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Thu 21 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Flat out and fantastic!

Mika Häkkinen cheated death on his way to two F1 crowns. Shahzad Sheikh met him at the Dubai Motor Show.

Mika Häkkinen cheated death on his way to two F1 crowns. Shahzad Sheikh met him at the Dubai Motor Show.

Mika Häkkinen and I have a lot in common - somewhat presumptuous I know, but, we were both born in 1968, he has a boy and a girl - so do I, and what's more, even they were born in the same years. Plus of course we've both driven Formula 1 cars. I drove a Renault F1 car (see November 2007 issue) for two very tentative laps around Paul Ricard in France, and he won the Formula 1 world championship with McLaren Mercedes. Twice.

Actually, he raced in F1 from 1991 to 2001, won twenty races, with 51 podium finishes, earning 420 points. Truth be told, the sad reality is that he and I have very little in common. He's better looking and considerably wealthier for example. But more to the point, as my own F1 experience proved, the real-life racers are simply supermen, and being in the presence of the quiet and thoughtful, somewhat shy, extremely polite and impeccably groomed and attired double world champion left me rather star struck.

How would it be to meet Superman in real life? Somebody you've watched overcome a life and death struggle, no less, to finally take on and beat a formidable adversary, conquering his own demons in the process.

There was no hint or sign of brooding intensity or angst in the man settled before me and giving my ramblings his full attention. Mika was clearly enjoying his retirement (announced just a few days earlier) from competitive motor sport, having competed in the German DTM tin-top series between 2005 and 2007.

Mika laughed at my feeble comparison of our two lives, but responded to my revelation of the Renault F1 experience with immediate enthusiasm and interest: ‘I'm sure that was quick!' Well yes, it was for me. For him it would have been like doing the whole thing in slow motion. So how do F1 drivers attain superhuman status - as they must to cope with the speed, the complexity and the sheer g-forces of a modern Grand Prix?

‘Take a GP like Monte Carlo. That is one of the most demanding races that you can do, because you have to concentrate for two hours, driving the car, adjusting the balance, at the maximum speed, which means flat-out. So what does it take it? It's simply many years practice. Concentrating and understanding how to handle the car.

When I did the race in Monaco, I'll never forget, I made two mistakes in two hours. Some might think that's a lot. But think about it, flat out, for two hours and just two mistakes. That comes from many years practice. That's what it's all about.

And the years started early, when his parents let him have a go at karting at age five. On the first lap he crashed. But the racing bug had bit him. By 1986 he'd won five karting championships. Then he graduated to single seaters and won the Formula Three championship.

Is it really worth starting with karting though? ‘I've always said that the best thing would be to go to F1 directly from karting, because that is the closest feeling that you can have to F1. A go-kart is a completely solid machine, no suspension, slick tyres - it reacts really instantly.

In Formula 1, it's the same thing. If you go from karting to Formula Ford or Formula Renault, you have suspension settings, and braking and power to weight ratios aren't as high. But the problem is that when you finish karting you are 15 or 16 and it's too early to go to F1.

What staggered me most about the F1 car was the aerodynamic grip, something quite beyond my comprehension as someone used to road cars. ‘If you have aerodynamics in a race car which work logically at every speed, it's a fantastic machine,' confirmed Häkkinen, ‘but if you have a racing car which aerodynamically works perfectly at certain speeds, and at other speeds it's a disaster, then it's a nightmare. That's why you have good racing cars and bad racing cars.

And that's why the McLaren is so good? ‘It's fantastic!' - one of Mika's favorite words. ‘You can drive it slowly or fast and have great balance.' He should know, he drove it at the end of 2006. Clearly he's still associated with F1, does he miss it?

‘No. Not really. I miss the people. I miss the atmosphere and the mechanics. But it's very demanding. You have to sacrifice a lot from your life to be able to be the top top F1 driver. When you are getting close to 40-years old, you don't want to make any more sacrifices. You want to enjoy your life. Especially when you have achieved what you had been working so hard towards.

It wasn't easy. There was a long period in F1 without wins, before the long-standing tie up between McLaren and Mercedes in 1995 brought with it the promise of victories. But in the same year, Mika crashed in free practice at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, after a tyre failure. The violent impact with the wall left him in need of an emergency tracheotomy performed at the side of the track.

‘My career has been very special, starting in F1 in 1991 and having my first GP victory in 1997. It took a lot of time. It involved a lot of psychological war, a lot of physical war, a lot of learning about the full procedure of F1.

I think one of the most important things I learnt was never give up.

Always keep pushing - flat out. After winning in 1997 it was a fantastic situation. It was the last race of the year, so I was a winner all winter!'

How was it to return to the race car cockpit after that terrifying crash? ‘It's like if you are a kid and you fall off your bike, the best thing to do is to get back on. Yes, this was a bit more serious. Naturally I'd have to thank Ron Dennis and his wife, the whole team and of course my wife, my parents and a lot of other people who supported me.

‘But in the moment that you going back to the car. You are really scared. You're scared about what you might feel. It's not a question of crashing again. When they started the car and I was driving, I remembered how fantastic driving an F1 car is and then everything was under control.'

The bravery paid off, a couple of years later and the championship was finally his: ‘Winning in '98 wasn't just for me, but the whole team. We all celebrated together and I'll never forget, the whole city of Woking [where McLaren is based] stopped to celebrate!'

I couldn't let Mika go back to his duties with Mercedes (he was in Dubai to launch the SLR 722 GT at the motor show in November) without getting his thoughts on motor sports in the Middle East. ‘People here are crazy about cars, and crazy about motor racing. But I think they don't yet know enough about what actually is motor racing. It's important to give people information about it, get them to come to the track, see what it's about, smell the atmosphere.'

And would he help out in that? ‘Maybe, we'll see. I do have a great time here. The people are really nice and polite. Maybe one day I can give them the opportunity to join me on the track.' Alright everyone, form an orderly queue - behind me.

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