Coulthard collisions and Monza tears: The inside story of Mika Hakkinen’s dramatic 1999 title victory

Thomas Maher
Mika Hakkinen, 1999 Italian Grand Prix.

Mika Hakkinen's 1999 season included driving errors, unreliability, and some in-fighting with McLaren teammate David Coulthard.

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, 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…

Round 9: David Coulthard triggers McLaren nightmare after front-row start

With Schumacher on the sidelines with a broken leg, the key question heading to the A1-Ring (now the Red Bull Ring) was whether or not McLaren could capitalise on the Ferrari man’s absence.

In Schumacher’s place, Ferrari had called upon another Finn – Mika Salo.

Salo and Hakkinen had a friendly rivalry during their overlapping motorsport careers, despite having grown up on the same street in the same town, but the pair couldn’t be considered friends at the time.

Salo flew to Austria straight after getting married to his long-term girlfriend, ready to step in and help Eddie Irvine take on the might of the McLarens – only for Hakkinen and Coulthard to send shivers down the spines of everyone at Ferrari as they locked out the front row once again.

Worse, despite the A1-Ring only being a 70-second lap, their margin over third-placed Irvine was a full second. Unless disaster struck, surely the Austrian Grand Prix was McLaren’s to lose?

Unfortunately for Hakkinen, disaster did strike, and McLaren did lose.

The deciding moment of the Grand Prix came just 30 seconds after the race started when Coulthard decided to attack Hakkinen into the uphill tight right-hander at Turn 3. A blameless Hakkinen turned into the corner and was clipped by his teammate, resulting in the Finn being spun off into the gravel.

Fortunately for Hakkinen, he managed to keep his car from stalling and extricated himself to resume the race – albeit now at the back of the field with a lot of work to do to get some points.

Hakkinen clawed his way back to finish in third place, almost as good a result as he could possibly hope to salvage from such a poor start to the race, but the worse news for McLaren was that Coulthard failed to hold off Irvine.

The man from Northern Ireland, free of having to worry about Schumacher and let off the leash by Ferrari, had the measure of Coulthard through the pit stop sequence – the Scot’s mind not fully focused on the job of beating Irvine after taking his teammate out of contention at the start.

With McLaren snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and handing the win to the one car on the grid they didn’t want out-scoring them, Hakkinen had been extremely annoyed with Coulthard for the entirety of that Grand Prix.

“Well, first of all, when it happened, I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

“Because I saw him in the mirror and I thought ‘No, no, no, he’s not going to attack me. There’s no way. There’s no reason – we are first and second. Come on. We’re gonna have a fantastic race in front of us’.

“I think he just miscalculated the braking and hit my inside rear tyre. I don’t think I could have avoided that, even if I had been able to go wide in that corner to avoid it… I think he would still have slid into me. So it was just a miscalculation from his side. It was just a pure mistake.

“Of course, I was upset.  At that moment, I couldn’t believe it. But, at the same time, I was happy there was no damage!

“I was happy that the engine was running, and I was hoping that nobody would crash into me. I had to wait for all the cars to go past so I could spin the car around and continue.

“I knew I had a very quick car. So I knew it was gonna be a fun race. I put my mood just to go flat out and do my best, but I knew the victory was gone. I knew that there was no chance to get the victory unless some miracle happened, but miracles normally don’t happen.”

Climbing out of their MP4/14s afterward in the parc ferme, Hakkinen said Coulthard made a point of making a beeline towards him to apologise for the costly moment.

“Yeah, he apologised. David is a gentleman,” he said.

“But, and there is always the word ‘but’, it’s so tough for two young guys with a huge ego who are just out to win a world championship.

“It was a very difficult situation and everybody was just putting David really down. So it wasn’t good for the team spirit, the designers, the team members, the mechanics and Ron Dennis… they were really pissed off.”

How did Dennis deal with the situation? After all, the worst thing McLaren could have at that point was two warring drivers, given Ferrari’s focus and support was being lined up firmly behind the increasingly dangerous Irvine.

“What was important was to clear the problem as soon as possible,” Hakkinen said.

“We needed to talk immediately, not to let it go and to just start finding excuses. Let’s just clear it out straight away.

