NIGEL ROEBUCK

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LEGENDS

NIGEL ROEBUCK AT A RECENT PRESS CONFERENCE, KIMI

Raikkonen’s unsmiling, barely audible answers to questions drew this response from a colleague: “Jesus, he makes Mika seem chatty.”

Undoubtedly, as he got older, as his successes mounted, Mika Haldcinen learned to say less. It wasn’t that he became unfriendly, or distant, more that he was increasingly wary, wishing to avoid any public controversy.

At Spa in 2000, he memorably passed Michael Schtunacher, and won, but a lap earlier Michael had given him a 200mph chop, and in parclameMika ‘had a word’ with his rival. By any standards, it had been a highly questionable move, but in the press room he chose to play it down. “Mmmm, Michael’s car was… a bit wide on that lap. Not a pleasant moment.” Undoubtedly, it was the sensible way to deal with the situation, getting the message across that he was unhappy with what Schumacher had done, yet declining to get into a war of words, all too aware that these things can escalate into feuds, as with Ayrton Senna and Main Prost “I think the temperament of Finnish people is very strong,” said Haldtinen. “You see me in the paddock, and I’m very calm and relaxed but you ain’t seen me when I’m alone somewhere after the race! Like at Spa one year, when I spun. I tell you, that day, I went to the truck,

closed the door and sat there, alone. The whole truck was moving I was so angry! Then I came out, and there were photographers and journalists outside. The first question was, ‘How can you be so calm?’

“I was educated by my parents that way. I learned to control my emotions when I was a kid. I did karting for many years, but if you didn’t win a race, you didn’t complain about it My father sort of said, ‘OK, there’s a forest over there; go and kick some trees, get rid of your frustrations, then come back’. Problem is, there aren’t enough trees! There’s no real point in getting upset: it doesn’t do any good, it does not achieve anything.”

In a public forum, Haldtinen was invariably that way, but in quieter surroundings he was different again, quite prepared to say what he thought, even voluble sometimes. A couple of times, over dinner, I was taken aback by what he had to say. There was very much more to him than could ever be seen at a press conference.

Once we talked about 1993, his first season with McLaren, when Senna and Michael Andretti raced for the team, and Mika was test driver. For the last three races, Ron Dennis, disappointed with Michael’s form, put Haldcinen in with Senna, and at Estoril, the first of these, Mika outqualified Ayrton. “Until that race,” Jo Ramirez told

me, “Andretti was in the other car, but he was never a threat to Senna. In Portugal, though, Mika was quicker and, for the first time that year Ayrton was taking a great interest in his teammate’s traces!”

Mika saw nothing remarkable in being quicker than Senna that day. “I was McLaren’s test driver I did 10 times more driving than Ayrton that year, even though I only raced towards the end of the year. I mean, I reversed more than he went forward!”

Fine, but still the fact remained that Senna was hardly ever outqualified in equal cars. Mika didn’t think in those terms. “We all drink water and eat bread, you know. It’s just four wheels and steering at the end of the day. Okay, there are millions of elements around it to make a complete package, but I was not amazed, no. I was making up the time in the first corner I was putting my foot down earlier than him, and he didn’t know why.

“But what did surprise me was Ayrton’s speed in the race. He was so fast, even at the beginning, when the cars were heavy with fuel; there was no refuelling then, of course. I was quick, too, but not quick enough. He wanted to put me in my place and he did. If maybe I woke Ayrton up that weekend, he woke me up, too, in many ways.” He paused then, unbidden, took the conversation in an unexpected

direction. “I have to say, though, that I never felt comfortable with him, in the sense of working together to make the team better. It’s a fragile subject for me, because Ayrton is not with us any more. In a funny way, I don’t really want to explain what I experienced with him, because it was such a personal thing.

“Let’s say this, though, about Ayrton: for me, he wasn’t the nicest guy in Fl. Okay, I didn’t really expect it. I mean, I was with Johnny [Herbert] at Lotus, and he’s a comedian, always joking, but with Ayrton, it was a completely different world. I guess we all need that, you know, to push each other, get the best out of ourselves, but in that case I didn’t feel it was a positive atmosphere. “I’d been test driver, and now I was racing, feeling good mentally and physically, ready to beat everybody! I didn’t go there to lose. That was my idea: to come in the team with Senna,

and beat him, and nothing else.

“We had the Ford V8 engine that year, and it didn’t have enough power. Ayrton was a three-time world champion, and if things weren’t working, he got upset. Logically. But I didn’t think he had a good way of showing it. In ’93, his attitude was, ‘I come to the race, and the car has to be good. At the next test, if we have something unbelievably good to try, I’ll be there. Otherwise, I’m not interested’.”

After Prost had retired from racing, he returned to McLaren for a time, working as a driver consultant, and also testing extensively. Hakkinen came almost to revere him. “In my opinion, Main was a man who worked with the team, Ayrton felt he could do it all himself. Prost worked all the time. He was thinking, testing, thinking, testing, explaining to engineers how systems were working and doing it in such an intrlligent way that there was no question of Ifs’

or ‘buts’. Prost could !rally build something good in a team. Of course, when I was with Senna at McLaren, he had already decided to leave, so maybe that changed his attitude.

“Ayrton and Main were so experienced in the way they worked. It was not a matter of wetting a finger and holding it up to the wind. It was looking at the facts, studying the computers, working with realities. There was no guessing, no speculation, just pure logic. But still I never felt that Ayrton had Main’s will to work, and certainly not his willingness to share.”

Prost was working with McLaren at the time of Halckinen’s catastrophic qualifying accident at Adelaide in 1995. It was only through wonderful work notably a tracheotomy by the doctors on hand that Mika was alive as he was lifted from the cockpit, but he had suffered a massive blow to the head, and for some hours his life hung in the balance.

Through the winter, Mika convalesced, regained his strength, and in February 1996, about a month before the opening race of the season, he was strapped into a McLaren again, for a very private test session at Paul Ricard.

“I remember that day like yesterday,” he said, some years later. “I was open-minded about it: was I going to like it or not? If I did, then the racing would continue, but it wasn’t black and white.

“Everyone was so quiet when I got in the car. And then when I went out of the pits, the car felt smooth, the engine felt smooth. Think of driving an Fl car, and you think of jumping and sliding all over the place, the seat uncomfortable, nothing right and that was all gone. Suddenly, it all felt nice: the gearbox, the steering, everything. I thought, ‘Jesus, what have I been complaining about?’

“Best of all, everything was automatic. I didn’t have to think about anything, and I felt more ready than ever. But then, when I started driving really fast, I began to look around me, thinking, ‘Jesus, if I go off there…’ I suppose that was natural. But it did not slow me down. I drove about 60 laps, set quick times, and then I said, ‘Okay, that’s enough, let’s go home’.”

Prost watched him at Ricard, and told me how moving it had been: “I was very lucky in my career. During my first Fl season, I broke my wrist at Kyalami, but otherwise I never hurt myself. Now here was this guy getting back in a racing car, three months after almost dying in one. Immediately, it was as if he had never been away. It was fantastic, almost unbelievable.

“His speed was more than anyone expected, but much more important was that he still loved driving a racing car. You can’t forget a day like that.”

For years, hobbled by McLarens of indifferent competitiveness, Mika stayed true to the team, while others of lesser ability were winning races. By the time the team came good again, in 1998, he was well ready to collect his due reward -20 victories and two world championships. In July this year, Mika announced that sabbatical had become retirement A loyal and decent man, as well as a great grand prix driver, the best qualifier since Senna, icy under pressure, capable on his day of beating anyone. Not for nothing did Schumacher respect him more than any other. In

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