned to the role of test driver until Andretti was inevitably released after a string of poor performances.
On his McLaren debut at Portugal (pictured), he outqualified Senna – much to the Brazilian’s huge embarrassment – and gave everyone another indication of his supreme talent.
The arrival of Peugeot and then Mercedes engines for 1994 and 1995 saw Hakkinen consigned to the role of also-ran, as the McLaren rarely proved competitive enough to challenge the quicker Williams, Benetton and Ferrari teams. Some overdriving in 1994 saw him banned for a race after causing the 14-car start-line pile-up at Hockenheim, and he returned a steadier and more mature driver as a result.
Tragedy would so nearly rob the F1 world of the Finn’s skills, for he suffered a near-fatal accident in qualifying for the 1995 Australian Grand Prix, where a tyre failure sent him spearing into the barriers. An emergency tracheotomy performed trackside saved his life.
Incredibly, he returned during his off-season lay-off, fully recovered and raring to go. The 1996 season was again a building year in the team’s second season with Mercedes power, and he continued to push the team forward.
By 1997, he was in a genuine race-winning car, but it took until the last race of the season – having been denied victory on several previous occasions while leading – for him to taste the victory champagne, being waved through by Jacques Villeneuve after the Williams driver’s controversial collision with Michael Schumacher.
He would never look back. The 1998 McLaren harnessed the grooved-tyre, narrow-track regulations best of all, and he was mighty, sweeping to the title after winning half of the season’s 16 races.
The next season proved tougher – embarrassingly suffering race-ending crashes while comfortably leading in San Marino and Italy – but he performed when needed to fend off Eddie Irvine’s challenge with a fine win in the season finale.
By now Michael Schumacher was the only man who could seriously rival him for a third championship, and in the 2000 season they had a ding-dong scrap – including Mika’s heroic overtaking move on Schumacher during the Belgian Grand Prix – that would eventually end in Schumacher’s favour.
The 2001 season saw a dip in McLaren’s form and Mika’s motivation, and after a heavy accident at the Australian Grand Prix, he rethought his career and decided a sabbatical would be in order for 2002. Despite this, he was still on the money when really motivated, leading until the last lap in Spain, but winning the blue-ribbon British (right) and US Grands Prix to sign out on in style.
He never did return to the F1 grid, but enjoyed a successful career in the DTM series later on before retiring from motorsport for good.
A true gentleman on and off the track, the ‘Flying Finn’ made up in wit and skill what he lacked in vocabulary, and he remains a highly-regarded if sorely-missed figure, prompting Schumacher to describe him as the only driver he truly respected.
[Original images via The Cahier Archive]