The inside story of Mika Hakkinen’s dramatic 1999 title victory against Ferrari

Thomas Maher
Mika Hakkinen, McLaren, 1999.

Mika Hakkinen has recounted the full story of his 1999 title win for PlanetF1.com.

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: Oh my god, I’m the World Champion!

The inside story of Mika Hakkinen’s 1999 World Championship win continued in the second part of our series with the Finnish driver, which you can read here!

The third chapter, detailing Hakkinen’s fight with McLaren teammate David Coulthard and that heartbreaking day at Monza, can be read by clicking here.

The 55-year-old Finn remains one of F1’s least divisive characters more than 20 years on from his departure from the sport while still, arguably, at the height of his powers.

Officially, Hakkinen’s exit at the end of 2001 was, at the time, a ‘sabbatical’ – one that evolved into a much more final retirement, but has led to fans continuing to joke, to this day, the Finn will return to the grid and call off his sabbatical any day now!

Hakkinen’s understated dry wit – as well as an uncontroversial viewpoint on everything to do with the sport – makes him one of the most popular, insightful figures in the paddock, which is not all that different from when he was competing for championship titles in the late 1990s.

In the mid-1990s, McLaren had assembled the pieces together to allow Hakkinen to make the leap from fighting for podiums to claim his first win at the end of 1997.

A strengthening Mercedes partnership resulted in a potent V10 for 1998 where, in a tale that sounds oddly familiar 25 years later, the team’s technical director Adrian Newey nailed the new regulations with the narrow-track MP4/13 to give Hakkinen a car to fight for the title.

In a season-long fight with Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, which proved spirited but uncontroversial, Hakkinen emerged triumphant to claim his first World Championship.

It’s at this point in his life that Hakkinen picks up the story, generously giving his time to PlanetF1.com to talk through his 1999 season from beginning to end.

With the 1998 season ending a full month earlier than nowadays, Hakkinen wasn’t quite able to put his feet up and celebrate his maiden title as McLaren sent him on a whirlwind tour of the world before the enormity of his achievement could sink in.

“The end of 1998, after the season, was extremely busy, I didn’t ever expect it to happen,” Hakkinen remembers, speaking to PlanetF1.com from his apartment in Monaco.

“So it was nearly one month on the road, sitting on an airplane going from country to country for different events, visiting headquarters of different newspapers, magazines, the sponsors, partner events – it was extremely tiring.

“I didn’t have a chance to really enjoy finally winning a World Championship, as I was on the road all the time.

“It took a lot of energy from my body, and from my mind. So when I look back at that time, it was not ideal.

“But it was important because we won the Championship so we had to do all the marketing work, spending time with the partners and prospective partners – we had to make everybody hot! ‘Let’s win again. Let’s continue winning, like come on guys!’

“So if I had been just somewhere lying on the beach, I don’t think it would have been the best for the team. So, finally, the team gave me a break. So I took a good break for myself – I think I had four weeks to have time for myself.

“That was an incredibly important time, of course. Coming back again, from that holiday time, I had time to think ‘Oh my god, I’m the World Champion. Finally, I’m a World Champion!'”

McLaren's Mika Hakkinen at the 1999 Australian Grand Prix.
McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen at the 1999 Australian Grand Prix.

Mika Hakkinen: I was able to go two-tenths faster, just because I was World Champion

It’s at this point that Hakkinen’s trademark good-natured humour shines through for a moment. The memories of events 25 years ago visibly play out on his face as he can’t hide his glee at becoming the best racing driver in the world.

“So when I woke up in the morning, I was thinking what I was feeling. I felt great. I mean… I’m still feeling great!” he laughs.

“It was an incredible energy inside, the confidence inside that ‘Yes, I can do it, I can win. I’m the best and the work we did brought me this position’.

“Then, the 1999 season was getting closer and the new car (McLaren’s MP4/14) came out. The regulations changed quite a lot, mainly the tyres changed a lot between 1998 and ’99.

“When there is a regulation change, it requires the team to make different designs to the car, they have to recalculate the aerodynamics, the balance of the car, and the grip levels for the front and rear generating all kinds of extremely complicated stuff.  For the racing driver, it is very difficult to understand.”

Hakkinen had developed a reputation during his early years in the sport for being fast but somewhat inconsistent – a reputation that had evolved as 1998 proved Hakkinen was an elite level driver.

But Hakkinen even surprised himself during the winter as he found a new confidence that meant he was even able to unlock more speed from within himself – without even needing a new car or new parts to get some more lap time.

“At the first test, when I was driving with the new car in ’99, I felt like I was able to generate maybe two-tenths better laptime than the year before, simply because my confidence was so much higher,” he said.

“I was using my energies in the right areas when I was driving the car. I just had so much power, some kind of… I don’t know what physical power, mental power, but those areas where I needed to make a difference compared to the other drivers, I knew how to do that.”