“It was also very important and made it clear that we – me and David – showed the public that… shit happens. Now we continue fighting for the future and the championship, so ‘let’s leave this behind’. That way, we don’t start dragging this negativity to the next race.”

Mika Hakkinen – 44 points
Eddie Irvine – 42 points
Michael Schumacher – 32 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 29 points
David Coulthard – 28 points

Round 10: Mika Hakkinen helpless to prevent Ferrari 1-2 in Germany after scary tyre blow-out

Heading to Hockenheim, which was in its final years of running the old high-speed forest layout that saw the teams peel back the downforce to maximise top speeds down the ferociously long straights, McLaren needed a strong race to stabilise things after being on the losing side of the seesawing championship a little too often.

Hakkinen duly plucked pole position out of the bag, having had to overcome a strong challenge from Jordan’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen – the German enjoying the home support in Schumacher’s absence.

Salo showed his mettle too, by qualifying fourth in the Ferrari as he looked much more comfortable with the F399 than he had been in Austria.

A poor start from Irvine, coupled with early race technical concerns resulted in escalating engine temperatures, saw him drop down to sixth, while Salo got the best of Coulthard to move up to second.

The Scottish driver took himself out of contention by colliding with the back of Salo while trying to take second place, only resulting in damage to his own car, and then picked up a stop/go penalty for cutting a chicane while overtaking Olivier Panis.

With Ferrari clearly enjoying very strong race pace, Hakkinen was overcome by Salo and Irvine through the pit stops – not helped by a slow stop by McLaren due to a faulty fuel hose.

Falling to fourth, Hakkinen got back past Frentzen into third to set off after the leading Ferraris, but was a passenger in a terrifying crash when his rear tyre exploded at the entry to the stadium section.

Hakkinen’s car spun around and skittered across the gravel into the tyre barriers, with the Finn uninjured in the terrifying incident having not hit anything until coming to rest in the relatively soft tyre wall.

Salo, the quicker of the two Ferraris, played the team game and allowed Irvine through to take the win and another Ferrari 1-2 – the perfect day for the Scuderia in Mercedes’ home. Irvine, who had won more races in two weeks than he had in the previous three years at Ferrari, handed the winner’s trophy to Salo on the podium, knowing the Finn’s cooperation had resulted in such a strong race for Ferrari.

What did Hakkinen think of Salo’s standing in for Schumacher? Up until that point, Hakkinen hadn’t been too concerned…

“It was a positive surprise. It didn’t worry me too much,” Hakkinen said of Ferrari giving Salo the nod.

“The only thing that worried me was that I knew he would do what the team said. He would do what Ferrari said.

“This could be a negative because I don’t think Mika would have feelings towards me for anything.

“He was paid by Ferrari, and he had a contract with Ferrari and he has to respect that deal that he has made.

“So that was a big worry.

“But, at the same time, I knew he was in a car he had no experience with, so there’s no way we could expect him to do some incredible performances. Even though he’s a great driver.”

With Hakkinen retiring from F1 just over two years later, and crashes such as his high-speed suspension failure at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix playing a role in that decision, had the Hockenheim tyre failure planted any of the seeds of doubt that would lead him to leave the sport?

After all, it was in similar circumstances that the Finn had suffered serious injuries in a crash in Adelaide in 1995, which led to him requiring life-saving intervention from F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins after his immediate evacuation from the McLaren.

“No, not at all. Not at that point,” Hakkinen refuted.

“It was a massive spin at such a high speed… I’m sure I was going 330 kilometres per hour.

“When the rear tyre exploded, I knew there was a lot of runoff area. But when the car started sliding and spinning, I thought ‘This is never gonna end!’

“Of course not, because you’re going 330 kilometres per hour! Then when you go off the racetrack and go onto the grass or gravel, it is downhill.

“It’s downhill and then came the tyre barrier. Again, it was disappointing not to finish the race and give the points to your competitors.

“That was the most unpleasant situation… a crash is a crash but, because of a technical failure, that pissed me off.”

Irvine’s win netted him a total of 52 points, a clear eight-point lead over Hakkinen with six races to go.

Eddie Irvine – 52 points
Mika Hakkinen – 44 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 33 points
Michael Schumacher – 32 points
David Coulthard – 30 points

Mika Hakkinen's crashed McLaren at the 1999 German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.
Mika Hakkinen was fortunate to escape unharmed from his scary crash at Hockenheim during the 1999 German Grand Prix.

