Mika Häkkinen: The Motor Sport Interview

Sending Ayrton Senna into a rage, a prickly relationship with David Coulthard and that horror crash in Adelaide. Here the former McLaren driver takes us through his fight to the top

Mika Pauli Häkkinen Smiling Headshot


Mika Pauli Häkkinen came to Britain from Finland in 1988, where he’d won everything there was to win in karting and the lower formulae, and within two years was British Formula 3 champion. His prodigious natural talent, coupled with hard work and determination, was the constant bedrock of his success.

He made his Formula 1 debut with Lotus in 1991, moving to McLaren as test driver in 1993. An accident in Adelaide in 1995 nearly ended his career but his courage and commitment saw him bounce back to win two world championships with McLaren for whom he raced for nine consecutive seasons.

Not the most talkative man in his early years, Mika is now open, honest and insightful. Here he looks back over his racing career with Motor Sport from his home in Monaco.

Motor Sport: When you first came to Britain to race for the Dragon team you still had a lot to learn despite all your success in karting and Formula Ford. How important were those early years in building your confidence and character?

MH: “Very important. When you are a young racing driver everything is about learning, and this process is about yourself, as well as working with a team. In ’88 in the GM-Lotus Euroseries, Dragon was financed by Marlboro. It was a good, dynamic team, with good people – very experienced. Everything looked good for me and Allan McNish. We won races. I won the European championship, Allan won the British series. That was fantastic but it was time to move on to Formula 3.

“I was looking around but I liked the Dragon people. They were ready to move up and I decided: why not stay where I am? It all looked good but the problem was I didn’t know how technical, how complicated, the F3 cars were. I had so little experience, and Allan had decided to go to West Surrey which was a very good move. That’s when reality came into my life. I thought it was enough to be fast and talented. I’d won championships on the way up, but it wasn’t enough. I was very young, only 20. I needed an experienced F3 team able to perform at different tracks with different set-ups. This was a set back, and it was my decision to stay at Dragon, not down to anyone else. I was now in a bad place and I was learning the hard way. You cannot compete with a team like West Surrey, who’d had Ayrton Senna drive for them, with a team new to F3 especially when the Reynard was not the best chassis and there was a new engine from Toyota. Yes, we had some good results, but I wasn’t there to win a race – I was there to win the championship. All of this was a big learning curve for me.”

Young Mika Häkkinen in Formula 3

Mika Häkkinen in 1990 on his learning curve while racing in Formula 3


Thanks to Marlboro support you then joined West Surrey in 1990 and won the British F3 title. How vital to your career was that commitment from such an influential sponsor?

MH: “It was massive. I would not be a world champion today without their backing. It wasn’t just the money, it was the people, like James Hunt, Mike Earle, Graham Bogle, Hugues de Chaunac. Even Ron Dennis was involved; they supported me. My English was still so bad. I could hardly say ‘good morning’… It was catastrophic, really bad, but I was aware of that. So my performance in the car was important and the Marlboro test day went very well.

“Johnny Herbert saw that I was a shy guy. He helped me“

“It was a proper, genuine young-driver programme. They knew they would need good Formula 1 drivers when people like Senna and Prost retired. The programme was about education, about communicating with the media, health and fitness and managing your life. They put us in a driving school, in a health programme, even told us how to use a Filofax, can you believe? It was a brilliant effort, showing us that to be a proper, professional racing driver was not only about turning the wheel left and right. It was a long-term plan to prepare us for representing sponsors and companies, facing the world’s media, being a professional deserving of the millions of dollars that Formula 1 drivers would earn. You see this happening today. The big teams are following young drivers, preparing them for the future.”

Häkkinen, Peter Collins and David Brabham AT Silverstone

From left, Häkkinen, Peter Collins and David Brabham.


Häkkinen on track at first F1 appearance in 1991

Häkkinen’s first F1 appearance – US GP, 1991.

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In those very early days you didn’t seem to enjoy talking to the media and you still like to keep a low profile. Why was that?

