Mike Häkkinen: The last great Lotus driver

The decline of Team Lotus was briefly checked in 1992 thanks to a tidy chassis, a proven engine and a rising star from F3 by the name of Mika Häkkinen. Adam Cooper reports

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Lotus employed some great names during its remarkable history. Five of its drivers won world championships, while several others went on to lift the crown after completing at least part of their Formula One apprenticeship in Norfolk. The last to do so was Mika Häkkinen, the man largely responsible for a final flourish of hope before the team ground to a halt at the end of 1994, two years after he left.

“I had a really good time there, no question about it,” Häkkinen recalls. “The start was obviously fascinating. I arrived in an F1 team not having seen other grand prix teams before, so it was difficult to make a comparison. I didn’t have a clue, but then again maybe it was good it was like that, because it kept me performing like I was driving in a top team.”

When Häkkinen joined in 1991, he was a key part of a wind of change that swept through the corridors of Ketteringham Hall. The latter days of the Camel era had been hugely disappointing, and Martin Donnelly’s accident at Jerez in September 1990 seemed the final straw.

With the title sponsor and engine partner Lamborghini both gone, the team’s very survival was in doubt. But former Chapman employees Peter Collins and Peter Wright created a new management structure and offered a way forward.

Always on the lookout for young drivers, Collins had been watching and admiring Häkkinen for three years, and was mightily impressed by his charge to the 1990 British Formula Three title. He felt that Mika could leapfrog Formula 3000.

“We concluded the deal with the Chapman family to take over the team,” Collins recalls. “It dragged on to November of 1990. When it looked as though we were getting somewhere, I rang Keke Rosberg and asked him what he was going to do with Mika. He wasn’t sure, and I said, ‘What about F1? I’m going to be running Lotus and I want to put him in the car.’ He said, ‘You’re joking…’

“I’d looked at some of the old dross that was available and thought I’d rather go with somebody with potential. A lot of people thought I was crazy, but as I said to them at the time, if somebody’s good, and the timing’s right, they can make the step. If I’d got it wrong, the repercussions would be quite big; if I got it right, then he would help us move forward.”

Collins needed some sponsorship, and it didn’t take long for Keke to raise it in Finland. They agreed a two year deal with an option for a third, although a gobsmacked Mika knew nothing about it until the last minute.

Rosberg’s brother-in-law and business associate Didier Coton worked closely with Mika throughout his career. He remembers the launch well: “When Keke announced it in Finland just before Christmas, he had a few people from Lotus fly in with a wind tunnel model. When Mika arrived, Father Christmas opened the box and there was this Lotus. It was a very special moment for Mika — and for Keke, who had been working hard with Peter Collins. Mika was an F3 driver, full of hope, full of energy, just looking at the world of Formula One and saying, ‘I’m going to win in F1 just like I did in F3.’”

Mika’s first test was in an old 101 at Silverstone. After watching him at Club for a handful of laps, Collins knew he had his man. There was little time and not much money, so the existing 102 was modified, with a Judd V8 replacing the Lamborghini. Julian Bailey, who had done a season for Tyrrell back in 1988, was recruited as nominal lead driver.

Mika appeared overconfident, but his first outing at Phoenix gave him every reason to be so. He qualified a stunning 13th, and the pitlane sat up and took note. He was unfazed when his knees twice knocked the steering wheel loose during the race.

The tight street circuit flattered the ‘bitza’ package and it got harder after that. He never again qualified in the top 20, admittedly at a time when there were 34 entries. In France, he actually missed the cut.Mika and Julian managed to finish fifth and sixth at Imola, but they were three laps down, and the team failed to score any more points that year. Bailey lost his drive, which was subsequently shared by Collins protégé Johnny Herbert and, when the Brit was committed to Japanese F3000, journeyman Michael Bartels.

Mika and Johnny got on well. They shared the same youthful sense of humour and occasionally hotel rooms. They motivated each other too, something that became very evident to Collins whenever Bartels was in the other car.

“Mika was very young mentally and he was lazy at that stage. He could drive very quickly, but every time Bartels drove, Mika’s performance against the people we’d normally be racing against dropped away. I felt he was not really raising his game enough – it depended on the amount of pressure from his team-mate: when Johnny was there, he pushed harder. Also, Mika was not working hard enough on his stamina and fitness.”

At Estoril, Collins was incensed when he learned from a journalist that Mika had been taking the first corner with his right hand on the wheel while holding his helmet up with the left. “Maybe I wasn’t fit enough,” says Häkkinen. “But I thought I was bloody fit, I thought I was going flat out. But I suppose when you are driving a Lotus at Estoril it takes twice as long to go round those corners compared to other cars. So it’s much harder!”

It didn’t help matters when Mika crashed his company Esprit into a tree near the factory: “I did say that a tree jumped into the road, that it was nothing to do with me…” A furious team boss impounded the wreck.

Coton: “Peter was not an easy guy with drivers, but his comments were always accurate and very constructive. He was pushing because he knew exactly what Mika’s potential was. Mika needed to understand how the system worked in F1.”

For 1992, the team lined up Ford HB engines. Benetton and Jordan had demonstrated the unit’s potential, and with a new chassis there was cause for optimism. However, Mika and Johnny had to make do with a hack 102D at the start of the season.

Andy Tilley was Mika’s engineer that year: “He was really easy to work with, but not very forthcoming technically. But Mika was one of those drivers where if you made the car better, he’d go quicker. He got on with the job and didn’t complain.

