Features - Exclusive Interview
JULY 11, 2001
Mika Hakkinen: Will he go or will he stay?
BY DAVID TREMAYNE
2001 has been the season from Hell for Mika Hakkinen. Twice World Champion, in 1998 and '99, he lacked his usual sparkle at times in 2000, yet came back to win brilliantly at Spa and to push Michael Schumacher hard for the title. The fire still burned.
Had you thus suggested that by the halfway point of the 2001 season Hakkinen would have scored only nine points, and be out of contention for the World Championship, you would have got very long odds. The Finn is one of the stars of F1, the man that people at Ferrari believe may be a better qualifier than Michael Schumacher, but apart from Australia, Barcelona and Monte Carlo he has not looked remotely like winning a Grand Prix this year. He finished a feeble sixth in Malaysia, where team-mate David Coulthard was third; a sulky fourth at Imola, out-braved by Jarno Trulli in the first corner; third, a long way behind, in Canada, and a lackluster sixth at the Nurburgring.
So it has been a desperately frustrating season so far, and many suggest that, having flirted with despair at times last year, he has now come very close to losing the motivation that was such a crucial factor in his title successes.
But is it a run of the sort of bad luck that saw him suffer clutch failure half a lap from a dominant victory in Spain? Or is he really losing his momentum and his heart?
Motivating oneself after a poor performance or a disappointment, such as that Spanish clutch failure, can be very difficult to get over. But does it get harder as the years go by?
Hakkinen responds promptly. "Not really. I don't know why. It doesn't seem to be that disastrous this year, to be honest. Sure, I was very disappointed in Barcelona, where I think I was the moral victor. But maybe I could get over it because I had a great season behind me. Even last year was a great season from after, I would say, the first four or five races. Things started to be really good. Up to Spa and Indianapolis we were very strong and had all the chances to win it, and then everything fell apart a couple of races before the end.
"So I counted last year as a fantastic year and I finished in second position in the championship. Sure, I need to motivate myself at times when things don't look so good, and when you have to take a lot of disappointment. But it's not that complicated. You have to fight," he stops himself, offering a correction. "No, fight isn't the right word. You have to find the inner strength inside yourself and decide to yourself, 'do you wanna win or do you not wanna win?' When you know you wanna win, then it gets easier."
A year ago, when Hakkinen's career went into a bit of a slump, he didn't want to talk about it. The time, he said, was not right. But even now he's not too keen to open up on the reasons for the hiatus. "I think it is very difficult for the driver when things go wrong. Last year we had a season like that. I had two failures in the first two races and then in the fourth race, at Imola, I had a problem, so yeah, it's very difficult to come back from that. So it was very difficult to come from that point and start motivating myself and say, 'Hey, yeah, here we go back into championship contention.' It was very, very difficult to bring myself up. So that took a while. But then I realized, 'What's going on here?' I had to keep pushing and fighting, and that's it."
"And then this year... This has been a very complicated, very difficult year. Similar to times from last year. But I just have to find a way to get over it. And try to believe that we can still win."
Lifting himself last year was difficult, so how did he do it? "It's something what you go through inside you. Inside in your mind. You just have to believe in yourself so hard, and that way you can do it. If you start losing that belief in your mind, if you cannot see that any more, then it is over. But you have to fight and to fight and to put the problems in your side. When you are racing you have to put the problems in your side and say, 'Look, you know, forget the points situation, just look what you can do.' That way you can lift yourself."
Did he do it alone or did he need help?
"In a situation like that I don't think there are many people who can do it alone," he admits immediately. "For me it was the people around me with whom I could communicate. Definitely, they were able to push me. All the team, and Ron, all together. And it helped me a lot. But after all, after all, it's you, in your mind, who will decide what you wanna do. People can talk to you a lot of things, they can make you believe whatever. But after all, in yourself, you have to do it."
"I feel uncomfortable to talk about it because I always found that I feel that way if I start to talk about the technical side," he confesses. "It sounds like I am trying to make an excuse, because if some other drivers can find the solution, why not me?"
