I was there when... 2000 Belgian GPby Nigel Roebuck on 19th August 2013
It was Flavio Briatore who famously said that Kimi Rӓikkӧnen made Mika Hӓkkinen seem like Jerry Lewis, but Mika, too, had that unemotional Finnish way with him. Far less dour than his fellow countryman, and positively chatty by comparison, still Hӓkkinen was a man of relatively few words – and those he tended to put to good use. After the Belgian Grand Prix in 2000, Michael Schumacher was under no illusions about that.
In his McLaren Hӓkkinen was on pole position that afternoon, and by almost a full second, but as any driver knows, a crucial aspect of any race at Spa is surviving the first few seconds, as everyone brakes hard for La Source. And what slightly concerned Mika was that the drivers closest to him on the grid were not the usual suspects: Jarno Trulli’s Jordan lined up second, with the Williams-BMW of rookie Jenson Button a stunning third.
Patrick Head, never a man given to hyperbole, raved to me about Jenson’s performance: “He drives this circuit like Alain (Prost) used to drive it, and I can’t really offer higher praise than that...”
True enough – but still, to some degree, Button and Trulli were an unknown quantity in Hӓkkinen’s mind. “I haven’t been in this position with these two guys before,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll be fine, but at least with Michael I know what to expect at the first corner…”
Would the two youngsters be trying to wrest the lead from Hӓkkinen in the opening seconds? Of course, said Trulli at the press conference; he was here to race. Button was a bit more light-hearted: “Oh, certainly! We’re going to go either side of him, aren’t we, Jarno?”
That phrase would have a particular resonance 24 hours on, although in connection not with Trulli or Button, but Schumacher, who qualified fourth, disappointed with a Ferrari that had tested well, in low-downforce spec, at Mugello, but had fallen short of his expectations at Spa. His best hope, Michael said, was for a wet race, and initially it seemed that his prayers had been answered, for there was rain for much of race morning, and although it abated by noon, the track was still damp when the race began – inevitably behind the Safety Car.
Once they were unleashed, Hӓkkinen duly took the lead, and – following a coming-together between Trulli and Button – Schumacher was soon into second place. So quickly did the track begin to dry out that, after five and six laps, the leaders pitted.
Running dry tyres on a not completely dry track, Schumacher was quicker than Hӓkkinen, and he began to close in at the rate of half a second a lap. On lap 13 Mika had a colossal slide at Stavelot, which ultimately became a lazy spin, and allowed Michael into a lead which at one point grew to nearly 12 seconds.
By the time of their second stops the track was bone dry, the sun shining, and now Hӓkkinen began hunting Schumacher down. As they began lap 40, with four to go, he was almost on Michael’s tail, and through Eau Rouge was visibly closing. Up the hill the McLaren was right on the Ferrari, and inevitably Mika was going to slingshot by into Les Combes…
Or maybe not. Before the race he had said what he expected from Schumacher – but perhaps even he was surprised on this occasion. As he jinked to Michael’s right, the Ferrari chopped him, and at over 190mph the cars momentarily touched. Mika had no option but to back off, but he was not impressed.
Once confident that his McLaren was fundamentally sound, Mika bent himself to the task of catching Michael again, and there was a cold fury in the way he got after him. On the next lap he again took yards out of Schumacher through Eau Rouge, then stalked him up the hill – at which point they came upon the BAR of Ricardo Zonta, which was in the middle of the track.
When Zonta looked in his mirrors, all he could see was the scarlet of Schumacher, for Hӓkkinen’s grey McLaren was directly behind the Ferrari. As they neared Les Combes, Michael went left to pass the BAR – and a fraction later Mika went right, passing both of them in the process. Later Zonta admitted that he had no idea the McLaren was anywhere in the vicinity; that being so, it was good he kept his car arrow straight. Probably he slept with the lights on for a while afterwards.
Mika’s was a move of stunning audacity, and perfectly executed. As he followed him into the corner, Schumacher knew that the race was lost. “Mika did an outstanding manoeuvre,” he said. “I really didn’t expect it – but if he hadn’t passed me then, he’d have done it a lap or two later...”
The pair of them completed the last three laps, Hӓkkinen taking it comparatively easily now, knowing he was safe. As he took the flag, Ron Dennis showed more emotion than anyone could remember, tearfully embracing his daughter before going to greet his driver.
“I’m sure,” he said, “Mika’s overtaking manoeuvre will go down as one of the greatest in Formula 1 history.” No one could reasonably take issue with that.
As they climbed from their cars, Hӓkkinen went over to Schumacher, and had a quiet word with him. Never one to get into public spats, at the post-race press conference he was measured in his words as he described the incident: “Mmm, Michael’s car was... too wide on that lap. It was hectic. Not a pleasant moment. When something like that happens, you tend to lose concentration briefly. I wasn’t sure if we’d touched or not, and wondered if maybe my front wing was damaged. For a few corners I didn’t run at the maximum, just making sure the car was OK.”
The cars had indeed touched – to this day the damaged front wing endplate from Hӓkkinen’s car sits in Martin Whitmarsh’s office.
Years later, after he had retired, I asked Mika what he said to Michael in parc fermé. He smiled at the memory: “Oh, I just said I didn’t want him ever to try something like that with me again. I think he understood.
“People always said to me, ‘How can you be so calm?’ Well, I was educated by my parents that way – I learned to control my emotions when I was a kid. I did karting for years, but if you didn’t win a race, you didn’t complain to mummy and daddy about it. My father said, ‘OK, there’s a forest over there – go and kick some trees, get your rid of your frustrations, and then come back’. For a while it seemed to me there were not enough trees – not enough forests! – but in the end I realised my dad was right: there’s no point in getting upset. It doesn’t do any good, doesn’t achieve anything…”
As for Schumacher, he indeed took on board what had been said to him at Spa. Not for nothing did Michael consider Mika a driver apart, the only one who ever really worried him.