Two-tenths? Teams spend a lot of money to improve their cars by that amount during a season, so Hakkinen’s claim that confidence alone could generate that lap time is quite an eye-opener.

Can winning a world title really unlock that kind of speed?

“Personally, yes, me myself,” Hakkinen affirms.

“This confidence came because of the World Championship. I felt the World Championship gave me the possibility to generate better lap times, like two-tenths of a second.

“I don’t think it was something to do with I was ready to take more risks. I don’t think it was directly like that. It was just something that, when you really commit yourself in a corner, you knew exactly what you need to do.

“Before that, it was like, ‘Yes, I can do it. It’s going good. Yes, I can do this.'” He says this with a semi-mocking tone, impersonating someone who is trying to convince themselves of something completely unbelievable, before switching to an ice-cold self-assurance to make his point.

“But now, it was like, ‘Yes, I know. I know how to do this.’ It gave me a confidence – that was one of the biggest things.”

Mika Hakkinen: Now McLaren knew I could be a World Champion

Having joined McLaren as a wet-behind-the-ears young adult who immediately caused a stir by outqualifying Ayrton Senna on his debut in 1993, did the Woking-based squad treat him any differently now that he’d won a title?

“The McLaren team, at the time I was racing there, were very professional people,” he said.

“They didn’t stay in a position that ‘Okay, we are World Champions now. And everything is fine.’

“They knew there’s a day after, there’s a new day coming and we had to win again. So they didn’t treat me differently. We had huge respect already for each other, be it mechanics, designers, data engineers, the marketing…  so we had already extremely professional respect for each other.

“Of course, we were all pleased that we won a World Championship, because that’s what we’d been working towards for many years. But sometimes I’d spot a little smile… some engineers might have just a smile on their face that way because they had a confidence that ‘Okay Mika, we know you can do it’. But they were still sweating!”

With the 1999 season just around the corner, Hakkinen’s focus was understandably on figuring out his new whip. The FIA had reduced the width of the front tyres, and also introduced an extra groove – the fronts would have four instead of three.

What were his initial impressions of the MP4/14 – was it a car he knew he could fight for the title with again?

“Having the same people on the team was the key element, of course,” he replied.

“So I knew that we had the best team, the best designers, and the best mechanics. So that was my confidence. We can, with this team, build an incredible machine again.

“But driving the car for the first time, I had a little doubt. I had some issues with the car, which I didn’t experience in the previous year.

“I knew that way ‘this is gonna be a problem’. But, at the same time, I knew that car was bloody quick. It was flying. I mean, it was so quick.

“But it had issues with the certain balance in certain areas of the corners. It was really annoying, super annoying, because there was no crystal ball to tell us what needed to be done to fix this issue.

“But I knew the car was quick. So I knew we were going to be hunting the World Championship in 1999.”

Mika Hakkinen pictured at the 1999 Australian Grand Prix.
Mika Hakkinen pictured at the 1999 Australian Grand Prix.

Mika Hakkinen outlines the knife-edge balance issues with McLaren’s MP4/14

In retrospect, considering some of the high-profile driving mistakes that he’d make in ’99, hearing Hakkinen admit there were some handling issues with the MP4/14 isn’t all that surprising. I asked him to explain further what he meant by the issues he’d felt in testing.

“When you’re driving a racing car, when you put the car on the limit, you cannot go over the limit,” he said. “The driver can overdrive the car, and then you have all kinds of problems.

“So you need to put the car on the edge. To put a Formula 1 car on edge, that means you’re driving bloody fast. You’re going really, really fast.

“So we had some balance issues when we put the car on edge. This was the reason that created a doubt for me, that we needed to fix this. The car needs to be consistent, and when you have a consistency, you can always build something on it.

“If there’s no consistency through the corner, you’re always finding compromises, you’re always fixing a car around the problem. That generates a very difficult situation. The car in ’99 was more that direction compared to ’98.

“We had that issue a little bit in ’98 but not as extreme as ’99. But, for 1999, we improved everything – engine power, the speed of the gearbox when you shifted gears, electronics, the weight of the car and the materials.

“As well, I was feeling better and stronger. So there were all the elements to put us forward, but we still had a problem.”

With some slight doubts in his mind about the new car, Hakkinen also had to worry about the performance of his teammate David Coulthard. The Scottish driver had arrived at McLaren in 1996 to great fanfare after strong performances at Williams and, until ’98, had been able to keep pace with Hakkinen.

Coulthard hadn’t been able to make the leap in performance Hakkinen made when given a title-winning machine in ’98 – but that didn’t mean he couldn’t do it in ’99. Just how worried was Hakkinen about Coulthard?

“David knew that he just had to work harder. He had to work harder to beat me,” Hakkinen remembered.

