‘I knew Michael didn’t want Eddie to win’ – The inside story of Mika Hakkinen’s dramatic 1999 title win

Thomas Maher

Mika Hakkinen won the 1999 F1 championship for McLaren.

2024 marks 25 years since Mika Hakkinen’s hard-fought second World Championship win against Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine. In an extensive series of interviews with PlanetF1.com, the Finn has recounted the full story of that dramatic season – a season of two halves.

In the first half, Hakkinen and McLaren squared up to the challenge of a very competitive Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, only for the complexion of the Championship to change as Schumacher broke his leg in a crash at Silverstone halfway through the year.

Mika Hakkinen: The story of the Finn’s 1999 title win

In the first chapter of our series on Mika Hakkinen’s 1999 title win, the Finn recounted his pre-season excitement and the retelling of events from a calamitous start to the year in Australia, before steadying the ship somewhat with a win in Brazil despite gearbox maladies.

In the second chapter, Hakkinen told the story of his race-ending mistake at Imola, as well as remembering his moment of good fortune as Michael Schumacher crashed out in Canada. At Silverstone, Schumacher’s leg-breaking accident transformed the story of the championship – but the dramas weren’t about to stop for Hakkinen as a new threat emerged from the other side of the McLaren garage…

The third chapter of our story delves into the intra-team tensions that began to emerge as Hakkinen had to contend with the attentions of his teammate David Coulthard, while also getting over the disappointment of a self-inflicting day of anguish at Monza, before heading into the final three races of the season.

Round 14: Mika Hakkinen scores two invaluable points in chaotic race

The European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, the third-last race of the season, allowed Hakkinen a chance to reset with a clean slate after the anguish of Monza.

A year earlier, Hakkinen’s drive at the Nurburgring – under the moniker of the Luxembourg Grand Prix – had been one of the most convincing of the Finn’s victories in 1998 as he defeated Michael Schumacher in a thrilling head-to-head fight.

But Hakkinen needed a drive of similar quality in the 1999 race in order to get his championship challenge back on track, especially given he and Eddie Irvine were tied on points and Heinz-Harald Frentzen was only 10 points further back.

With Jordan claiming the win in Monza following Hakkinen’s mistake, Frentzen was becoming a very realistic threat for the championship – he underlined this by taking pole position completely on merit at the Nurburgring, ahead of Coulthard and Hakkinen, while Irvine could only manage ninth place on the grid.

The race that unfolded on Sunday was one of the most chaotic in living memory, with the first start aborted after a very long red light delay, followed by a big crash at the start proper when Pedro Diniz got flipped upside down by Damon Hill.

Eventually, the race settled down with Frentzen enjoying the damp conditions to pull away from Hakkinen as the Finn got the better of Coulthard. But Ron Dennis’ call to pull Hakkinen in for wet tyres on Lap 20 proved premature and, with the rain easing off, Hakkinen had to pit again for slicks a few laps later having been lapped by Frentzen.

But Irvine had also been taken out of contention by a pitstop error from Ferrari. The Scuderia had called Irvine in a lap later than Hakkinen, but didn’t make the same mistake as McLaren – they wanted to keep Irvine on slick tyres.

Unfortunately for Irvine, the team weren’t ready with his tyres as they’d been expecting Salo in, meaning the Ferrari was left propped up on three wheels while his crew frantically searched for his tyres. He was down in 13th by the time he rejoined.

Had the race finished at that moment, Frentzen’s win would have meant he, Irvine, and Hakkinen would have all been tied for the points lead with two races left, with Coulthard six points behind them.

But it wasn’t to be. With the win looking good for Frentzen, his chances of drawing level in the championship came to an end after his pit stop as an anti-stall software setting switched off his car straight after pitting, leaving the German driver distraught as he’d forgotten to switch it off exiting the pit box.

Coulthard then threw his McLaren off the road as the rain intensified, all but ending his chances of the title, before both Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella had stints in the lead that ended in disappointment – Schumacher suffering a puncture, and Fisichella a spin.