MH: “Ha! Well, it was the weakness of my English, that was the big issue for me. I wanted to tell my story but the language was a challenge, a barrier. Also, when you’re young you don’t appreciate that you should only read the educated stuff, the accurate reporting, and not all the bullshit, so I had to learn who to respect, who I should trust.

“Again, it’s part of the learning process. You need to understand where are the good editors, the good journalists, who will be correct with what they say or write.”

Mika leads Macau Grand Prix

The Finn is flying at the 1990 Macau Grand Prix. His F3 Ralt is leading Michael Schumacher in the pale-blue Kawai Reynard. This race began a fierce rivalry between the two drivers that would last until Häkkinen’s retirement in 2001


You won the F3 championship with West Surrey and got your opportunity in Formula 1 with Lotus in ’91. This, I assume, was your dream come true.

MH: “Absolutely, no question, my dream come true, and Peter Collins was super kind to me. He took care of me. He was a great personality. Keke Rosberg was my manager. He had such a good network. It was Keke who was in the right place at the right time to get me that chance with Lotus. The team was not at the top. Peter was under so much pressure. It was tough for him. The car was not ideal, there wasn’t enough money for development; he had so many elements to deal with.

Johnny Herbert was my team-mate. He was like a son to Peter, and I thought, ‘Hold on, there are two drivers in this team,’ and I immediately recognised that relationship. In a team you cannot be emotionally attached to anyone. You have to be very disciplined in your emotions, otherwise people start to take sides and this can influence a young driver. Am I getting the best possible support? Am I getting fair treatment? These things can make for a tricky situation but Johnny was a fantastic team-mate. He realised my weaknesses in terms of communicating. He saw that I was quite a shy Finnish guy, so he helped me. He was easy-going – it was a good match.

“Johnny was so bloody quick too, incredibly fast, and that was a big challenge for me. He was very fast but his problem was his ankles that had been so badly damaged. He was constantly in pain so I don’t think he was performing like he wanted to perform at that time. If you look back over the records it shows we were very evenly matched.”

Ayrton and Mika joking around

Ayrton – Mika was only joking…

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Häkkinen on track in McLaren

Häkkinen replaced Michael Andretti at McLaren in 1993.

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In 1993, as test driver for McLaren, you won the Porsche Supercup race in Monaco from pole having never driven a Porsche before. That must have helped you get the race seat?

MH: “I was very frustrated as the test driver. I just wanted to race but it was a great opportunity for a young driver to go to all the testing, develop the MP4/8 to suit my driving style. In Monaco, Ron came to me and said, ‘Do you want to do the Porsche race?’ and of course I wanted to do it. It’s quite a difficult car to drive, so I just had to adapt and, having done so much F1 testing, it felt really slow.

“In qualifying, braking hard for Sainte Devote, I couldn’t get the front end to grip into the corner so the team just put more fuel in to add weight to the front. So simple. There were fast and experienced drivers out there. They weren’t very happy when I got pole. They knew how to race these cars, how to look after the tyres, but luckily it was Monaco so I was able to go slow in the right places, be fast in the right places, so they could not overtake me. It was a beautiful experience and I heard later that McLaren team manager Jo Ramirez told Ron [Dennis], ‘Come on, now we have to put this Finlander in the race car,’ which was nice. Ron did a deal with Porsche that gave me a 911 road car for a year. It was silver outside and purple inside. Amazing! I was grateful the team had given me the chance to show my talent and yeah, that was a good weekend.”

You got the race seat in Portugal when Michael Andretti left the team. Then you out-qualified Ayrton Senna, which caused a bit of a stir. How did he react to that?

Jo Ramirez in the Porsche Supercup

A frustrated McLaren test driver caught the eye of Jo Ramirez in 1993 in the Porsche Supercup


MH: “That was a mega result. We had a very special braking system on the MP4/8, enabling us to adjust the braking right through the race. We had power brakes, incredibly powerful, power steering, active suspension, everything. I knew that car so well. I knew I could drive it on the absolute limit and I never believed anyone could go quicker. I was just so quick in that car. Ayrton understood there were other fast drivers out there but when I came in and kicked his arse on my first race weekend he wanted to understand what I was doing. As a three-times world champion he was very mature, very confident, so he asked me, ‘Mika, what did you do?’ And I said, ‘Ayrton, it’s balls,’ and he went berserk, got really upset with me. I was shocked, tried to explain to him that it was a joke, and that of course I respected him for everything that he had achieved but also that we needed some humour.

