Mika Häkkinen

From the white heat of technology to the white-out of a Finnish winter, the Formula 1 champion could hardly have had a more challenging contrast 

Writer: Anthony Peacock

Rovaniemi, a small town right on the Arctic Circle in northern Finland, is a far from hospitable place at the end of January. The outside temperature tends to hover at minus 30C, and the sun shines for just four hours a day. 

A strange place, then, to find a former double Formula 1 World Champion; but Mika Hakkinen retired from grand prix racing with several ambitions still unfulfilled in motorsport. One of them was to go rallying – which took him to Rovaniemi in January 2003.

The town has hosted the Arctic Rally since 1966: certainly the coldest motorsport event in the world. The rally crosses Lapland during two days, but stages are sometimes cancelled if there is a high risk of hypothermia for the marshals.

Like the Paris-Dakar, it is an epic adventure. “Finland is my home country, but also the home of rallying,” said Hakkinen. “I was always impressed by what my colleagues can do on snow and ice and I wanted to experience it for myself, so the Arctic Rally was a natural choice. It was for fun, rather than to start a new career, but I knew that with the team I had I needed to approach it in a professional way.”

The links between Mercedes and DaimlerChrysler led Hakkinen to Mitsubishi, which is owned by the German/US conglomerate. At the time Mitsubishi was running a top-flight rally team, so everything quickly fell into place, according to the company’s experienced test driver Lasse Lampi. 

He remembered: “We were certainly expecting to have to pull Mika out of a few ditches, but right from the start he was very impressive. I sat with him during his first tests, and I expected him to be revving the engine like hell, like all racing drivers. But he quickly learnt that all the torque was low down, so he stuck to low revs. I realised then he could do the job.”

On the first day Hakkinen steered cleared of trouble, but he picked up his pace on day two until he collected a puncture, which cost him six minutes and dropped him to 43rd place. 

“There was a corner marked ‘don’t cut’ in my pace notes, so of course we cut it,” remembered Hakkinen ruefully. “We had to drive for 3km before we found a place to change the bloody thing.” Hakkinen’s trials were still not over. Just three stages later he encountered a herd of reindeer in the road – which had caused the retirement of the rally leader minutes earlier.

“If I thought the puncture was bad,” said Hakkinen, “meeting the reindeer was far worse…” Despite this, he managed to set some promising stage times and end the rally 30th overall, a result he described as a “personal victory”. 

“It was one of the toughest and most tiring events I have done,” he added. “If you look at all the obstacles we had to overcome – snow, sun, darkness and reindeer – it was a fantastic achievement just to get to the finish.”

Strangely the experience did not put him off, as he decided to compete on the Arctic Rally the following year as well, and that time he finished seventh overall.