Coulthard speaks of finding his car's sweet spot, the performance area in which it works at its optimum. On the MP4/16s it is smaller than on other cars, such as the Ferrari. Hakkinen accepts the concept. "Yeah, our car has always been like that, but that's what makes it very good, extremely competitive. But it's also what makes it extremely complicated and difficult! It's always been on the edge. I don't think our car has ever been an easy one to drive. When David and I really become part of the car we are knackered, basically! It's very hard work! I hope you don't misunderstand that. It's not that the car is bad, but that it is very difficult on the edge. I'm sure the engineers feel a similar thing. You have to find the top of the mountain, and getting to that peak is very difficult. Finding that for qualifying is very difficult, but with the race set-ups it's generally a bit easier to find it because necessarily you don't need 100 percent perfect handling from the car. You carry a lot of fuel, a lot of things are happening. But in qualifying everything is focused on that peak. So if you do have difficulties on Friday or Saturday morning, or the track or weather conditions are not exactly favoring us, it is even more critical and very difficult."
The fact that Adrian Newey is to stay with McLaren, to help his drivers by designing cars with perhaps a larger sweet spot, or in any case to help them find it, is clearly a matter of great pleasure to Hakkinen. "I'm very happy indeed about Adrian staying. Many people say it is never one person who is important in the team, all the people are, the drivers, the engineers, the designers. It is true. But Adrian, what I have been experiencing with him, he is one of the key people of the McLaren team, who can definitely design the car and the aerodynamics that are fantastic. And he is definitely important, so it is absolutely fantastic that he is not leaving the team."
Hakkinen's unusually subdued performances have almost inevitably given rise to suggestions that he might be considering retirement at the end of the year. But has that thought really crossed his mind or is he still committed to racing on?
The old Hakkinen humor resurfaces as he replies. "It did cross my mind, for example, at the end of 1991... I don't think there is any Grand Prix driver who, over the years, doesn't get to think, 'I've had enough...' Even when you are winning. I've been having bad luck this year, and bad results, so I have to motivate myself and believe in myself. I do definitely need better results, and I will be stronger again."
Logically a racing driver rarely retires so long as he's in a winning car. But Hakkinen doesn't agree with that suggestion. "I don't know. Alain Prost did. He retired in '93 and he was in a winning car when he decided to stop. There are examples of many drivers who have been in a winning car, and then retired. Obviously it is naturally more difficult to stop when you are winning. It's easy if you are running last."
Nor does he subscribe to the view that the birth of his son Hugo has had an adverse effect on his speed, though he does concede that fatherhood has changed his outlook. "It definitely makes a difference. But I don't feel that it affects work or racing. Generally it does make your life different, in a positive way. But I don't really wanna talk about that much now."
So there is the current mind state of the only man in the last four years truly to give Michael Schumacher a run for his money. And now, of course, that he has only nine points to Coulthard's 44, the time is fast approaching when Ron Dennis will have to impose team orders in the Scot's favor. Schumacher had an 24-point lead going into the French GP, and all the alarm bells at Woking were ringing on overtime.
Back in 1998, when he won his first championship, Hakkinen had said to Coulthard in parc ferme in Suzuka: "Next year it's your turn," in recognition of the assistance that Coulthard had given him in riding shotgun at critical moment. But it seems that Hakkinen is not quite ready yet to play voluntary second fiddle to his team-mate, even though Coulthard has out-driven him for most of the year.
"If I was leading here," Hakkinen said at the Nurburgring, "I would go flat out to win. That's what I am paid for and that's what the team expects.
"I am still fighting for the championship. It has been difficult so far but that doesn't mean that I will give up trying.
"Things may change in four races' time if the gap between Michael and myself is too big. But at the moment I am going into every Grand Prix to win. It is difficult and I realize how complicated the situation is, but if in four races things are the same, then I will look at it in a different way."
But by then it may be too late for Coulthard, who gave away two race wins to Hakkinen - the GP of Europe at Jerez in 1997 when he was forced by Ron Dennis to let Hakkinen overtake to score his first GP triumph, and Australia in 1998 when he let the Finn repass after Hakkinen had lost the lead by pitting incorrectly.
On the face of it, Hakkinen is not yet honoring his past pledge to make up those two gifted victories, but it isn't that way at all. Hakkinen is an honorable man who will do the right thing when the time comes. Right now, however, he is also a racing driver trying very hard to motivate himself and to convince himself that his championship chances have not evaporated.