There was only one driver who Michael Schumacher really feared. Only one person whose raw pace and implacable exterior proved too tough for even the most successful driver in the world to consistently penetrate.
That man was McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen. He deprived Schumacher of the championship in 1998 and took another title in 1999 (the year Schumacher broke his leg at Silverstone, but Hakkinen had already out-raced him during the early part of the season, helped also by less than perfect reliability for Ferrari).
In truth, Hakkinen retired from Formula 1 too early – he was only 33 by the end of his final season in 2001, and he even won his penultimate grand prix.
After a three-year DTM career from 2005 to 2007, the Finn had a few outings in rallying and GT racing, but the last time – until recently – he drove anything at all in competition was back in 2013. On that occasion, he ended up racing a Mercedes SLS AMG 300 in a one-off outing at the GT Asia championship in Zhuhai, China. He won.
Now the original Iceman is back, racing for the first time in six years. He drove a McLaren in competition for the first time in 18 years at the Suzuka 10 Hours – exclusively supplied by Pirelli – the weekend before the Belgian Grand Prix.
Spa-Francorchamps was of course the scene of Hakkinen’s greatest overtaking move – one of the best overtaking moves in the history of Formula 1 – to the detriment of Schumacher. No wonder the legendary German had such unparalleled respect for him.
By the time of the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix, at the end of August, Hakkinen was leading the championship with Schumacher just two points behind him. The Finn qualified on pole with Schumacher fourth, but it was one of those complicated wet-dry races so typical of Spa, and Hakkinen lost his advantage after spinning at Stavelot. Nonetheless, he was determined to get the lead back. Very determined.
On lap 40, Hakkinen tried to pass Schumacher for the lead at Les Combes: the Ferrari sliced in front of him at around 300kph, damaging the McLaren’s front wing endplate. But Hakkinen was determined to try again. His memories of what happened next, in his own words, are scintillating.
“As we began lap 41, I decided to take Eau Rouge flat. In those days, taking Eau Rouge flat was extremely difficult, and the penalty for getting it wrong was usually an enormous accident. Worse still, the track was still damp off-line. As I turned in, I counted to three, daring myself to keep my foot planted. I knew that by the time I got to three I would either have taken Eau Rouge flat or be in the barriers.
Ahead of me on the straight afterwards, Michael had clearly not taken Eau Rouge flat, because I was now catching him quickly. As we approached Les Combes again, ahead of us I spotted Ricardo Zonta’s BAR-Honda, which we were about to lap. I thought to myself: whichever way Michael goes; I’ll go the other. He went to the left, so I went to the right, braking as late as I dared, still on a wet track. As I turned in, I realised I had done it; I had passed Michael for the lead. Job done. Great win. Fantastic day.”
To pass Zonta, he had only a couple of centimetres to play with, to the right of the BAR-Honda: the finest of fine judgments. You can relive those breath-taking final two laps at Spa right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pd0LMH6yijA
Now aged 50, Hakkinen faced a very different challenge, driving a GT3 McLaren 720S on the fourth round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, in the distinctive blue and white colours of the Finnish flag. It was a brand new adventure for him: Hakkinen had never driven a race of this distance before, but he still finished a solid 22nd in the company of his new Japanese team mates, despite a race that wasn’t entirely straightforward for them.
The Pirelli-backed championship takes in some of the most epic tracks in the world, such as Bathurst, Kyalami, and of course Spa. But like nearly all drivers, Hakkinen really loves Suzuka, and he’s particularly attached to the place because it was where he won his very first F1 title, just over 20 years ago. But that’s another story, for another day.
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