This left Johnny Herbert out in front to take the win for Stewart, ahead of Prost’s Jarno Trulli and the other Stewart of Rubens Barrichello. Of the championship contenders, Hakkinen had the better ending to the race as he caught and passed Irvine with a critical move, before going on to finish fifth as he cleared Marc Gene’s Minardi before the chequered flag.

Irvine was left without a point as he finished seventh, having not managed to clear Gene, and that resulted in Hakkinen taking a tiny two-point lead into the final two races of the championship.

But, with Frentzen’s title bid falling apart, how much of a threat had Hakkinen viewed the Jordan driver?

“It was incredible, absolutely incredible,” he said.

“I think the team did a great job – Frentzen was a super-quick driver. I felt like he was always a little bit in the wrong place at the wrong time but I knew he was a very fast driver.

“So I knew that if he had a quick car, he should deliver and he started to do that. I felt like he was a threat but… I knew the Jordan team didn’t have super consistency. I knew that Frentzen made mistakes.

“I was thinking that ‘Mika, don’t worry about that. Just focus on your own job now, you have enough worries yourself. Take care of yourself now, don’t look at the others.”

Mika Hakkinen – 62 points
Eddie Irvine – 60 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 50 points
David Coulthard – 48 points
Michael Schumacher – 32 points

McLaren's Mika Hakkinen doubles over in exhaustion after the 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix.
McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen doubles over in exhaustion after the 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix.

Round 15: McLaren’s worst nightmare as Michael Schumacher returns for Ferrari

Heading into the penultimate race of the championship, Hakkinen’s worst fears became a reality as Schumacher was given the green light to return to the cockpit of his Ferrari.

While out of title contention, Schumacher would play support for Irvine to try helping his teammate win the title for Ferrari, and the first race at which this would happen would be the brand-new Herman Tilke-designed racetrack at Sepang in Malaysia.

Frighteningly hot and humid conditions greeted the drivers for the weekend in Malaysia, and it became clear very quickly that the time off had done Schumacher a lot of good – the German driver seemingly bending the track to his will as he proved frighteningly quick.

In qualifying, nobody could get anywhere near Schumacher’s lap time. The then-two time World Champion was a second clear of Irvine as the Ferraris locked out the front row, with Coulthard pipping Hakkinen to take third place ahead of the Finn.

But beating Ferrari was the order of the day for the McLaren pair, particularly as Schumacher eased off the throttle on Lap 4 to allow Irvine into the lead and set about delaying the two MP4/14s behind him.

Coulthard, seemingly unconcerned about his slender title prospects, managed to barge his way past Schumacher a lap later, but Hakkinen was more circumspect and didn’t engage the Ferrari. 10 laps later, Coulthard was out of the race with yet another mechanical issue, leaving Hakkinen to fight the two leading Ferraris all by himself.

With Schumacher toying with Hakkinen behind him, the Ferrari ‘number two’ underlined his pace by closing up to finish just behind Irvine at the chequered flag – the Scuderia securing a 1-2 in the order they needed to maximise Hakkinen’s pain, with Schumacher’s willingness to help Irvine while being the quickest man on track proving instrumental to that result.

However, the drama didn’t end there. Hours after the race, both Ferraris were disqualified for a breach of the technical regulations relating to their deflector plates (the barge boards).

Ferrari admitted to the error, but stated their cars didn’t gain any advantage – a difficult argument to fight against given the extent of Schumacher’s incredible pace.

Technical director Ross Brawn pointed out the cars hadn’t changed in configuration since the Nurburging, and the FIA had approved a design change of the bargeboards for that race. If the car hadn’t been changed, why had the barge boards issue not been spotted in scrutineering at the Nurburgring or through the weekend at Sepang?

