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

Thomas Maher
Mika Hakkinen wins in 1999

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

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.

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

Three weeks on from his win at Interlagos, Hakkinen headed to San Marino for the third round of the championship and, just as he had done so at the opening two races, proceeded to stamp his authority in qualifying by taking another pole position.

Round 3: Mika Hakkinen crashes out all by himself at Imola

Having bested David Coulthard by 0.022 seconds in qualifying, it was evident that McLaren’s huge pace advantage that had been so notable in Australia had been slashed by rival teams – particularly Ferrari.

Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, in third place, was just 0.176 seconds off the pace set by Hakkinen, and the Finn would need to dig deep in order to bring home the win.

But disaster would strike once again. With McLaren having held their 1-2 off the start, Hakkinen set about crushing his opposition and had opened up a 13-second lead in just 16 laps.

Negotiating the Variante Bassa chicane to emerge onto the start/finish straight to start his 17th lap, the McLaren rode aggressively over the exit kerb – only for Hakkinen to light up the rears as the car broke traction.

The car speared left and, unable to catch the wayward rear fast enough, Hakkinen went nose-first into the concrete wall lining the pit straight.

It was a driving error of proportions nearly unthinkable nowadays – the V10-powered ballistic missiles, together with grooved tyres, proving a far tricker proposition to handle than the much more stable and heavy cars of today.

Hakkinen’s lead was such that, despite trundling across the grass with only three wheels as he waited for the car to come to a stop, Coulthard only inherited the lead as the Finn finally came to a halt and flicked up his visor.

Climbing out, Hakkinen briefly sat on the sidepod of the MP4/14 in disbelief at the enormity of what he’d done – an understandable moment of shock that wouldn’t be permitted today, particularly so close to the racing line.

As revealed in the first chapter of our story, Hakkinen deadpan joked “Next question” when asked to explain what had gone wrong, before revealing that the strategy call made by him and the team had resulted in him pushing so hard.

“Oh my God, man,” he said, shaking his head at the memory of his mistake.

“That was, for me, purely a driving error. I remember we had a choice of different tactics in the race, we could have either a three-stop tactic, a two-stop tactic, or this and that.

“We decided to take a tactic for the race to be able to keep the lead in the race and to have the optimal time to finish the Grand Prix – I think we selected to stop three times.

“In selecting stopping three times, it meant every lap needed to be absolutely flat-out and the pit stops had to be perfect. Every lap needed to be maximum attack. So everything looked good.

“I started going maximum performance with the car. But I was starting to get greedy. What that means… the kerbs in F1 at that time were quite high.

“It was nice to lean against the kerb and get a nice exit because it gives you extra acceleration out of the corners. But, if you go too much on the kerb, you lost the grip very quickly, and you could go off the track. That’s exactly what happened to me.”

Smiling again, he joked, “So it was a team mistake, not my mistake!”

With McLaren team boss Ron Dennis telling television crews that Hakkinen had been set to dominate the race and that it was a very “rare” mistake from the Finn, Hakkinen explained the first port of call within the team was to check whether something had failed – even if he knew deep down that it had been his own greed on the throttle.

“It was natural to study the data first in case something failed,” he said, when asked to explain the team’s reaction.

“Because the differential in those conditions are very extreme – when you are on the kerb, one tyre has less grip than the other side.

“But I was just too greedy. The team, of course, weren’t happy. For some reason, I allowed myself to have one or two mistakes during the year, but no more. Because I knew that the team would also have one or two mistakes during the year. It would happen.

“So that was what I would call my first mistake. So I let myself off, basically!

“I said, ‘Okay, that was my first mistake. And that’s it. Don’t do the second one.’ Don’t talk about Monza!”

With Schumacher besting Coulthard to take the race win, the Ferrari drivers moved into first and second in the championship, while Hakkinen was tied with Jordan’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen – later to be a dark horse in the title fight – on 10 points, with Coulthard finally scoring some points with six scored for second place at Imola.