“For him it was a very traumatic moment. People were asking him, ‘Who is this Finnish guy? What’s happened to Ayrton?’ This was an interesting moment for him because he recognised that he now had a big threat within the team and if I started kicking his arse he would look ridiculous. After that, in Japan and Australia, he won both races but I was on the podium with him in Japan.

“His engineers had started working really hard. He and Giorgio Ascanelli were very close, and because they knew I was a threat they didn’t give a damn about me, what I was doing. They didn’t share or speak about anything. So now my feet were back on the ground. I still had a lot to learn, and I was lucky that Ron gave me the time to learn, to work with the team. He told me, ‘In time everything will be good.’”

“Ayrton recognised he had a big threat within the team“

You appeared to forge a strong relationship with Ron Dennis in the years that followed. Was he important to your success as a driver?

MH: “Yes, because I learnt to keep my mouth shut and let Ron do the talking and run the team. He was the number one man and over the years we developed a close relationship. I didn’t try and be the team leader. I didn’t want to waste my energy with any ‘I want this, I want that, I’m the number one’ stuff and I think Ron respected that. I just did my job as a racing driver who wants to win races, and Ron handled all the rest.

“I had no complaints. I was positive because I knew that one day there would be good times. He promised me that; he said, ‘Mika, one day you will be world champion,’ and I said, ‘OK, I trust you so let’s work together.’ This was a long-term view that required a lot of patience and trust. It wasn’t just my success, it was also thanks to my own management team who took care of me in so many ways in my everyday life, making up for my weaknesses.”

Häkkinen on track at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide

A life-changing moment for Häkkinen came in qualifying at the 1995 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. The left rear tyre punctured and the car crashed at 120mph. Mika suffered a fractured skull

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After the life-threatening accident in Adelaide in ’95 you clearly needed huge support to get through a painful recovery and be fit enough to start racing again.

MH: “Yes, of course. This also strengthened my relationship with Ron. When he saw I was determined to come back he got even more motivated. He said if I was going to make sacrifices with my life, he was going to sacrifice his time and that way we were going to win. It was very important for me to know that the accident was not my fault, that it was a puncture, and very soon after Ron and his wife Lisa came to see me in hospital to explain what happened. If it had been my driving error it would have influenced my future differently but I knew there was nothing I could have done. I’m not an emotional person and that helped me in my recovery. I was able to put any emotion to one side and focus on my return to racing in a logical way.

“Back home in Monaco I had a chance to talk with my family, my sister and my girlfriend. There was time for me to explain how I felt and they had the energy to listen. I was constantly in pain. It was not easy for me, or them, but they showed a lot of patience and understanding to go through all that. Physically, I wasn’t 100% there. One side of my face was paralysed, it was difficult to smile, my hearing wasn’t there, bones in my ears were damaged, so I was putting my other senses at a higher level to cope.

“I wasn’t allowed to train. Jogging would cause headaches – it was tough, but the key for me was the help and support of the family, the doctors, from Ron and McLaren. I didn’t think about stopping, just about getting better. That was my priority. I would make that decision when I could think properly, walk properly. Only then would I think about that.”

Mika at the 1997 Australian GP

Mika at the 1997 Australian GP

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Häkkinen in McLaren’s at Monaco

With Senna’s defection to Williams, in 1994 Häkkinen was promoted to McLaren’s lead driver. Here’s the Finn at Monaco, two weeks after Senna’s death.

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Mika Hakkinen – Championship Seasons

It’s good that you didn’t stop because you won back to back-to-back titles in 1998 and ’99 – beating Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher fair and square in ’98. That must have been so rewarding?

