Two-time World Champion Mika Häkkinen is celebrating his 43rd birthday today!
Making his F1 debut in 1991, Häkkinen qualified his one-year-old Lotus an impressive 13th on the grid at Phoenix, surviving a huge spin during the race when his steering wheel came off in his hands! This incident aside, it had many of the hallmarks of a man who would claim back-to-back crowns within the next ten years…
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, 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 Häkkinen 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 British and US Grands Prix to sign out 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.