Initially, Ferrari’s disqualification resulted in Hakkinen and McLaren being awarded both championships, but the Scuderia brought the case before the FIA’s International Court of Appeal. They showed the Court the parts were within a 5 millimetre tolerance limit of the regulations and the problem was related to the methodology of the measurements being applied by the stewards in Sepang – and questioned the accuracy of the equipment.

The appeal succeeded. Ferrari were re-instated with their 1-2 finish from Malaysia, handing Irvine a four-point lead heading into the final race at Suzuka.

McLaren boss Ron Dennis was not pleased, insinuating the decision had been made to ensure a final race showdown would go ahead.

“A way has been found … to provide a reason for the appeal to be upheld,” he said.

“Everybody wants to have an exciting race in Japan, but I think that the price we have paid is too great.”

Then-FIA President Max Mosley disagreed, saying: “Five independent judges had the benefit of listening in great detail to the evidence. No judge would have any alternative but to make the finding they found.”

For Hakkinen, who had had a miserable race in Sepang cooped up behind the gleeful Schumacher, he had briefly won his second world title – only to have it taken away again days later, and put into a weaker position points-wise heading to the final race.

“Well, they had good downforce on their car!” he pointedly joked as our chat turned to Sepang and the days following.

“But it was never agreed with the regulations. So they had something different, they were quick, but Michael did a great job.

“I don’t think Michael ever wanted Eddie to win the Championship, why would he? Absolutely, no way.

“So he was playing the games and, when he had a quick car, all he had to do was keep me behind and it was so painful. It was so difficult, so painful how he was able to race – they had a very fast car in Malaysia, it was incredible.

Still over-emphasising his words to make it clear he was insinuating something, Hakkinen said he had “No chance. Absolutely no chance. It was like I was on wet tyres and they were on dry tyres. So it was incredible. So they did something right. But I still don’t know, obviously I wouldn’t know!”

Having been unable to do anything about Ferrari’s pace, which didn’t happen often in 1999, Hakkinen said he doubted the barge boards had been as inconsequential as Ferrari claimed.

“They did [make a difference]. We had tested them already,” he said.

“We tested a lot of different elements, and they made a huge difference in the balance of the car and made the driving easier.

“Driving the car was not so much on the edge, and it was much easier to balance the car in the corners. It made driving much easier. My car was on edge and I had to fight every corner like crazy. So I was completely exhausted after the race.

“I was knackered, super-knackered! I don’t want to feel that again in my life, it was a terrible feeling.”

Watching the legal process play out as an external observer, Hakkinen said he tried not to let the back-and-forth on the status of his title affect him as he mentally prepared for the title showdown in Japan.

“At that point, I knew that, whatever I would do, it would not change the decision,” he said.

“If I screamed or whatever, it would not change anything. So I decided to let the team do what they could to maximise what they can do with the lawyers.

“That’s that, that’s all I could do. I knew that I just had to stay focused. Don’t go into politics, don’t go into mega discussions about this issue. Just get yourself into maximum attack before the next race.”

Eddie Irvine – 70 points
Mika Hakkinen – 66 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 51 points
David Coulthard – 48 points
Michael Schumacher – 38 points

Round 16: Mika Hakkinen defeats Michael Schumacher to beat Eddie Irvine to the title

Hakkinen came to the fast and flowing Suzuka circuit knowing the odds were stacked against him. With Schumacher throwing his weight behind Irvine, Hakkinen’s four-point deficit meant nothing less than a third place would do (and that would require Irvine failing to score).

Having taken a drubbing at the hands of the Ferrari duo in Malaysia, outright victory would give Hakkinen the title no matter what Irvine and Schumacher did and, having not won a race since his straightforward win in Hungary months prior, victory without relying on anyone’s help is what the Finn targeted.

But Hakkinen couldn’t do what he’d done on so many occasions through the year, as pole position slipped through his fingers – Schumacher getting the better of him by three-tenths of a second. Coulthard and Frentzen took the second-row positions, with Irvine over a second off the pace in fifth and unhappy after crashing heavily on his third run.