Michael Schumacher – 16 points
Eddie Irvine – 12 points
Mika Hakkinen – 10 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 10 points
David Coulthard – 6 points

Round 4: Mika Hakkinen helpless to prevent Ferrari 1-2 in Monaco

Unlike today’s highly presciptive testing schedules, teams back in 1999 could test as and when they could afford and schedule it. Now fully back in Europe, both Ferrari and McLaren carried out a few days of testing to better understand and improve their cars, with the Scuderia making the most of their twisty Fiorano test track to figure out setups for Monte Carlo.

McLaren carried out three days of testing at Magny-Cours, before heading over to Monaco – where Hakkinen once again underlined his single-lap pace by taking pole position.

But, for the first time in 1999, it wasn’t Coulthard lining up alongside – it was Michael Schumacher, with the Ferrari lapping just 0.064 seconds slower than the McLaren.

When the lights went out to start the race, both Ferrari drivers gained a position – Eddie Irvine jumped to third past Coulthard, while Schumacher took the lead from Hakkinen – a disastrous start at a track where overtaking was, and still is, a near impossibility.

Consigned to second place, McLaren’s day went from bad to worse as Coulthard, once again, retired from the race with a gearbox issue, while Hakkinen slipped down to third after sliding straight on at Mirabeau.

The McLaren had driven over some oil laid down by Toranosuke Takagi’s Arrows expiring, with no grip for Hakkinen when he turned into the right-hander. Choosing to slide up the escape road, his battle to engage reverse and rejoin the track allowed Irvine though – with Ferrari claiming the 1-2 as Hakkinen staggered home in third.

“In 1998, we were dominating, the car was extremely quick,” Hakkinen said, when asked for his feelings at the quarter mark of the season after Monaco.

“The car was still quick but Ferrari was catching – they were catching in their performance, their speed, their reliability… and suddenly they finished in first and second.

“So the alarm bells started ringing and I said ‘Hold on a second, this is not going to be so straightforward’.

“You start thinking. Did we do the homework correctly? Did we prepare ourselves in the winter time for this year properly? Did I do something wrong during the winter that we are not ready now to get success?

“So the pressure started building up but… who to blame? You just have to focus, to stay calm and collected. To start not making the mistakes, whether it be the team or the driver. You just need to be even more precise in your performance.”

Michael Schumacher – 26 points
Eddie Irvine – 18 points
Mika Hakkinen – 14 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 13 points
David Coulthard – 6 points

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

Round 5: Mika Hakkinen steadies the ship with a stellar showing in Barcelona

McLaren needed a big result in Barcelona, a circuit that favoured the aerodynamic prowess of the McLaren MP4/14.

Maintaining his 100 percent record of setting the fastest time in qualifying, Hakkinen once again took pole position and, this time, didn’t put a wheel wrong as he controlled the race to win by six seconds over Coulthard.

The Scottish driver had qualified third, behind Irvine, with all four drivers’ best times within four-tenths of each other.

But Coulthard made a good start to climb into second, offering some protection to Hakkinen’s lead, while the Ferraris had their race compromised by getting stuck behind Jacques Villeneuve. But the F399 showed its pace in the closing stages as Schumacher closed on Coulthard, even if he never found a way past.

With a team 1-2, Hakkinen said it was the first properly smooth weekend of the year.

“Barcelona was always a good track for me. Well, not always!” he said, seeming to remember the sad end to his 2001 race as he spoke.

“But I think I won there three times in a row. So I knew that it was my track.

“For some reason, I was able to just do a great job. The car was running reliably. The circuit isn’t that hard on the cars, it’s quite smooth. You don’t run over the kerbs too much, so you just keep your foot down.

“If the car and engine are reliable, you can do a great job. So we did well. It was a huge motivation boost for the team that was like ‘Okay, come on. We can do this. Let’s forget the bad days and the bad luck in the world. We can do this!”

Michael Schumacher – 30 points
Mika Hakkinen – 24 points
Eddie Irvine – 21 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 13 points
David Coulthard – 12 points

Mika Hakkinen: I knew Michael Schumacher would never give up

With Hakkinen moving into second place in the championship, six points behind Schumacher (the equivalent to a second place, or 18 points in today’s points system), the Finn knew he was facing a stern challenge in overcoming the German driver for a second consecutive title.