Round 11: Bright and breezy Hungarian GP weekend for Mika Hakkinen restores order

Having not won a race since his slice of fortune in Canada, Hakkinen was in dire need of a strong outing in Hungary – Budapest long having proven to be something of a ‘home race’ for travelling Finns showing up in Europe to cheer on their respresentatives.

Ferrari appeared fast through practice and qualifying – at least Eddie Irvine did – with the championship leader clinching a front-row start alongside Hakkinen. The Finn claimed his ninth pole position from 11 races, just a tenth clear of Irvine, while Coulthard claimed third.

In what turned out to be a very straightforward race for Hakkinen, he commandingly led from start to finish with zero dramas – the gap back to Irvine only ever getting larger as the bakingly hot afternoon in Budapest wore on.

In even better news for McLaren, Coulthard recovered from a poor start to claw his way onto the back of Irvine’s Ferrari and pressured the Northern Irishman into an error when he slid off the track to allow McLaren to take the 1-2 finish.

Irvine was resigned to third place, while Salo had a disastrous weekend – only claiming 18th on the starting grid before racing to 12th and two laps down, with the substitute driver distraught as he felt he’d “let the team down”.

But, for Hakkinen, the win rekindled an ailing title bid – the kind of weekend that eluded him on too many occasions through the 1999 season.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said when asked whether Hungary was a much-needed shot in the arm after so many tough weekends.

“Yes but, at the same time, I did recognise that we had an inconsistency.

“We had an inconsistency and the other team didn’t have that – they were consistent all the time.

“So I knew that if we were to still have two or three Grands Prix where we have this kind of situation, we were going to be in big trouble.

“I think Ferrari was again on the podium, again in the points and scoring a podium. A victory is a victory but the points are what counts.”

Eddie Irvine – 56 points
Mika Hakkinen – 54 points
David Coulthard – 36 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 36 points
Michael Schumacher – 32 points

Round 12: Tensions at McLaren threaten to boil over as David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen make contact again

With tensions having been put to bed following their Austria clash a few weeks prior, the situation at McLaren got a lot worse at Spa-Francorchamps.

Hakkinen took pole position in a qualifying session in which both BAR drivers threw their cars into the wall at Raidillon, with Coulthard taking second place – the McLarens a second clear of a surprise second row as the Jordans claimed third and fourth, with Irvine the highest-placed Ferrari in sixth.

But the opportunity to get one over on Ferrari went begging again, as Coulthard made a slightly better start than Hakkinen and passed his teammate around the outside of La Source – the two cars making slight contact as Hakkinen held back on the brakes to ensure harder contact wasn’t made.

Having slipped to second, the team opted against calling for a swap back of positions, and duly allowed the Scottish driver to take the win ahead of a furious Hakkinen despite being over 30 seconds clear of everyone by the chequered flag.

McLaren’s decision not to revert the positions to help Hakkinen’s title prospects resulted in Hakkinen refusing to shake hands with his teammate, while Dennis would explain afterward that Hakkinen only had himself to blame for coming home in second.

“If there’s blame to be apportioned in that incident, then blame it on Mika and that’s all there is to it,” the team boss said.

“It wasn’t an easy decision. But we’re just not prepared to sacrifice our integrity. This isn’t a sport for weak-minded people.

“If you’re going to run a racing team, then you run a racing team. You’ve got to give the drivers equal equipment and there are many people who feel that when we say we allow them to race that it’s no more than loose words, but the truth is just that – we let them race.”

Despite there only being four races remaining, Dennis didn’t deem it necessary to intervene on Hakkinen’s behalf – despite the many points that had been dropped due to technical errors on the team’s side.

“There will be a time when we influence the outcome of Grands Prix,” Dennis said. “That certainly wasn’t today but it may well be in the latter part of the season.”

With the benefit of 25 years of retrospection, how does Hakkinen look back on that day at Spa – a day that underlined he couldn’t rely on the support of his teammate any longer.

“The car was okay, there was no problem with that,” he said.

“But I was so furious during that race.