“What that means is to work harder with the team, to communicate better with the team, and to be fitter than me.

“Whatever aspect it is, David needed to be better to be able to go quicker. Because I was so confident, I was able to always select the right time when I needed to be a little bit faster than him.

“It eats the man inside, and I think that was really, really difficult for him. David was an extremely fast driver, a fantastic driver, and super consistent.

“Then suddenly, out of the blue, I’d go two-tenths quicker than him. That was so hard for him to understand. When this happened… it really consistently started happening in 1998 and then in ’99… I don’t think he gave up but I started seeing his face… it really pissed him off.”

Round 1: McLaren’s Australian Grand Prix implodes with double DNF

At the season opener in Australia, Hakkinen and Coulthard duly proved the unbelievable pace of the new MP4/14 – Hakkinen took pole position by half a second over his teammate, with third-placed Schumacher an astonishing 1.3 seconds off Hakkinen’s pace.

Maintaining their advantage off the start, the McLarens were almost 20 seconds clear by Lap 13 when Coulthard peeled into the pits on Lap 15 to retire with transmission issues. Just six laps later, following a Safety Car intervention, Hakkinen too was out as his throttle refused to cooperate and accelerate.

Having done everything right, McLaren headed home empty-handed, while Eddie Irvine claimed the win for Ferrari – a portent of what was to come later in the year.

“We had reliability problems already in 1998. So when, in 1999, we started having problems, I was worried,” Hakkinen said of the Australian race.

“But you can worry – that doesn’t help. You have to understand the problem, you have to fix the problem and move on.

“If the problem is always something different, it creates even more challenges. The gearbox is, of course, an unbelievably complex part of the car. If you’re having a problem there, it requires massive compromises to fix everything.

“I don’t remember exactly if that was our weakness that year, I would say definitely not. It was just general.

“McLaren was super incredible at analysing problems. If something failed, they put it under the microscope, and they would really make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

“Really often, we had something different breaking on the car. So when the season started with a technical failure while leading, you can imagine it was really hard. But I was the World Champion. So I had a confidence that ‘Come on, guys. Let’s do it at the next race’.”

Eddie Irvine – 10 points
Michael Schumacher – 0 points
Mika Hakkinen – 0 points
David Coulthard – 0 points

Round 2: Mika Hakkinen wins in Brazil despite another transmission issue

Heading to Interlagos for the second round of the Championship, McLaren showed their speed again with another front-row lock-out – albeit the gap back to third-placed Rubens Barrichello was ‘just’ seven-tenths of a second as the Stewart driver gave his home crowd heart palpitations.

But there were problems for both cars again, almost immediately. Coulthard stalled his MP4/14 on the uphill starting grid and only got going four laps later, retiring before half-distance with a gearbox issue.

Hakkinen, too, had a mystery moment as he suffered a weird gearbox malady that prevented him changing gear – allowing Barrichello and Schumacher to move ahead before the McLaren re-engaged.

But Hakkinen managed to keep going and recover back to the lead to claim the win, finally kickstarting his Championship defence with the full 10 points available as Schumacher came home in second.

“It really brings history back in my mind,” Hakkinen said of that nerve-wracking race in Brazil, having already experienced the fragility of the MP4/14.

“Analysing and meetings, studying data, and understanding how to fix this issue was so hard for the people.

“They worked so hard. The driver can only do a certain amount. I can tell you very easily, how we would have been without the problems in the first races in 1999.

“If we had had our own race track and a test driver driving, starting from seven o’clock in the morning until seven o’clock in the evening, testing and developing a different gearbox that doesn’t break… I think I’d have been 10 times World Champion!

“But, because we didn’t have that luxury, it didn’t make our progress to solving the problems an opportunity to fix them so quickly. Ferrari, of course, they had Fiorano, a test driver, and unlimited time to do testing at the track.

“So when they had an issue, while they were racing at a track, the other car was driving around the track at Fiorano and fixing the problems.

“Of course, we had the dyno to test this and that, but the dyno was not as accurate as driving at the racetrack. Different temperatures, different loads. So our ability to solve issues was not so quick.

“I don’t think it was a question of money – the money was there. There were intelligent people enough in our system to fix the problems. But you need to run these, and test these elements. You need to have a racetrack and Ferrari had a test track at Fiorano!”

The next race of the Championship was at Imola, the first European race on the calendar, where Hakkinen’s Championship defence would stumble once again – only this time he had no one to blame but himself as he threw his car into the wall while leading comfortably.

Does he have any explanation for what happened? “Next question!” he joked, in deadpan fashion…

Eddie Irvine – 12 points
Mika Hakkinen – 10 points
Michael Schumacher – 6 points
David Coulthard – 0 points

The inside story of Mika Hakkinen’s 1999 World Championship win continued in the second part of our series with the Finnish driver, which you can read here!

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