“It really disturbed my career. You never get over an accident like that, you carry it with you for the rest of your life.” Mika Häkkinen, double Formula One world champion and former Mercedes DTM driver, leans back, and lowers his tone. “That’s why I think my career in Formula One wasn’t that long. There aren’t many days in my life when I don’t think about what happened in Adelaide.”
What happened in Adelaide was a life-threatening and life-changing moment in Mika’s career. In the Friday afternoon practice session of 1995 Australian GP, Häkkinen’s McLaren suffered a massive puncture on the high-speed entrance to the Brewery Bend corner. “I was going maximum speed, going into a right hander, when all of a sudden I had a tyre failure. At that point you just become a passenger.”
Mika’s McLaren-Mercedes lost control, hit a barrier and he ‘got damaged’. “I didn’t have a HANS system back then. Safety was very different. I ended up fracturing my skull.”
He stares at me very seriously, before cracking a smile and letting a small, Finnish giggle escape. “Thankfully when I was in hospital the doctors finally found my brain.”
Mika’s intelligence and penchant for understatement have given him a reputation for being stand-offish with the media. Not today. Not with TG. He’s chatting away as though an old friend, regaling his Formula One and racing career with glee.
He got going in karting at a young age – “because I liked the sound of race cars” – came to the UK and shared a house with Le Mans winner Allan McNish, (“We had a tough competitive streak, so I let him be, and he let me be. But he was very helpful to me,”) raced with Lotus in 1991, before joining McLaren in 1993.
“All of McLaren’s success, its history, the quality of the people, the facilities, the preciseness and the organisation, this all impressed me about the team. I’m very organised myself – I can’t handle mess, because you can’t find solutions if everything’s all over the place.”
He found a solution all right. Mika’s teammate at McLaren was one Ayrton Senna, whom he out-qualified in Portugal on his race debut in 1993.
“I was a young racing driver with no real results in Formula One, and suddenly I’m next to a three-time world champion,” he laughs. “But I was very relaxed about the whole situation, and I think Senna was surprised by that, especially when I was faster than him in the first qualifying session in Portugal. That shocked him a lot.”
Mika got far closer to Senna than most. “He had a great personality, though his temperament was very high. I think Ayton missed Brazil every day when he wasn’t there; I don’t personally think he was ever very comfortable leaving his home country. That’s where he was a hero too, and it’s difficult because we’re all just normal people, we’re no different.”
Mika leans in closer to tell me more about something even greater than out-qualifying the great Brazilian: beating Michael Schumacher to take back-to-back F1 world titles in 1998 and 1999. Now we’re cooking. Mika can’t stop grinning. “I liked this a bit too much, no?” he says. He’s laughing now.
“Me and Michael had good battles, in fact we’d been racing each other from 1983 to 2001. Obviously when you have a driver like that, it was great to challenge and battle with him. I know how difficult he was, so I found it fascinating.”
But though the bad blood between Häkkinen and Schuey was well documented, Mika says he enjoyed their rivalry. “When it’s calculated,” he explains, “it’s easier to fight someone. On both our parts it was very calculated racing, because when emotions get tied up things can change suddenly.”
Such calculated racing inspired the finest overtaking move of Häkkinen’s career: Spa, 2000, and that move on Schuey. “I still remember that feeling. I put myself on the limit, and you don’t normally drive like that with six laps to go. I did. I had plenty of great overtaking situations, but the most exciting ones were mainly against Michael.”
There were darker moments, too, the cumulative effect of which forced Mika from the sport he’d loved so. “Monza in 1999 was a typical situation. I was testing, going along the main straight heading towards 370km/h, when I went over a bump – the same bump I’d run over time and time again. This time, my knee hit the quick release for the steering wheel and it came off.”
“Same thing in 2001 when I was running second in Melbourne: the front upright failed at 300km/h. Whoosh [makes a hand gesture], straight into the barrier. The list is long, and at the end I was thinking, ‘Mika, come on, you’re burning everything of yourself.’ I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
It drove Mika away from the F1 circus, and into DTM. “I didn’t feel for F1 at the end. You know what it’s like. You look back and think, ‘Wow, that was fantastic’, but when you’re there it is amazingly hard work. Nothing else matters other than F1. I wanted to share my thoughts, spend time with my family, to explore – I’m very happy I left to enjoy my life.”
What does Mika make of Formula One’s move to KERS, and, from next year, turbo V6s? “F1 needs to be a leader in efficiency. And I actually think the races next year are going to become more dramatic, simply because you have a component like electricity. Trust me, you’ll see some good racing.”
And what of the partnership between his protégé Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso at Ferrari? He smiles. “I used to be close to Kimi, I directed him towards Ron Dennis and McLaren, so I know him a little. There’s not going to be a problem [between Kimi and Fernando], believe me. They’re both intelligent, experienced guys, and both understand that verbal fights won’t help their careers or their lives. That is of course, unless something stupid happens on the track.”
The talk turns to Top Gear. Turns out Mika, a star of the show, of course, is quite a fan. “I admire the three guys and how they do their challenges. It’s a mega job. ” He starts laughing. “But, with James in Finland…erm, I did not see too much talent and hope.”
At this, he lets go with a proper giggle. “I tried my best!” He calms down. “But I think the best people to deliver verdicts on road cars are the people who aren’t necessarily the best drivers, because they bring the reality. You don’t need a racing driver to tell you how to drive on the road, because they – we – look at different elements.”
Despite his retirement, despite his protestations about the pressures of F1 and his regret in DTM, Mika’s still a driver. A point he later proves to me when we’re out in his C63 AMG taxi car on the handling circuit at Nardo. The demonstration is smokey, sideways and very lairy. His old DTM car is on exhibition just next to us as we pull in. I ask if he misses the good old days. He just takes one longing look at the mega Merc, and nods.