Mika Häkkinen: 'You can’t just bang the door behind you'

F1 Champion Mika Häkkinen is retiring from racing – but it might not be final… Meanwhile he talks about Lewis, Kimi and Schuey
By Rob Widdows

He is the most successful racing driver to be powered by Mercedes-Benz since Juan Manuel Fangio. And he chose to announce his second retirement at the company’s home in Stuttgart, under the glinting three-pointed star that revolves high above the company’s magnificent museum.

Mika Häkkinen took his place on a makeshift stage, right arm held aloft as 60,000 adoring fans, here for the annual Stars and Cars party, cheered the double F1 World Champion. There would have been more, had they known what was about to occur. He is very much loved in Germany. There were Finnish flags too, of course. Where do they come from, all these Finns?

“Mika has something to tell you,” said Daimler CEO Dr Dieter Zetsche.

“First the bad news,” responded Mika as he walked to the front of the stage. “The time has come for me to stop, to give up the DTM racing. But now the good news – the other drivers will have some peace on the track without me there.” This last part was said with the famous lop-sided grin.

So, after nearly 200 races powered by the German engines, in both Grands Prix and DTM [German Touring Car Championship], this most popular of men has called it a day. A few feet away Lewis Hamilton was taking pictures on his mobile telephone of the last man to win a world title for McLaren. So close this year, he will surely be the Woking team’s next champion. But this day in Stuttgart belonged only to Häkkinen, another protégé of Ron Dennis, and whose father drove taxis in their home town of Vantaa to help pay for his karting.

Surrounded by cameras and autograph books, he pulled on the old familiar helmet, blue visor, and painted in the colours of the Blue Rose karting team, where he began as a teenager, and his national flag. Then he stepped aboard the McLaren MP4/13 in which he won his first championship in 1998 and which now rests in the museum. The Merc V10 zapped into life and he was away, blasting the car between the high walls of the museum and the factory for one final run, skipping and shrieking over the bumps. It was if he was coming back, not retiring.

Back on stage, he watched a film of his life and career. There were the wins for McLaren, the battles with Michael Schumacher, the devastation of the missed gear at Monza, the laconic TV commercials, his wife Erja and their children, the jousting of recent DTM races and snowy antics in his homeland. Never a man to show too much emotion in public, Mika had the beginnings of tears in his eyes. The fans cheered and chanted his name.

“The decision to stop now was not easy,” said Mika, “but it’s about time to say goodbye. I leave with mixed emotions.”

But it wasn’t all over yet. Up stepped Mercedes motor sport boss Norbert Haug, presenting his driver with the steering wheel from his DTM car. “You won’t have the car any more,” said Haug, “but at least you keep the wheel.” Mika held on to it tightly, clearly moved by the gesture and by the whole occasion. Surrounded by silver-suited team-mates and the company’s top brass, he bowed to the crowd and walked slowly away. As the crowd cheered, he seemed not to know whether to smile or weep.

Later, in a quiet corner of the museum, he ordered an apple juice and sat down to talk. A difficult day was nearly done. A few questions, then he could get on with his life. He looks at me, expectantly, half a smile in the grey-blue eyes.

“Well, it has not been easy,” the words slowly measured as ever, “deciding to stop. Obviously today was a surprise for me – the welcome from the fans, also the film which was shown to the crowd. Then driving my first world championship car, getting the steering wheel as a present from Dr Zetsche and seeing McLaren’s Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh, the newcomer Lewis Hamilton and Pedro de la Rosa all here, as well as all my colleagues from the DTM. So it’s an important day for me and automatically it becomes emotional – even though you don’t really show it. That comes later on. But it was a very strong feeling inside, and you had to really concentrate very hard.”

He pauses, looking away for a moment. “It’s always difficult saying goodbye. Obviously, in Formula 1 it was difficult too, and to finish the DTM is also hard. But on the other hand, once you have made a decision in your own mind it makes the situation easier. But then, when you see the fans, how sad they are, that makes it harder because they don’t really know why you are stopping. They’re wondering – ‘Hey, you’re a good guy, a good driver, you like to go racing so why are you stopping?’ And one more year until I am 40!” he laughs. “But I look at it this way. I will still be doing some kind of motor racing. We don’t know what yet, but I still want to do some driving so I can have more fun.”

Mika has two young children, a family life, something he did not have while in Grand Prix racing. But he says this is not a factor. “I don’t have a problem with the family stopping me racing, or because I am travelling a lot. The kids will grow, they have a great mother; that side of my life is not a problem.”

This season, his third in the DTM series, has been his best ever – five times on the front row and two victories. So he leaves on a high. “It’s been a good year,” he says, “but the time has come. It wasn’t that I had had enough; it was just that you have to move on. Not in a way that lets other people down, of course. You can’t just bang the door behind you.”

