Features - Interview
NOVEMBER 1, 1991
BY JOE SAWARD
On the plane home from Brazil, Mika Hakkinen travelled in economy class, surrounded by minders. They didn't look too evil, in fact they looked a lot like Lotus mechanics - and they weren't really protecting the Finn, they were just making sure he didn't wander off and get lost. They were probably also keeping an eye open to make sure that other F1 bosses did not try and pinch their new star. They needn't have bothered, you don't often see F1 team bosses in economy.
There is little question that already several teams will be pencilling the name Hakkinen into their 'people to recruit' notebooks. In two Grands Prix he has made quite an impression. In the pressroom in Brazil a senior F1 journalist looked up from his computer, peered at a television screen for a few moments as Hakkinen's Lotus was being pictured.
'That boy is going to be a World Champion,' he said, simply, and went back to his work. You don't get praise like that every day - and certainly not often among the cynical F1 media.
No-one expected much from 22-year-old Hakkinen. The Lotus team is beginning to rebuild, but there is a long way to go. Finn had virtually no testing before the season began and a new car to struggle with on the streets of Phoenix and yet, there he was 13th on the grid in Arizona.
'I think I was a little lucky,' he admits modestly. 'In Phoenix we had a lot of things to learn and, actually, everything was going all right. I didn't have any misfire problems like Julian (Bailey).'
In the race Mika survived an alarming moment when his steering wheele came off in his hand as he was accelerating on the main straight.
'I tried to steer with the steering column,' he smiles, making frantic gestures in the air, 'but I could do nothing.'
The car came to a stop without hitting anything. Mika restarted and having pitted twice to solve the problem, and went on to set the 13th quickest lap of the race.
What impressed most observers was that the F1 novice had managed to keep the car running throughout his incident and, again, later when he had to spin avoiding an errant Brabham. It was a surprise.
'It wasn't a surprise for me,' says Mika with a smile. 'I can go much faster if we can make the car work better. At some places in Phoenix I had to hold back because I couldn't go through the corners at the speed I wanted to. We hadn't had enough time to set-up the car.'
But were there any problems adjusting to F1 straight from Formula 3?
'No, I had no problem adjusting to the car. The biggest thing is F1 is the bloody speed. It goes so fast and sometimes it is different to concentrate on the car because you are concentrating on yourself. That is the first thing you learn. The rest is done automatically: you brake later. If you go a bit wide so you know the limit. You can get that the first time you do an F1 test. But you don't do it when you are going 300 kilometres per hour, you do it at 100. It is exactly the same.
'F1 is exactly as I expected it to be. The travelling is no problem. I used to travel a lot when I was younger, doing go-karting. We used to travel for four days in a car. Now it is only 10 hours in a plane. It is nothing.
'When I was young I was always sleeping in the vans. Now I sleep in hotels. It's just not a problem. I've been away from home since I was 18 and I don't get homesick or anything like this. It's normal life.'
For a young driver there is always a tendency to jump at an F1 chance and many believed Hakkinen signing for Lotus was a brave thing to do. Often a driver will do a season of F1 in a team with difficulties and then will disappear from F1.
'I never thought it was a risk coming to Lotus,' says Mika. 'I knew what they had done last year but that didn't mean anything to me. I knew the people who worked here and I trusted them and I know that they will put the team on the top.'
But things were more difficult in Brazil?
'We had some misfire problems,' he admits. The rain did not help. Before we came here we had planned a programme to test certain things in dry conditions but obviously we had the rain and then we got a bit lost.'
Mika qualified 22nd in Brazil but his race was a strong one.
'My strategy was to take it carefully at the start. I very much wanted to know what it is like to drive a Grand Prix distance. The car and engine ran well and I could have run quicker for longer.
'But it was hard. We are still struggling with the seat fitting a bit, and my back muscles got really tense. I did a lot of training before I started the season, but I still need to do a lot more. It is unbelievable. People cannot even imagine what it is. It's crazy, you go through the corner and you can't hold your head. It is something which you cannot explain. You cannot imagine what it is like until you go in there. Then you understand.
'That was not the biggest problem. We just have to make the chassis handle a little bit better. At the moment we are struggling.
'Still, I'm quite pleased with the race. The chassis was consistent and I had no particular problems. I think the most exciting feeling was in the race when I was following Ayrton Senna for three or four laps. It was good fun. The car was working well and there was even a chance of going faster, but I decided to make my position better. I was thinking there was no point to keep up behind him, I'd better pull up a little bit and just stay where I was.'
It paid off and Mika came home in ninth place. It was another impressive showing.
'After two races I am very pleased with the way it has all happened. I think we have the chance to get in the points at some races. We did so little running before we started the season that all the time we are a little behind the others. We have to work twice as hard as them and we have to do that all the time. Whenever we get a problem we lose time. This is the first year in F1 for me and I need to learn a lot.
'We're going to do a lot of testing before Imola and we have a lot of new ideas, excellent ideas which up to now we could not do. At Imola we will have a lot of new parts on the cars. That will be good...'
As a Grand Prix debutant, Mika has turned heads. His performance may not be as spectacular as Jean Alesi, but then the Frenchman had a better car. Nonetheless, the important people are stopping and looking.