“Michael was always confident, he was able to work in a very logical way,” he said, with the duo realising they would be the main protagonists for the 1999 title once again.

“Ferrari had the right people working on the team. It was a matter of time before they got the car working in order.

“It’s very simple stuff at the end of the day – you need good aerodynamics, balance, engine power, mechanics, designers, tactics, and loads of money!

“So I think they recognised they had those elements. So it was just a question about trusting each other, and just doing the hard work. I could see that happening.”

Round 6: Mika Hakkinen gets some good luck back as Michael Schumacher crashes out in Canada

Having borne the brunt of misfortune in the opening races of the year, Hakkinen got his first slice of good luck as F1 headed to Montreal and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

For the first time that season, Hakkinen was beaten to pole position as Schumacher pipped him by 0.029 seconds, and Hakkinen appeared to have no answer to the Ferrari’s pace as the race unfolded.

But it was in this race that the wall on the outside of the final corner would be christened as the ‘Wall of Champions’ as three of the World Champion drivers on the grid crashed into it.

Damon Hill was the first of the World Champions to hit it, when he crashed out on Lap 15.

15 laps later, and Hakkinen couldn’t believe his eyes when, having fallen eight seconds behind Schumacher, he drove past the German’s damaged car along the pit straight – Schumacher had lost the rear of his F399 over the kerbs and slammed sideways into the wall!

All Hakkinen had to do was keep it on the island (literally) to take the win – duly crossing the line ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella as the Safety Car was deployed to cover a serious crash for Heinz-Harald Frentzen three laps from the chequered flag.

“Winning in Canada, it was amazing because I thought I never performed 100 percent in Canada,” Hakkinen said, revealing at the same time that he’d actually forgotten which year he’s won the race in Montreal!

“In my opinion, I never seemed to do a good job over there.

“So to see Michael leading… I didn’t give up, but I was just thinking, ‘Bring the car home, get the maximum points, and you have no chance to do anything’.

“So when he crashed and was not able to continue, I cannot say I smiled. But, of course, it was a lucky shot for me.”

But inheriting wins and fortune wouldn’t be enough for a title victory, and Hakkinen knew the challenge from Schumacher and Ferrari was not going to get any easier.

“Knowing Michael for many years, I knew he wouldn’t give up,” he said.

“He’s just gonna continue working until he’s going to win. The speed and performance that they were doing in Canada, it was alarm bells that ‘Oh my god, this is getting tough’.”

Mika Hakkinen – 34 points
Michael Schumacher – 30 points
Eddie Irvine – 25 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 13 points
David Coulthard – 12 points

Round 7: A stormy race in France as Mika Hakkinen spins away the win

With a wet qualifying session mixing up the grid completely, Hakkinen lined up in 14th for the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours. With Coulthard and Schumacher in fourth and sixth place on the grid, the omens weren’t good for Hakkinen to finish ahead of his rivals, although the better news was that Irvine would start from 17th.

The race started in dry conditions, and Hakkinen proved sensational as he climbed up to ninth by Lap 2, and duly set about picking off the cars in front.

The McLarens were proving strong in the early stages, with Coulthard overtaking Barrichello for the lead but, once again, the Scot wasn’t in luck as he retired on Lap 10 with an electrical issue.

Hakkinen had hauled himself into contention with overtakes on Olivier Panis, Schumacher, eventual race winner Frentzen, Jean Alesi, and then set off after Barrichello as the rain began to fall.

On Lap 38, applying the pressure to Barrichello, Hakkinen destabilised his car over the kerbs at the hairpin where he had been making such good progress, spinning himself down to seventh place and back behind the Ferraris.

But, by Lap 60, Hakkinen had taken the lead after repassing everyone – benefitting from an electrical issue that had slowed Schumacher and necessitated the Ferrari driver pitting for a new steering wheel.

But the win still wouldn’t go to Hakkinen. With both he and Barrichello pitting for a few drops of fuel on Lap 65, Jordan had plumped for giving Frentzen a little bit bigger a fuel load – allowing the German to cross the line in the lead with mere fumes remaining in his Jordan 199.