“During the Grand Prix, I called the radio, ‘You have to let David know, you have to make David move and let me go’.

“The team didn’t respond. They didn’t do that. But that made me so super upset. It made me so upset, you know?

“This was the point, where being World Champion, maybe it was the first something… negative influence because I thought ‘he has to move’ because…

“There were two things, you know, I could be the leader of the team. I can win the races, David cannot.

“We have a big threat on the team, Ferrari, who were scoring points non-stop. So for me, it was obvious this must happen. But the team didn’t do that.”

Did Hakkinen ever get a proper explanation for what was going on? He wrinkles his nose at the question, trying to remember.

“I think… I’m sure I did,” he said.

“But I honestly don’t remember anymore what the situation was, but this was a hard decision from the team.

“Drivers have a contract. When the other driver is told that the contract says that where the driver doesn’t have a chance to win a world championship compared to a team-mate, in terms of points, the race goes on.

“So, if the team told David to slow down, David would have come and said, ‘Okay, now we send the lawyer to talk to you guys because you broke the contract’.

“So there’s always another side of the story how you can think.”

With Frentzen coming home third and Irvine fourth, Hakkinen moved back into the lead of the championship by a solitary point over Irvine, with Coulthard up to third despite his dreadful start to the year.

Mika Hakkinen – 60 points
Eddie Irvine – 59 points
David Coulthard – 46 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 40 points
Michael Schumacher – 32 points

Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard, McLaren, 1999 Belgian Grand Prix podium.
Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard’s relationship was a little frosty after the 1999 Belgian Grand Prix.

Mika Hakkinen: I could have been stronger in dealing with certain areas

Given the huge controversy such dramas in an intra-team rivalry would have in modern-day F1, especially given that McLaren were very far from being in a controlling position in the championships, was Hakkinen’s willingness to be the nice guy of F1 proving detrimental to his on-track successes?

Having established himself as having a slight edge over Coulthard in terms of pace, consistency, and bravery, why weren’t McLaren willing to throw their weight behind him at this point of the championship?

“I think I was too kind,” Hakkinen said.

“I think I was a little too kind in those terms, but I didn’t want to take that [attitude] like, ‘Hey, come on, I’m the World Champion, I should get everything, I should get the career on my plate, and the result’.

“So I think I was too low-key. Maybe I don’t mean… kind is not the right word, in my opinion. But I think I was too low-profile. I should have just maybe been stronger in that area… ‘Change the contract!'”

Put to him that Max Verstappen today would likely take a much harder stance towards his team, does Hakkinen look back on that unwillingness to call his team out as being a weakness, or is he proud to have achieved what he did without compromising his principals?

“I didn’t feel it was a strength,” he said.

“But, at the same time, I probably don’t want to admit a feeling that being that way would be my weakness.

“I rely on a lot that way, success has a lot to do with teamwork. There is your racing team, there is your management team, and your advisors, there are a lot of different things that are leading for something.

“My focus was very much on my driving. So, when it is something that is outside of driving – when it comes down to decisions and contracts, maybe there should have been something we could have mentioned.

“Like ‘Hold on, if this guy wants to be a World Champion, it’s once he becomes a number one driver’.

“Or something, you can play with the words. But, you know, I won a World Championship twice. So I’m happy!”

Round 13: From bad to worse for Mika Hakkinen as he spins away the win in Italy

Heading to Ferrari’s home race at Monza, Hakkinen knew he couldn’t count on the support of many fans lining the high-speed circuit for the Italian Grand Prix.

Having crashed out of the lead at Imola, Hakkinen had the chance to right some wrongs and dash the hopes of the Italian Tifosi – something he did with aplomb in qualifying as he and his low-drag McLaren took pole position by half a second over Frentzen and Jordan.

With Salo leading the Ferrari charge in sixth, and Irvine in eighth, the cards were lining up nicely for Hakkinen as the lights went out and he held onto his lead.

On Lap 30, with an eight-second lead over Frentzen, Hakkinen’s race came to a dramatic and sudden stop. Slowing down for the Rettifilio chicane at Turn 1, which would be drastically reprofiled a year later, Hakkinen blipped down the gears – only for a slight moment of brain fade as he geared down once too many…

“I wish I knew, I don’t know,” he sighs when asked what it was about him and his mistakes in Italy in 1999.

