There’s an exception to every rule. In this case, the rule is that Finnish Formula 1 drivers are uniquely stone-cold racing machines. Yes, you might occasionally catch a hint of irritation in Kimi Raikkonen’s radio communications, but the Finns don’t do emotional, they don’t do flamboyant. The exception then, and it was only one exception, was Mika Hakkinen’s breakdown in the bushes at Monza in 1999. He had put his McLaren off the track at the chicane from a comfortable lead on lap 30. It was a topsy turvy year already, with Hakkinen the defending Drivers Champion duelling both with arch-rival Michael Schumacher and team-mate David Coulthard. Hakkinen’s reaction to his unforced error (he engaged first gear instead of changing up), was uncharacteristically un-Finnish. He threw his gloves and steering wheel to the ground and went off into the bushes, but not out of sight of the cameras, for a good cry. The history books record the facts: Schumacher missed a great big chunk of the season after a big crash at Silverstone, Mika held off the Ferraris of Eddie Irvine and the returning Schumacher to clinch his second title. But in that moment, that short interlude in the bushes at Monza when the weight of a thrown away race crushed him, Mika Hakkinen found a special place in the hearts of Formula 1 fans of all kinds.
Not that he wasn’t already loved. Hakkinen and Schumacher were the two gladiators of the second half of the 1990s. As rivals, they complemented each other well. Schumacher was the ultimate tactician, an ever-evolving racing computer who rarely miscalculated an opportunity. Hakkinen had that raw speed, the extra vision for an opportunity, a balls-out racer’s racer. He also made mistakes. Where Schumacher earned a grudging respect for his relentless racecraft, Hakkinen had you on the edge of your seat. He was brilliant. Sometimes he was rubbish. Often he was plain unlucky.
If you saw Mika’s Top Gear segment where he took James May round the forest in a rally-prepared Mercedes-Benz 190E, you’ll remember he explained the Finnish notion of ‘sisu’. This is a uniquely Scandinavian attribute, a quality combining determination with courage in adversity. We’d call it ‘grit’. As a driver, Hakkinen had sisu in abundance. If you need an example, recall his double overtake on Schumacher and backmarker Ricardo Zonta at Spa in 2000 – arguably one of the bravest and most memorable overtaking manouvers of the modern era. Sisu and then some.
But for a man who has much to brag about, Hakkinen remains a taciturn and laconic man. Not that he’s without humour. A notoriously difficult interviewee there is, nonetheless, the hint of something mischievous about his media performances. You can’t help but feel that a night out with Mika would be fun in a way that a night out with Kimi might not be.
But what about that bad luck? There’s a horrible irony in the fact that the fire that destroyed his house was caused by a faulty light in his trophy cabinet. What does everyone remember about that fire? That Mika’s pet tortoise was cremated. Oh yes, and he lost all his trophies.
You can read on wikipedia that Mika can ride a unicycle. I bet he’s bloody good at it. I can’t imagine him not being good at anything. Happy birthday Mika, and thanks for the racing years.
(Another guest post by @carlpeter)