It was Jordan’s, and Frentzen’s, second-ever race win and it solidified their position as dark horses in the title fight. For Hakkinen, though, it had been a very beneficial day as he opened up his championship lead over Schumacher, who had limped home in fifth, with Irvine settling in behind for sixth.

“Yeah, that was fun,” he said.

“If I remember correctly, we had a really lucky… well, I won’t say lucky, but we were very smart in how we set up the car.

“We were heading towards a dry setup when others were still running quite a wet setup on the car so it gave us a good opportunity to really be fast in a straight line – overtaking was quite easy.

“We had a good car and David and I did a good job of getting a great balance from the car.”

Once again making a joke about his mistakes, he laughed “But, the spin… it’s funny because I’m a racing driver and don’t remember that spin! Again, it was the team, not me!”

Mika Hakkinen – 40 points
Michael Schumacher – 32 points
Eddie Irvine – 26 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 23 points
David Coulthard – 12 points

Mika Hakkinen driving his McLaren MP4/14 at the 1999 British Grand Prix.
Mika Hakkinen driving his McLaren MP4/14 at the 1999 British Grand Prix.

Round 8: Michael Schumacher ruled out after Silverstone crash breaks his leg

The race that concluded the first half of the championship would prove to be the defining event of the 1999 calendar, with the entire complexion of the season changing as Michael Schumacher broke his leg in a crash.

Hakkinen had taken pole position by almost half a second, once again displaying the McLaren’s happiness on a fast and flowing track, with Schumacher having to settle for second.

Dicing with Irvine down the Hangar Straight on the opening as the red flags came out due to an error from race director Charlie Whiting, Schumacher speared straight on at Stowe Corner.

With his Ferrari embedded in the tyre barrier, it was evidently a big crash – and there were concerns about Schumacher as the German didn’t immediately clamber from his car. Needing help extricating himself, Schumacher was surrounded by blankets to obscure the spectator’s view – but the German made a point of raising his thumb from behind the blankets to signify he was relatively okay.

That evening, the news emerged Schumacher had broken his leg and would be ruled out for most of, if not all of the rest of the season. So what was the Finn thinking as he realised his main rival was no longer going to be participating?

“When I knew Michael was okay, it was automatic that I felt that this was going to make my life easier,” he explained.

“It’s gonna make my championship hopes easier, so now all I had to do was maximise my driving, do the right things, and be there.

“The question was not just to know when Michael was coming back. It was just to do the right things and get the championship. But I didn’t allow myself to really put myself in that mood.

“I was still focusing on each race on the way how I could win it.”

But, in the first race without Schumacher’s participation, Hakkinen’s bad luck re-emerged as he was forced to retire after his pit stop when his left-rear wheel came off.

“At the pit stop, one of the mechanics failed to put the tyre on properly,” he explained.

“It came off, and it just came in the wrong place. It was horrible, of course.

“I don’t want to say it was bad luck, but we had seen that happening before. Unfortunately, it just happened to me this time that I was on three wheels!”

With both Hakkinen and Schumacher out of the way, Coulthard finally got a strong result as he won the race ahead of Irvine.

Mika Hakkinen – 40 points
Michael Schumacher – 32 points
Eddie Irvine – 32 points
Heinz-Harald Frentzen – 26 points
David Coulthard – 22 points

With Hakkinen’s lead over his nearest active rival, Eddie Irvine, just eight points, did the McLaren driver see the Ferrari number two as a genuine threat to his championship?

“Yes, because the car was getting so reliable. It was incredible, their car was so reliable,” he said.

“They were finishing races, they didn’t have technical issues. They were working like robots. We were fragile, our car was a little bit fragile. That includes my driving mistakes. The pressure started to accumulate.”

But, in a sign of what was to come in the following races, Hakkinen was also wary of what a resurgent Coulthard was capable of.

“So the pressure came on,” he said.

“Frentzen was there, Irvine started fighting heavily, and, of course, my teammate…”

The inside story of Mika Hakkinen’s 1999 World Championship win will continue in the third part of our series with the Finnish driver early next week.

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