Born to be a champion



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Touch: Mika Häkkinen yesterday and today

People in Finland find it difficult if not impossible to assess the importance of Mika Häkkinen coolly. When he began the 1998 Formula One season with victories in the first two grand prix contests in Melbourne and São Paolo, "Mika fever" began rising and reached its peak when he gained his last victory and the world championship in the season's final race at Suzuka, Japan in November. The media have been in a feeding frenzy ever since, leaving no stone unturned to find every detail of the champion's story. Several localities in Finland are busy studying the feasibility of laying out an F-1 track of their own.

The truth is that whatever criterion one chooses, Mika Häkkinen now holds the Finnish record for world-wide publicity. Paavo Nurmi, the runner who took home nine Olympic golds and whom many regard as the best athlete of all time, performed his heroic deeds before the era of television. He didn't break world records in the corner of anyone's living room. Now we can all peer through the camera in another Flying Finn's car, the silver arrow, as its screaming engine propels it down the track.

At least five billion pairs of eyes watched Mika Häkkinen's struggle towards the championship. Every F-1 grand prix in 1997 attracted an average TV audience of 300 million, and undoubtedly more the following year. There were sixteen races, of which Häkkinen won nine. His name has been repeated countless times in sport and news programmes on the world's radio and TV stations. The world press has also given his achievements enormous coverage.

Finland has four terrestrial channels with nation-wide coverage and fifty or so radio stations. Every programme about Häkkinen - no one could venture a guess as to how many - has been sure to attract a massive audience. On the wings of the Mika boom, even a commentator with the channel that bough the F-1 coverage rights has a fan club. One girl watches TV coverage of the races with a cardboard picture of the commentator under her arm, believing that this brings Häkkinen luck. Relative to population, the number of newspaper and magazine titles published in Finland is very large - and nearly every single one of them has told the world champion's story. Statements have been made by the President, many cabinet ministers, the Finnish EU Commissioner, writers, pop singers, actors, market stallholders and of course everyone who has ever had anything whatsoever to do with Häkkinen. All affirmed that the champion is "just and ordinary fellow", even though his salary from McLaren was around $16 million in 1998.

The iceman thaws

The championship was decided until the very last race. If Michael Schumacher, with two world titles to his credit and only four points behind Häkkinen, had won at Suzuka and Häkkinen had failed to gain any points, the German would have been champion yet again. As it happened, Häkkinen won and Schumacher failed to finish after one of his tyres blew out. The McLaren stable is British, Häkkinen's Mercedes-Benz German and Schumacher drives an Italian Ferrari. That explains why F-1 is followed with such keen interest not only in Finland, but also in the UK, Germany and Italy.

The Finnish ace has rarely shown emotion at any time during his long career, but several British papers reported that "the ice man had thawed" after victory had been decided. The Times opined that Häkkinen had been born to win the world championship. The Daily Mail's assessment was that, although he might not be the most charismatic sports star of them all, he was proof that the good guys win in the end. The Independent was astonished that the usually unemotional Mika smiled, danced and waved his hands.

The Germans were torn between wishing victory for their own man Schumacher - and for their own car Mercedes. Häkkinen was praised in headlines like Die Welt's "Häkkinen and a secret called sisu". The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel characterised Häkkinen as "supercooled like Finns in general, but a completely different person in his moment of triumph." That Schumacher was the first to congratulate Mika, Bild-Zeitung saw as "real greatness".

Ferrari's bad luck (the clutch failed at the first start at Suzuka and Schumacher had transfer to the back row) was a big news item in Italy. Gazzetto dello Sport expressed astonishment that, expensive advanced technology notwithstanding, the world championship could be decided by "an event that seems as everyday as an engine cutting out at traffic lights". Tuttosport praised the Finnish champion, opining that "Häkkinen is the new number 1 and deserves it. He has made fewer mistakes than Schumi during the season." In Ferrari's home town Maranello, a giant screen had been erected in a park to show the Italian car's triumph. One teary Italian in the park did not mince his words: "Ferrari is like the Titanic, Schumacher like DiCaprio, the shipwreck just as spectacular."

The Child Champion

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Mika Häkkinen has been sitting at the wheel of a car since he was 5. When the boy showed such exceptional talent, his parents put everything they could into helping and encouraging him. In 1974-86 Mika won the Finnish go-kart championship five times. After that he gradually moved up through more and more demanding leagues and in 1990 won the British F-3 championship. The following year saw him compete in F-1 for the first time, with the Lotus team. He signed with McLaren in 1993 and began attracting attention through his good placings. Yet it was only in October 1997 that he achieved his first grand prix victory. After that the sky was the limit.

Mika Häkkinen was born in the Martinlaakso suburban district of Vantaa, not far from Helsinki's international airport, on 28.9.1968. He graduated from vocational school as a sheetmetal worker/welder in 1986. However, motor sports were the main content of his life and there was a long way to go before he reached the top. Now, like many other athletes with huge earnings, he lives in the tax paradise of Monaco. He married his Finnish girl friend Erja Honkanen in the old cathedral in Porvoo in summer 1998. McLaren team manager Ron Dennis regards Erja, who accompanies her husband on his travels, as an important member of the team. Häkkinen's manager is Keke Rosberg, who in 1982 became the first Finn to win the F-I championship.

Mika's best victory of all was not at a finishing line at all, but beside the track in Adelaide, Australia in November 1995. When a tyre blew out, his car plunged into a crash barrier and was wrecked. Mika was seriously injured. Luckily for him, a doctor was standing only 40 metres away and precious seconds were saved. Without immediate treatment, he would certainly have been at the end of his road. He recovered rapidly and was back on the track in Melbourne the following March. His recovery is regarded as something of a medical miracle, but above all as a demonstration of iron will and faith in his own ability, true Finnish grit. And the right attitude. "My chances improve when Formula One does not get the upper grip in my life," he said in an interview in summer 1998. "The world championship certainly matters a lot, but there are also other important things in my life."

Mika Häkkinen - The Flying Finn