But his title rival’s crash meant Hakkinen was approaching the race in a very optimistic frame of mind, despite having come into the weekend far from being in a relaxed state of mind.

Explaining that he knew Ferrari’s pace meant McLaren were in trouble, Irvine’s big crash gave Hakkinen a small psychological lift.

“Irvine had quite a big shunt at the hairpin. I think he broke the tub, broke the chassis,” he said.

“They had to rebuild the car completely. So that day, that moment, I knew that was it. I knew that they were not going to make this car quick anymore. It’s impossible.

“I’m not talking about Eddie’s confidence or something, but I knew they weren’t going to make it. I had a situation myself, many years before that, when I had an accident and they had to build the chassis again.

“It just wasn’t the same. When you’re heading into the final of a World Championship, if the car is a little bit different, it influences everything. And that’s what happened.”

When the lights went out to start the race, Hakkinen leapt off the line to storm into the lead ahead of Schumacher – the German driver putting up a great show of appearances by moving across to try blocking Hakkinen.

It was an unusual situation for Hakkinen, racing against Schumacher despite his real title rival being Irvine – but he didn’t concern himself by worrying about positions, and instead set about just bringing home the win. This focus was made easier by suspecting that Schumacher didn’t really want to help Irvine to win the title and take all the glory of being the first Ferrari Drivers’ Champion since 1979.

“I wasn’t worried because I knew that Michael was not going to take me off,” he said.

“I could make really aggressive manoeuvres, whatever, he wasn’t going to take me out because that would have put him in such an incredibly bad light. And I knew Michael didn’t want Eddie to be World Champion.”

Schumacher kept Hakkinen within his sights for the entirety of the Japanese Grand Prix, but never properly attacked the McLaren again, leaving the Finn free to sprint home to claim the title.

Does Hakkinen believe Schumacher threw everything in his arsenal at him to stop him winning the title?

“No, I don’t think so. But I cannot tell that for a fact but, if I put myself in his position… no way!” he said.

The instant Hakkinen clicked up into second gear, nailing his race start, he explained he knew the title was his if he didn’t make a mistake.

“I knew that, ‘That’s it. That’s all fine now’.  I had such confidence with myself and with the car, everything was gonna be fine. Just do what you do best.”

Defeating Schumacher and Irvine, Hakkinen said he reckoned the healthy respect he and his contemporary rival had for each other made Schumacher’s life a little easier in choosing how much to help Irvine out.

“For some reason, I think Michael was probably happy I won the world championship,” he said.

“He knew my career since I was a child, he knew I had a big accident in 1995.

“I am sure, in his heart, he felt happy about me winning the title. I felt that there was such a high respect for each other in areas where we were good at. I think Michael was also confident that Ferrari would build a car which could match the performance of what we were doing with our car.

“I think that’s why the situation was so relaxed, and we weren’t fighting verbally too much outside of the racing car. We let the action happen at the racetrack.”

With Hakkinen winning, he finished on 76 points and two points clear of Irvine – the title would still have been Hakkinen’s even if Schumacher had let Irvine through for the extra two points, and a tie-break, due to having won more races.

Fortunately for Hakkinen, he didn’t have to rely on Coulthard’s position holding back Irvine, as the Scot crashed out of the race all by himself.

Mika Hakkinen – 76 points
Eddie Irvine – 74 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 54 points
David Coulthard – 48 points
Michael Schumacher – 44 points

Mika Hakkinen, McLaren, Suzuka, 1999 Japanese Grand Prix.
Mika Hakkinen won the 1999 title with an emphatic victory at Suzuka.

Mika Hakkinen’s Japanese Grand Prix put to bed the demons of the 1999 season

Hakkinen had won the title with the exact type of drive becoming of a World Champion – emphatic, self-assured, and displaying the ice-cool nerve under pressure that the Finn became well-known for.

