To Hell and Back

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In Melbourne the world’s media scrutinised Mika Hakkinen for any sign of weaknesses as he returned to Formula One. Mark Skewis reports that they didn’t find many

Its the stuff Hollywood thrives on: driver fights for life after accident; makes heroic comeback; wins world championship; walks off into sunset.

Mika Hakkinen concedes that last year’s accident at Adelaide, which so nearly claimed his life, has knocked some of the romance out of him.

“When I was ill, in hospital, or home, whatever, I didn’t think about racing,” he says quietly. “I was just thinking about the next day, about what was going to happen, whether I was going to have a lunch or something. I wasn’t thinking about when I was going to get back in a racing car.”

The trouble with Hollywood is that real life has a terrible habit of refusing to follow the script. Motor racing history is littered with talented drivers who recovered from injury, but never recovered their confidence or speed.

Karl Wendlinger was the last such figure to return, having spent weeks in a coma after shunting at Monaco in 1994. Contrary to the way it is sometimes depicted, the Formula One paddock is not a place devoid of sympathy. It’s just that you can’t run a multi-million dollar team on it. Wendlinger was dropped after just four races and, despite a late-season reprieve, axed for good at the year’s end.

“He was not the same,” revealed Sauber team manager Max Welti. “Yes, he looks the same and can walk and talk the same, but his reactions aren’t the same. The really sad thing is that I don’t think even Karl can tell what’s different in his driving.”

At times Wendlinger looked haunted, like a man desperate to emerge from a bad dream. Hakkinen faced the daunting prospect of running the same gamut of emotions.

“Personally I think a puncture is harder to deal with than if it had been his fault,” opines Keke Rosberg, Hakkinen’s manager. “Drivers aren’t often scared of their own mistakes maybe because they all believe they’re so bloody good! It was things beyond my control that used to worry me as a driver! The fear of losing the wing, the brakes, the suspension, tyres. They are harder to come to terms with than your own error, which you believe can easily be avoided.”

“I knew from the faces of the people around me that I’d had a bad crash,” Hakkinen recalls of Adelaide. The same tell-tale signs brought home the importance of his first run back in a Grand Prix car, at Paul Ricard. “Some of the mechanics made me more nervous is than anything else. When I was beside the car, putting on my driving suit and crash helmet, many of the mechanics were really quiet, not saying anything. Usually in F1 there is a lot of noise and there is always something happening. This time it was completely silent. I had to tell them to chill out and lighten up!

“I sat in the car, doing the usual checks, and I was thinking to myself: ‘What am I feeling now? Do I feel scared or normal?’ I heard the sound of the engine, felt the car, and that was it. I realised I really love it.”

Subsequently he was quickest in pre-season testing at Estoril. But producing in testing was one thing, to perform in the cauldron of a GP weekend especially back in the country where he was for so long confined to hospital presented the ultimate test.

He confesses the tension got to him.

“Sitting in the aeroplane before I landed in Melbourne I was looking out the window, seeing Australia, and my mind was thinking, ‘This is the country where you had a big shunt. Then you just tell yourself, ‘Don’t think about it. Close the curtains and just don’t look out’. If you do start thinking about it your emotions can have too much effect on you and you never know what’s going to happen. It’s very tricky. Very difficult. One good thing was that going around the track on the driver parade I realised how many fans I have in Australia. That gave me a lot of courage, a lot of strength to continue.”

Left stunned by his driver’s pace in testing, an upbeat McLaren boss Ron Dennis claimed, “The accident has matured Mika a bit. He is more professional than before.”

Asked whether he had changed, the Finn responded: “Yeah, my hair is a bit shorter!” but the humour was forced, and for much the Melbourne weekend the usual ready smile was nowhere to be seen.

“Probably I have changed,” he admits in a moment of reflection, “but it’s always hard to see the changes in yourself. You just think to yourself, ‘I’m always the same guy, the same person’, until somebody comes and says, ‘What’s going on with you?’

“When you have something like that [the accident] it naturally changes your life a bit; changes your thinking on anything. Maybe when I am out on a racetrack I am not taking so many risks I am more calculating – I used to take them every lap; now it’s maybe every second lap.”