“We were always very limited on things like tyres for qualifying and engine mileage. But one of the great things about Mika was that over one lap, he’d do the job.”

Mika dragged the overweight 102D into the points in Mexico, but by Monaco both drivers were equipped with the new 107. Derived from a Leyton House design, it represented a massive leap forward. Suddenly For 1992, the team lined up Ford HB engines. Benetton and Jordan had demonstrated the unit’s potential, and with a new chassis there was cause for optimism. However, Mika had Johnny had to make do with a hack 102D at the start of the season.

Andy Tilley was Mika’s engineer that year: “He was really easy to work with, but not very forthcoming technically. But Mika was one of those drivers where if you made the car better, he’d go quicker. He got on with the job and didn’t complain.

“We were always very limited on things like tyres for qualifying and engine mileage. But one of the great things about Mika was that over one lap, he’d do the job.”

Mika dragged the overweight 102D into the points in Mexico, but by Monaco both drivers were equipped with the new 107. Derived from a Leyton House design, it represented a massive leap forward. Suddenly Häkkinen was regularly on the fringes of the top 10 in qualifying, and threatening to score points. Fourth in France was followed by sixth at Silverstone, fourth in Hungary, sixth in Belgium and fifth in Portugal.

But Collins was still frustrated by his young ace. After Mika had lost places late in the British Grand Prix, Peter was angered when he saw photos showing the Finn’s head leaning over. He also faded at Spa.

The ongoing debate led to some fun, as Tilley recalls: “The mechanics lined his kit bag and trainers with lead wheel weights, because they didn’t think he was doing enough training!”

Collins: “Mika was very good at bringing the car home, but the results could have been a lot, lot better. At Suzuka, due I think to being tired, he suddenly started over-revving the engine on downchanges. We lost a sure third place in that race. If he had been on the podium it would have made a huge difference to what we could have got from Japanese sponsors the following year.”

Häkkinen was also frustrated at times, as Coton recalls: “It became a bit difficult in the second year because Mika was progressing rapidly with the talent he had. The team couldn’t progress the same way because of a lack of finance. Every driver wants more, but Mika is a clever guy. He understood the situation, and what he did was to do the maximum with what he had. You learn so much as a young driver to prepare yourself for a better team later on.”

Despite some frustrations, Collins took up his option on Häkkinen’s services for 1993 at Spa, and added another for ‘94. However, late in the year it emerged that Frank Williams was interested in Mika as a replacement for Nigel Mansell. That led to some friction between Collins and Rosberg, and after Frank eventually backed off, Ron Dennis threw his hat into the ring. A messy dispute developed, which was ultimately resolved in McLaren’s favour by the Contract Recognition Board in Geneva. The Häkkinen/Lotus story was over.

“I think it damaged us massively that Mika left,” rues Collins, “certainly in terms of credibility. For example, we took a big blow from Castrol. Mika wasn’t a rocket scientist, but he was a fantastic was regularly on the fringes of the top 10 in qualifying, and threatening to score points. Fourth in France was followed by sixth at Silverstone, fourth in Hungary, sixth in Belgium and fifth in Portugal.

But Collins was still frustrated by his young ace. After Mika had lost places late in the British Grand Prix, Peter was angered when he saw photos showing the Finn’s head leaning over. He also faded at Spa.

The ongoing debate led to some fun, as Tilley recalls: “The mechanics lined his kit bag and trainers with lead wheel weights, because they didn’t think he was doing enough training!”

Collins: “Mika was very good at bringing the car home, but the results could have been a lot, lot better. At Suzuka, due I think to being tired, he suddenly started over-revving the engine on downchanges. We lost a sure third place in that race. If he had been on the podium it would have made a huge difference to what we could have got from Japanese sponsors the following year.”

Hakkinen was also frustrated at times, as Coton recalls: “It became a bit difficult in the second year because Mika was progressing rapidly with the talent he had. The team couldn’t progress the same way because of a lack of finance. Every driver wants more, but Mika is a clever guy. He understood the situation, and what he did was to do the maximum with what he had. You learn so much as a young driver to prepare yourself for a better team later on.”

Despite some frustrations, Collins took up his option on Hakkinen’s services for 1993 at Spa, and added another for ‘94. However, late in the year it emerged that Frank Williams was interested in Mika as a replacement for Nigel Mansell. That led to some friction between Collins and Rosberg, and after Frank eventually backed off, Ron Dennis threw his hat into the ring. A messy dispute developed, which was ultimately resolved in McLaren’s favour by the Contract Recognition Board in Geneva. The Hakkinen/Lotus story was over.

“I think it damaged us massively that Mika left,” rues Collins, “certainly in terms of credibility. For example, we took a big blow from Castrol. Mika wasn’t a rocket scientist, but he was a fantastic, naturally skilled driver. Maybe we would have had a different year in 1993 – the car was quite difficult, and I think he would just have driven through the problems.”

Herbert and Alex Zanardi had a few highs over the next two seasons, but by the end of 1994 the money was gone. Its 40th anniversary year was Team Lotus’ last in F1.

“People say that Lotus was a joke in its last few years, but I’m sorry, it wasn’t,” stresses Collins. “In 1992 we were fifth in the world championship. We had income of £8million and were eight points behind Ferrari, who probably had £80million.

“The people in the team embraced what Lotus was about – finding ways of doing more with what you had. We did that quite well for a while, but ultimately you need money to get to proper wind tunnels and do proper testing. I’m not saying we were perfect, or that we didn’t do a bad job in 1994, but not everything we did in the last years was bad either.”