His erstwhile boss and great friend Ron Dennis is sitting just feet away, but Mika is keen to talk about the Grand Prix season just gone. This was surely the most traumatic and controversial year ever for the team in which Mika has been intimately involved since joining as a test driver in 1993. He was with McLaren at Interlagos, watching events unfold at the climax of a roller-coaster year. What were his thoughts on the opening lap?

“It’s natural, what Lewis was experiencing in Brazil on the opening lap.” He pauses, choosing his words in his own time. “It’s very difficult to keep your emotions under control when you are a racing driver at that age and in that situation. What he had already done during the season was… you can’t find the words to describe his performance. But what happened in Brazil – I don’t think even Lewis can explain what happened on that first lap. Maybe in three years time he will think: ‘Why did I do that?’ But at that moment it’s something you cannot control; the excitement is so high, and a person can only take so much pressure or he will start to make decisions which are not right.

“The 2007 season, to me personally, was a catastrophe – all the politics, all the penalties given to McLaren, the spying stories. It was so bad for the people working inside the team – it’s difficult to climb back up from there, to push forward again, because you’re playing with people’s trust. Even if you try to convince yourself that everything is fine they still come back and say: ‘No, no you are cheating’. You are fighting such a heavy subject and it’s so difficult for a team like McLaren to handle that pressure. And I don’t just mean Ron Dennis, Martin Whitmarsh and Mansour Ojeh [commercial director of the TAG McLaren Group]. It affects everybody – the marketing and press people, the designers, the engineers, the mechanics, the people from Mercedes-Benz: they don’t know if all the stories are true or not. It’s just such a terrible situation for a team, and for McLaren this was a super-difficult year to go through. OK, Formula 1 has always been like this, but the levels are changing, the stakes are higher and at the moment it’s just ridiculous what we are seeing. I hope what we have seen this year will never happen again.”

Moving on, we cannot escape the fact that another Finn has won the world championship, the third driver to do so from this tiny country. How does Mika assess what Kimi Räikkönen, the man who replaced him at McLaren in 2002, achieved this year?

“Well, from now on his life will change. I think he will become more confident – I don’t think he’s a very outgoing type of person; he’s not confident talking to people. He is still young and I think this championship will raise the level of his confidence – but he is not prepared to modify his personality or his attitude to what happens round him in the business.” He smiles, like he knows about that sort of thing.

“With the racing car he knows what he wants but away from that he’s not prepared to change himself. In one sense this is good, in another it’s bad. I was a little bit the same. You’re young, your English language is not good enough to communicate properly and you are just not completely sure of yourself. Kimi is nervous about saying what he thinks because in Finland we don’t talk about what we really think. Finnish people are very closed up; that’s why Kimi is like he is. So you must understand that when you start communicating with the press, speaking in a foreign language to people you don’t know: you worry about what they will write. So you close up completely and that creates a negative attitude, which doesn’t help, until you learn to communicate and to have more trust in people.”

All this is explained with carefully chosen words by a man who has learnt, over the years, to communicate in a foreign language. The natural charm helps of course, as does the famous laconic smile. I am reminded of his manager Keke Rosberg’s description of Mika’s early days in the UK: “He didn’t know which way to put his shoes on when I brought him to Europe.”

“I think Finnish people and English people do have a similar sense of humour,” grins Mika. “We can take the mickey, and have it taken, without getting upset. But it takes confidence and this you will see more with Kimi, I think.”

Much of this man’s huge popularity in Britain stems from his spectacular jousting with Michael Schumacher, the Brits taking the Finn to their hearts for his bravado in battle with the seven-time world champion. Everybody knew he was very quick and had great car control, and now they were going to discover just how tough he could be under pressure. He found himself up against the man acknowledged to be one of the true greats. Many ferocious battles come to mind, not least Spa Francorchamps in 2000, and the two were never the best of friends. So which of his run-ins with the Ferrari driver gave him the most satisfaction?

There is a long, long pause, Mika staring at his hands. “Simply, it has to be Suzuka in 1998, the last race of the season,” he says at last. “That was the ultimate, and not just because I beat him. It would not have been the same if I had lost the championship. So that was the best.”

This was the year when it all came right for the man who had endured a torrid entry into Grand Prix racing with Lotus, rejected a Ligier drive in favour of a testing role at McLaren and fought back with extreme bravery and determination from a near-fatal crash in Australia just three years earlier. That day in Japan saw a nail-biting climax to a season notable for the tense battles between the fastest men in the business. Schumacher had taken pole and on the grid the two shook hands. One of them would win the World Championship that overcast afternoon. But these things are never straightforward.