MH: “Yes, it was incredible. It was incredible because Michael and I had so much history, racing each other in karts and in Formula 3. Then he came to Formula 1, immediately with a good car, and I was a test driver. I was thinking everything went right for him and not so right for me. He was coming from Germany, with powerful marketing and financial partners, very different to a guy coming from Finland – but then, finally I got a good car in ’98, and I knew I could win.

“To be honest, I was not so worried about Michael because the MP4/13 was just so damn quick. I was more worried about my team-mate David Coulthard. He wasn’t a very nice guy, not very nice to me. He had this massive will to win and wanted to kick my arse. We saw in the first race that we were so much quicker than anyone else. It was ridiculous. We weren’t even maximising our performance. Luckily David had quite a few mechanical failures while I was scoring points, and Ferrari started to get their act together. Then I had some mechanical problems and Ferrari became more reliable, scoring points when we did not. Their reliability was incredible. I asked Stefano Domenicali about it recently. He told me they were testing at Fiorano seven days a week. Every nut and bolt they were testing for hours, days, weeks on end. Stefano reckoned they’d done about 35 grands prix before the first race of the season. Meanwhile we would run at Silverstone for a few hours a day, and it was nearly snowing early in the year. It was impossible to compete with them on the pre-season testing kilometres.

“I was not worried about Michael – the MP4/13 was so damn quick“

“Anyway, Ferrari kept improving, and we had to reduce some of our ‘technical advantages’ like the two brake pedals, remember? That was worth about four-tenths per lap. It looked like I could lose the championship and I thought, ‘If I don’t win it this year I’m never going to do it.’ Michael fought until the end. We were level on points after Monza, but I won the last two races. So, it was beautiful, winning that championship title against Michael.”

Mika_Hakkinen in his F1 gear

Häkkinen would make 161 F1 starts


Rear of Hakkinen’s F1 McLaren

In Hakkinen’s first Formula 1 title-winning season, his McLaren MP4/13 was so effective that the only driver he really feared was team-mate David Coulthard

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You made hard work of your second title the following year. What was making life difficult for you?

MH: “Yes, you’re right. It was a very difficult year. Everything had seemed, ‘OK, I feel good,’ but we had changed our tactics to beat Ferrari. After Michael’s accident Irvine was winning races for them. My team-mate was also winning. The championship was tight even though I’d won four races coming to Monza. Our tactic was to race flat out, every lap like a qualifying lap, which was no problem except that in Italy I was on antibiotics because I had a hell of a sinus infection. it was affecting my performance.

“I was not 100% on race day. So, coming down to the first chicane, in the lead after 30 laps, I accidentally selected first gear instead of second and spun off. At Monza the RPM difference between second and first is huge, so you need a very high throttle blip from the computer – or the rears will lock up. The team had not put the numbers in the computer for this so the rear tyres locked and I was off.

“It was my mistake selecting the wrong gear, but the throttle setting was not high enough, so I knew immediately the game was over. I was so bitterly disappointed with myself, although the rear wheels should not have locked. I was so upset, I didn’t feel well, and I wanted to win that race in front of the Ferrari fans at Monza. Emotionally I just collapsed, totally lost it, but we beat Ferrari in Japan and I won the championship by just two points.”

Mika ahead of Schumacher at the 1998 Luxembourg GP

Getting the better of Schumacher at the 1998 Luxembourg GP

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When you look back on your career in your old age what will be the highlights? One might be the sensational overtake at Spa in 2000 I guess?

MH: “Wow, good question. Hopefully I will reach my old age and look back, maybe with a glass of good wine, whatever. No, it won’t be the overtaking manoeuvre at Spa. It will be understanding how precious life is after my accident, how important people are in your life, the people who are there for you. Life is fragile, so you must take care of yourself, your friends, your fans. I appreciate all this after what happened in Adelaide. When you are in the Formula 1 world you have to remember they are not all there just for racing, for winning. There are people who care about you. When I joined McLaren I was only 24. Jo Ramirez was taking care of me. He was fantastic. He made me feel so comfortable in the team, and that was really good for me.

“So, if I look back, it’s not about great overtaking, how fast Mika was, it’s about all those people in my life, in my career.”

Coulthard, Mika and Schumacher celeberate

Maximum points at the ’98 Spanish GP.