After such a turbulent season, full of missed opportunities, how important was it to Hakkinen that he signed off with such a display of superiority when it came to crunch time?

“Definitely yes, definitely,” he said.

“I wanted to… it wasn’t a show-off or anything, but I really wanted to show our strength, our power, what we had.

“We had a great team, you know, the whole package was incredible. We were just suffering so much on reliability. We had two or three weaknesses, our team. If we didn’t have those weaknesses, I would have been Champion 10 times over!”

Given that Schumacher had been out of contention for almost half the season, one could argue that Hakkinen and McLaren had made a mountain out of winning the title – the various mistakes, reliability issues, and bizarre team calls made life a lot more difficult that it needed to be.

“Yes, as simple as that,” Hakkinen said, when asked if he agreed with this assessment.

The big question is obviously whether or not Schumacher’s absence caused him and the team to mentally relax, not taking the challenge of Irvine and Salo quite as seriously as they should have.

“It had an impact,” he admitted.

“It had an impact, because Michael wasn’t there. For sure, 100 percent. I won’t say I was taking it easy, but it had some kind of psychological effect. I’m not gonna be able to say what it was.”

But while there was self-inflicted hardship added into the mix of winning that year’s title, Hakkinen believes that, had Schumacher been around all year, the focus and precision from both himself and the team would have been in a different league.

“Of course, we would have won!” he laughed.

“Oh, yeah. This is something that we are never going to know. I think there was an incredible energy around when we raced against each other.

“I think that really boosted up our team and the drivers and the whole thing. Michael was an incredible character, and it created an even more incredible racing atmosphere.”

This was borne out in 2000, with Hakkinen and Schumacher elevating each other to far greater heights as they pushed each other for another championship – the culmination of over a decade of racing each other stemming back to their days in junior categories.

Asked to sum up the 1999 season, 25 years on from winning his last title, Hakkinen paused to gather his thoughts.

“When I think about 1999, it’s always the same story,” he said.

“People very often think, including me, I should have done this differently and done that differently.

“I felt that the tyres we were using and how the regulations changed, for some reason, they never came out in our favour. I was never very comfortable about why we needed to change them. To make the cars slower? To make the cars look better? What was the purpose of the exercise? I never really got the right answer for it.

“At the end of the day, what we did in 1999 was incredible. We were able to come from the disappointments to the victory, we were able to win the world championship.

“But with this losing in 1999 and, to take it to 2000, we weren’t able to find the solution. Those situations like at Spa and Austria, those things didn’t help my motivation and my mood. It created question marks. I didn’t need to be treated like I’m the best or that I’m the number one, but let’s think a little more logically. Let’s think more long-term what it can generate.”

After all, while Hakkinen had made two very high-profile driving errors, the amount of points thrown away by technical and operational issues outside of his control surely merited some smarter thinking from McLaren – particularly when it came to reining in Coulthard.

“Exactly,” Hakkinen sums up.

Hakkinen wouldn’t win another title in F1, with Schumacher just edging him out for the 2000 title before Hakkinen’s motivations started to wane during 2001.

2000 was the beginning of one of the most dominant periods ever seen by an F1 team, with Schumacher’s title kicking off a run of five straight world titles with no rival stepping forward to replace Hakkinen until the emergence of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.

Could Hakkinen see Ferrari’s dominance on the horizon at the end of the 1999 season?

“Unfortunately, I knew they were coming,” he said.

“I knew they were incredible. I think we really started having test drivers in 2000 or 2001, and we were knackered – David and me – from how much we were testing.

“We were really pushing the team that we couldn’t do it, we were finito! We were physically and mentally finished. This was the biggest challenge.

“That was the advantage of Ferrari, they were able to test on a track morning to evening. They had test drivers doing some simple testing, reliability testing, an example being the gearbox – just drive for so long until it breaks.

“But we were testing with the race drivers, testing for so long that we were knackered, we were finished…”

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