Sceptics were quick to pounce on the fact that he was clearly ill at ease with the media. At a brief conference he virtually retreated inside his shell, showing evident distress as the battery of flash guns were fired off in his direction. “It’s very uncomfortable to try and start talking about some important things in your life to somebody else if there are 15 cameras flashing in front of you,” he explained afterwards.

Rosberg betrays little surprise when the news of Mika’s reaction is relayed to him. ”He was scared,” he says candidly. “Scared to face people and hear them saying, ‘Is he still able to do it?’ He’s been to hell and back. He’s just spent two months alone with his girlfriend with nothing to do all day but read the horror stories in the papers. Of course he was uncomfortable. Put yourself on a platform with the whole world staring at you for a weakness, wondering if you could still see like you used to or not. How would you feel?

“He is still very nervous of people, worried about the world saying he is no longer able to race. You know that it only takes a bad run now and people are immediately saying, ‘Hey, hey, poor Mika. He hasn’t got it any more…

Has he still got what it takes? On the evidence of Melbourne you would have to say ‘yes’. As is customary, Hakkinen languished well down the timesheets for most of qualifying, only to produce that one-off late lap that infuriates team-mates and technicians alike. Having out-qualified David Coulthard who, not so many months ago, was spoiling Damon Hill’s title challenge he outraced him too. In the circumstances, with a car that isn’t yet a front-runner, you could have asked no more but to start fifth and finish in the same position. If McLaren had problems in Australia, the finger couldn’t be pointed in his direction.

“I think he did a good job to keep those guys behind him in the race,” sums up Rosberg. “Coulthard was struggling to get past a Footwork:, Mika was losing two and a half seconds a lap to the leaders. One slip and he would have been ninth. I’m happy and proud of his determination. He did a good job.”

After the race the Finn admitted he had mixed feelings. “It’s difficult,” he mused, “because some people are saying this comeback is a sensation. It’s not. I don’t call fifth place a sensation. But in another sense just to be here and finish this race was my personal victory.”

When he spoke to Rosberg that night, he was more annoyed than he was elated, and his comments to the press before he left the track betrayed his disappointment. “The car’s not quick enough,” he said bluntly. “At the end of the race I was really tired, which I think is natural anyway, but I also think I did more work than anybody else out there! The car wasn’t exactly like it should have been. Now it’s up to the engineers and designers to give David and myself a car that is capable of competing.

“I’m not after finishing fifth or third, or something like that. I’m not interested and I don’t want it. That’s not I want from my career. I want to win and there’s nothing else that counts.”

Two bleak years at McLaren have left him frustrated while younger men like Jacques Villeneuve have come in and jumped the queue. The next few months mark something of a watershed, not least because his Mika’s contract with McLaren expires at the end of the season.

The team’s gloomy outlook as it heads for round two, in Brazil, is something of a stark contrast to the end of 1993. Then, with the last lndycar hotshot, Michael Andretti, sent packing, Hakkinen graduated from the McLaren test ranks and promptly performed the impossible, outqualifying Ayrton Senna. “He was only human, a racing driver, that’s it,” shrugs Hakkinen at the memory. “He was terrified because I was quicker. He didn’t understand. He was checking out data, sitting on a Goodyear in the corner next to the computers, and he didn’t understand why I was quicker. I was maybe three-four kilometres quicker than him through the first corner, and he didn’t understand. I mean, the cars were identical.

“It was funny that moment. He got a bit upset when I started joking, during the briefing!

“Really, though, it was a wake-up call for me. rather than Ayrton. I mean, working with him.

Jesus. I woke up. How much I still had to improve to be a professional racing driver. It was then I realised I wasn’t going to be a champion unless I worked really hard.”

In Melbourne Mika Hakkinen Mark II was certainly working hard.

“Australia was hard for him in many respects, not just in the car,” accepts Rosberg. “He had a function every night, you know, so he was going back to the hotel from the track, grabbing half an hour’s rest, and then going out again. That’s hard when you think he’s only been back training for a few weeks anyway.

“But that’s the way it’s got to be, all or nothing. You can’t go talking about him as the driver coming back from injury, and make allowances. How long do you go on with that? If you’re back, you’re back. I don’t think we should be talking about the past, we should be talking about his future. Because, at the age of 27, I still believe he’s got a future.”

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