Understandably, Hakkinen took a little while to find his feet again. But McLaren was very much on his side, giving their Finnish superhero all the time he needed to recover confidence. Ultimately it was to be a disappointing season though: the sum total from 1996 was four third places, all achieved over the summer, which also showed how the car had improved compared to the start of the year. It needed to.
There was much better news in 1997. Hakkinen wasn’t only keeping up with Coulthard, but actually beating him from the middle of the season on. The Finn won for the first time in Jerez, the final race of the year, which was mostly down to Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve – who was about to be crowned champion, following a controversial collision with Michael Schumacher – leaving the way clear. That certainly made winning the race a lot easier for Hakkinen: but a win is still a win, however it’s taken.
The first championship title came the following year, with the McLaren-Mercedes proving to be simply a better package than its rivals. Nonetheless, David Coulthard could do no better than third, scoring just over half the points total racked up by his Finnish team mate. In 1999, that gap widened. Hakkinen stole the title from Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine thanks to a spirited performance at the final race in Japan, while Coulthard could do no better than fourth in the final standings – beaten also by Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Jordan.