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At the end of 2001 you took a sabbatical from Formula 1. People thought you might come back, but you retired. Why did you decide to stop?

MH: “Hmm… I just felt burnt out. Completely finito. Even after having time off and a possibility to come back, I knew that my mind and my body were not capable of performing at the level Formula 1 requires. That was the biggest influence. I was just burnt out, you know. That’s what it was. Simple as that.”

What do you make of Formula 1 today? Does it still interest and excite you?

MH: “On the technical side, the new technologies, there’s always something wrong. It’s never totally right. What’s important for the fans is that the cars have to look spectacular, look beautiful, and Formula 1 needs innovations that people can see and understand. In general I think it has developed in a good way to be where it is today. We have two teams racing so hard for victory. Red Bull doing a great job, and Mercedes catching up, even if they don’t always know why. So, for me, the racing aspect is good.

“The atmosphere in the paddock is really cool. It’s much more open, more fun out there, and I don’t see too many negatives. It’s a very complicated business and people are working so hard, working like crazy. I’m not going to sit here on my sofa in Monaco and criticise these people who work so hard, committing their lives to the sport. So yeah, I think Formula 1 is doing a fantastic job right now.”

Häkkinen with ally Jo Ramirez

Häkkinen with ally Jo Ramirez in 2001

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Mika at the Belgian GP

On his way to pole at the 2000 Belgian GP


Your two youngest children are karting now so might we see another Häkkinen at the front of the grid in the not-too-distant future?

MH: “Aha, well, maybe. Ella and Daniel are karting, and they like it, but getting as far as Formula 1, for instance, is the same old story, just like it has always been. You need the talent, you need a passion, and the will to fulfil your goals – and you need a hell of a lot of money – millions of euros. So far my kids love what they’re doing, that’s great, but it’s also about a commitment from me and my wife, what we decide to do. To reach the top levels of motor racing is a big commitment, an unbelievable journey. You cannot go half way. It’s maximum or nothing.

“Daniel is eight years old, Ella is 11, so maybe if you ask me in five or six years’ time I’ll give you the answer. Then we will have seen how they develop, how well they have learnt. If they succeed. I will call you to help find some sponsors!”

Mika gives a thubs up

All good: Mika is now 54 but still likes to get behind the wheel of a kart… but only if the sun is shining

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What about you. Are you karting for fun, keeping your eye in?

MH: “I’ve been thinking about it because karting is such an excellent exercise for your body. It is beautiful exercise because it requires every muscle in your body to perform in a kart. So yeah, I’m considering it, not indoors but out on a track where you have some power.

“But I’ll tell you something, I am not racing in the rain, no way. I’ve lived in the Monaco sunshine for too long. Not all Finns like the rain you know.”


  • 1987 Following success in karts, Häkkinen acquires JJ Lehto’s Reynard 86FF and wins Finnish, Swedish and Scandinavian (Nordic)Formula Ford titles.
  • 1988 Wins Formula GM-Lotus Euroseries with Dragon Motorsport.
  • 1989-90 Graduates to Formula 3, first with Dragon and then with West Surrey Racing for whom he becomes British F3 champion. But outfoxed by Michael Schumacher at Macau.


  •  1991-92 Steps up to F1 under Peter Collins at Team Lotus. Fourth in France and Hungary in second season, in Ford-powered 107.
  • 1993 Joins McLaren as test driver, but promoted to race seat in Portugal when Michael Andretti quits F1. Outqualifies Ayrton Senna first time out. 1994 Leads McLaren as Senna joins Williams. Frustrated by uncompetitive Peugeot V10.
  • 1995 First year of McLaren-Mercedes partnership. Promising season ends in near-death Adelaide crash.
  • 1996-97 Makes remarkable recovery. Becomes an F1 winner at Jerez 1997.
  • 1998-99 Scores back-to-back F1 world titles with Adrian Newey-designed McLarens.
  • 2000-01 Defeated by Schumacher, form slips and announces a sabbatical – which eventually is confirmed as F1 retirement.
  • 2005-07 Racing swansong for Mercedes in DTM.