The start was delayed when Trulli stalled and the tension mounted as Schumacher led them round for another go. This time the Ferrari stalled and the German was sent to the back of the grid – behind the Minardis of Shinji Nakano and Esteban Tuero… Who can ever forget the image of the man with the yellow flag blocking Schumacher’s path as the McLarens of Häkkinen and David Coulthard eased away on yet another warm-up lap? Now Mika was four points, and a whole grid, ahead of his rival. There was cause for optimism in the McLaren camp. But Schumacher knew not the meaning of defeat and passed nine cars on the opening lap, moving up to third after his first stop. And the drama was by no means over. With 20 laps left to run, the red car’s right rear tyre let go, handing the title to Häkkinen as long as he stayed out of trouble. As he crossed the line, comfortably ahead of Eddie Irvine, he slowed, raised the blue visor and punched the air. Job done. Afterwards Schumacher, by now changed into jeans and a fleece, came to shake his hand.

“We had a professional respect for each other,” says Mika. “We had very different personalities, but our aims and our goals were the same, so having the best possible relationship was always going to be difficult. Formula 1 is a mind game, no question, but with Schumacher it was always a very, very psychological war. When you are in a more individual sport then these games are more obvious, but in a team sport like Formula 1 it’s less obvious. There’s less pressure between the two individuals.”

What about the new technologies in Grand Prix racing, a quantum leap forward in electronics and aerodynamics having been made since Mika retired? Lack of overtaking is often cited as one of the legacies of more and more technical wizardry and better aerodynamic downforce on the cars, so would his close call with Schumacher at Spa, for example, still be a realistic proposition?

“Yes, overtaking is possible,” he says. So is he saying its demise has been exaggerated? “I am saying that overtaking is possible.” He is not going to expand on this, taking a long drink of his apple juice, leaving it to your imagination.

Time is running out: there are many hands to be shaken on this, the day of the decision to kick off the driving boots and pack away the helmet.

“I am not saying I will not drive any more. I am not saying I will not race a historic car, but then I am not saying yes either,” he smiles. “I mean, I was driving the MP4/13 today and it was a beautiful experience. But you have to always remember these racing cars are dangerous, and you have to take a very serious attitude. When you travel to different tracks you have to really know about the safety. So that’s why today’s answer is no. But on the other hand, when you drive a great championship car like I drove today, it’s a fantastic thing to drive and it brings a great feeling inside, and some great memories. Just those few laps round the factory roads here, and you start feeling like you want to go for it – the McLaren just gives you enormous confidence. The streets today were slippery and bumpy, but you can control the car so easily.” He becomes animated, moving his hands around as he recalls the events of the day. “Everything the car does is so logical, it doesn’t do anything unusual, so you can go for it if you want to…”

So would he be tempted back?

“Hey, I have to go. Ciao, ciao.”

But would he? There’s Lewis Hamilton just over there, Ron’s new protégé, still young, still learning. Alonso’s on his bike. Schumacher’s moved upstairs. He spots the silly game.

“I’m going now,” he repeats, and walks away.

Two things we do know are that the Flying Finn will remain what Mercedes-Benz describes as its ‘long-term brand ambassador’ and that he will continue to be talked about as a real racer, one of the good guys, a man of few words but with a steely will to win.

John Lennon once said that life is what happens to you while you are making other plans. Mika’s life thus far has been flat out, attacking every challenge, achieving everything he always knew he could achieve. Now he’s making other plans for the next chapter, which will be revealed when he’s ready. And, if life does begin at 40, he has until September to run his mind around a few options. Meanwhile, he intends having some fun.

DSJ on…
How Continental Correspondent Jenks saw the young Häkkinen

At the start of the Italian Grand Prix there was an interesting little cameo at the back of the grid. Mika Häkkinen, the young Finnish driver, was on the penultimate position on the grid, which was the end of the left-hand row of cars. To his right, but one place back, was Olivier Grouillard in the Fomet in last place, at the back of the right-hand row, the two rows being staggered. The starting procedure is that at a given signal the whole grid of 26 cars go off on a ‘parade’ lap, led by the driver who is in pole position.

Now it happened that Häkkinen’s Lotus 102B (above) was reluctant to start on the button and he had to be push-started after everyone had gone. According to the rules, during the parade lap he is allowed to catch the field, but must stay at the back and forfeit his grid position.

He caught up the field and when they returned to the grid he stayed behind Grouillard, on his own side of the grid but with his original position empty a few yards ahead. At this point a marshal, who obviously was unaware of the rules, frantically waved him forward to the marked grid position, but the young Finn totally ignored him and stayed back, not quite level with the Fomet on his right. Undisturbed by the agitated marshal, he concentrated on the starting lights, making a good getaway when the green light came on. Had he edged forward to his proper grid position it would have meant passing the Fomet and hence instant disqualification.

It was nice to watch a well-disciplined new young driver in Formula 1 acting intelligently in the heat of a Grand Prix start.

October 1991