This former Formula One champion might be the only one who ever admitted that he left racing because it was no longer worth the risk.
He has been called the “Flying Finn,” the “Iceman” and “Mika the Magnificent.” But Mika Hakkinen, ex-Formula One racer can’t be called irrational.
After the 2001 season, Hakkinen finally decided to hang up his helmet after more than a decade on the international open-wheel circuit. His philosophy was simple:
“I’ve enjoyed so much in my life. It’s not worth pushing my luck any further.”
Luck? Has any driver ever admitted that? Has any driver ever walked away when so much of it once went his way? Has any former champion ever considered the grass to be greener on the other side of the asphalt?
Hakkinen has. But Hakkinen was always different.
“I want to spend more time with my family and watch them grow.”
Unlike many F1 champions, Hakkinen always seemed to have the right timing for everything. As the most successful Finnish driver in F1 history, he always had a better answer and a special style.
Hardly flamboyant and never self-absorbed, Hakkinen was the quiet one on a circuit full of flash. He preferred Phil Collins’ music in the garage or a few laps in the hotel pool.
“Only one word describes Mika off the track,” fellow driver David Coulthard once said during a stop at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis, Ind. “Anonymous.”
Hakkinen’s quiet calm came naturally.
Born Mika Pauli Hakkinen on Sept. 28, 1968 in Martinlaakso, Vantaa, near Helsinki, Hakkinen’s parents were working class; his upbringing was simple. Like most drivers he began racing go-karts when he was barely 5.
Mika’s father, Harri, rented the first kart Mika drove and paid for most of his son’s racing-related costs by driving a taxi and working as a short-wave radio operator.
On weekends, Mika’s mother and father would pack up both kids and travel together to courses around Finland.
Within a year, Mika had won his first race. Within three, he was a karting champion.
In 1991, after more than a decade working his way up, Hakkinen eventually jumped from Formula 3000, the minor leagues of international open-wheel racing, straight to Formula One.
Hakkinen’s manager at the time, the legendary Finnish F1 driver Keke Rosberg, was able to negotiate a unique contract with a struggling Team Lotus, securing a spot for Hakkinen as a full-time driver.
After two seasons with Lotus, Hakkinen had gained the kind of experience that was attracting more attention. Hakkinen wanted to join the prestigious Team McLaren, which had an opening for the 1993 season, but when McLaren signed Michael Andretti away from the Indy open-wheel circuit, Hakkinen’s prospects looked slim.
Actually, his timing couldn’t have been better.
Fortunately for Hakkinen, Andretti crashed in the majority of his races on the F1 circuit.
Three races before the end of the year, Hakkinen, a test driver at the time for McLaren, was signed to a full-time contract.
In 1994, he became McLaren’s star and outqualified his teammate, Aryton Senna, often regarded as the best driver of all time, in his first race.
Hakkinen went on to win his first Grand Prix in 1997 and, one year later, took the F1 championship. One season after that, he won it all again, becoming just the seventh driver in 50 years to win back-to-back titles.
His world quickly turned upside-down. His ninth-floor apartment in Monte Carlo quickly became a popular spot for fans. They knew his favorite bar (“Stars and Bars” in Monte Carlo) and his blood type (A-positive).
The silent Finn felt under the gun.
At the same time, his calm reserve and dry sense of humor were never better.
After a 1998 victory in Brazil, a reporter asked Hakkinen: “Was there anything else you could have done today?”
Hakkinen responded, without a pause: “Perhaps had a coffee,” Hakkinen said.
After a win in Spain that year, an interviewer asked if the victory looked very easy.
“It was so easy, you can’t believe it,” Hakkinen said.
But all of his moments weren’t easy.
A blown tire during practice in 1995 sent Hakkinen into a wall. He was in a coma. When he emerged, however, he just kept on racing.
After a subpar season in 2000, Hakkinen decided to take a year off and then finally retired in 2002, telling the world he had finally had enough.
He bought his parents a million-dollar home near Helsinki and bought himself a twinengine propeller aircraft.
He never looked back.
Hakkinen won 20 F1 races and forever stayed calm.
Fast, fair and fearless, he was the only one who gave champion Michael Schumacher a serious run during Ferrari’s charge in the mid-1990s. On many occasions, Hakkinen was even better.
Silent and strong he was very much capable.
“I just don’t want to hurt myself anymore,” he said upon retirement.
Mika never sounded more in control.
Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.