“There were issues in that particular Grand Prix. I was on antibiotics in that Grand Prix, so I was not so well.

“Again, I had a tactic in that race where I needed to go flat out. Again, I think I had a three-stop tactic, other drivers had a two or one-stop tactic.

“So I was on edge, on the limit, and everything was looking good until I selected first gear. I was supposed to select the second gear but I selected first gear.”

That accidental click of his gear paddle locked his rears, resulting in the Finn sliding off into the gravel and throwing his steering wheel from the car even before the dust had settled.

“The throttle flip was not adjusted in the computer high enough and that meant that, when the throttle flip was too low, it locked the rear tyres,” he explained.

“So when I locked the rear tyres, the engine stopped, and the game was over.

“As soon as I clicked the first gear and locked the rear tyres, I heard the engine stop. I was still sliding, and I knew that ‘this is it, the race is over’.

“Oh, I was so furious. Oh my god, I was so disappointed.

“I was disappointed in myself, disappointed because I was not well. So it was like everything comes to your mind.

“You know, ‘Why didn’t I take care of myself better? Why did I have a flu? Why did I have this, and why did I select first gear?’

“This was such an important Grand Prix. So all the emotions came to my mind, and of course, all the Italian Tifosi were like ‘Bravo, fantastico!’

“So, of course, that didn’t help either! So… the pressure was building up, we were heading towards strong points in a season that was going on in a very difficult way.

“Then the driving mistake, just when the plate was ready for the points and I made the mistake…

“Of course, I wanted to stand in the number one position on the podium at Monza… the Italians would have gone bananas! I think I would have needed a boarding card from the podium!”

Much was made about Hakkinen’s emotional reaction to his error.

With his team members, including then-wife Erja, all shown on TV looking gravely on as the enormity of the potentially championship-deciding error sank in, Hakkinen threw his gloves to the ground as the crowds erupted ecstatically – the tiny error had handed Irvine and Ferrari all the momentum in the title chase.

Retreating behind some bushes for privacy, Hakkinen sank to his knees and sobbed his heart out – the pressure of the summer’s misfortunes having built up on his shoulders, only for him to flub himself when all the hard work of claiming the win in Italy was just 23 laps away.

Unfortunately for Hakkinen, the helicopter cameras chose not to allow Hakkinen to have his moment in peace, zooming in on the Finn’s isolation – leading fans and even the media to come down hard on his vulnerability.

Did Hakkinen feel his emotional display had offered his rivals an insight into a vulnerable state of mind? Was there a weakness there to be exploited?

“Absolutely zero,” Hakkinen said in response.

“The team knows that now this driver really is down, so there is no point to give him a hard time when he gets back to the pits. He knows.

“The team wanted to show me that ‘we are together, we’re gonna fight now even harder.

“We had our weaknesses and we knew our weaknesses and we decided we were going to fight even harder.

“To show emotions, it was okay. It’s no problem. But when you showed emotions… if I came second in a race and I threw the steering wheel at the wall and I give the team shit, I think that’s the wrong emotion to show.

“I don’t think that’s very constructive. But, if you make a mistake and you go off from the lead of the Grand Prix towards the end of the season and you have tears coming out of your eyes? That’s human.”

With the win, Hakkinen would have taken a pretty strong position in the title chase with three races to go. But, now, with one error, the momentum stayed with Irvine and Ferrari – even if Irvine had failed to capitalise as he scored just one point for sixth place.

The two drivers were tied on 60 points, with Frentzen making the most of Hakkinen’s error to win at Monza and move to 50 points to lurk threateningly in the background, while Coulthard was a further two points behind.

How did Hakkinen brush off the disappointment, knowing that his error had made his life much more difficult?

“There’s no secret formula,” he said.

“It’s just putting yourself to just do what you do. Just get yourself in order, stay strong, and do normal things in your life. You don’t have to change anything.

“Just do your normal training exercises, and read books. Sleep a lot! Eat healthy. Have the right people around you and build up your confidence.

“‘I can do it. I’m a World Champion. I can do it. Just focus on the right things.'”

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

The inside story of Mika Hakkinen’s 1999 World Championship win will continue in the fourth and final part of our series with the Finnish driver later this week.

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