INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2001 - The biggest news in United States sports earlier this week was the announcement by basketball player Michael Jordan that he would make a comeback in the National Basketball Association this season at age ...
INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2001 - The biggest news in United States sports earlier this week was the announcement by basketball player Michael Jordan that he would make a comeback in the National Basketball Association this season at age 38.
In Formula One auto racing, the recent revelation by two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen of Finland that he would take a one-year sabbatical from the sport at the end of this season received similar worldwide headlines.
Hakkinen, who observes his 33rd birthday on Sept. 28, is in Indianapolis this week to drive in the SAP United States Grand Prix on Sept. 30 for what could be the next-to-last race of his career. He has given no guarantees he will return to the cockpit in 2003.
On Sept. 27, Hakkinen, driver of the West McLaren MP4/16-Mercedes, met the media and was joined by four other drivers, including Finnish newcomer Kimi Raikkonen, who has become his semi-protégé as the youngster moves from the F1 Red Bull Sauber Petronas C20 to McLaren to replace him next season.
Hakkinen, in his quiet, unassuming manner, basically admitted he was burned out by years of competition. Also, he became father of a son, Hugo, last Dec. 11, and this year he has won only one race, the British Grand Prix, and is sixth in the standings.
When asked about these as reasons for departing after the season finale Oct. 14 in Japan, he answered:
"I think all of those are not as extremely true, but part of it, yes. I think being in Formula One for so many years, it's the time when you feel that way. You've achieved a lot, and then you start getting to the time when you're getting tired and you kind of really cannot a hundred percent focus anymore. And you don't do any good for yourself, and you don't do any good for the team. So that's why the decision to take a break was the right decision."
Hakkinen, a native of Helsinki, began racing karts in 1974, then moved up through the European racing plateaus until he entered F1 in 1991 driving the Lotus-Judd and scoring two points. He joined McLaren in 1993, finished fourth, seventh and fifth in the next three seasons, respectively, before scoring his first GP victory in 1997. He won the World Championship in 1998 and repeated in 1999.
Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher became staunch rivals in the late 1990s. Last year, Hakkinen came to Indy trailing Schumacher by only 78-74 in points. He failed to score a point at Indy after a mechanical failure as Schumacher won and then swept the last two races, too, for four wins in a row to capture his third World Championship. Hakkinen placed second in the standings, but was outscored 40-9 down the stretch. This year, Hakkinen returns to Indy after scoring only five points in the last four races. Still, the Flying Finn insists he will drive as hard as possible to win Sunday.
"Well, it would be still correct to win some races, to be honest, is the goal, and I have a commitment to the team to finish the season," Hakkinen said. "So I'm going to go for it in these two races." Will his year away become permanent?
"Well, I'm going to take it easy one year," he said. "I'm going to see what it feels like, and I have all the doors open. So at this moment, the plan is just take it easy and see what happens. But I think after a few months, four or five months, I could start feeling that way, and I want to come back. We'll see."
Meanwhile, fellow Finn Raikkonen has made a strong impression as a 21-year-old rookie. He has started 14 races and scored nine points for ninth in the standings. He follows in a line of Finnish drivers that include 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg and Tero Palmroth, who made four Indianapolis 500 starts.
Hakkinen thinks there is a chance he will be an instructor for Raikkonen as the young driver works his way up the F1 ladder.
"Well, there's definitely plenty of different elements, and we really haven't sat down yet to talk about it," Hakkinen said. "But certainly I have plenty of experience in the past with the team and Formula One, in general. So certainly there could be a lot of help what I can give and start giving examples. This is not maybe the right time." Raikkonen, who is even more laid back then Hakkinen, confessed that things have happened quickly for him. He raced last year in Formula Renault, usually considered three rungs beneath Formula One. Raikkonen had competed in less than 30 car races in his life before climbing to F1.
"Because I think at this same time last year I even didn't know what I would race in Formula One this year," he said. "Suddenly, I had a chance to call McLaren, and I'm very happy to go there.
"Yeah, of course, things have happened very quickly for me in the last two years, but I think it's only in a positive way that the things are going, and I'm only looking forward." Raikkonen won't be 22 until Oct. 17. He and Hakkinen have quickly become friends and even took a weeklong vacation together. He thinks having another Finn around to converse with helped make the transition to F1 easier.
"It's made life a bit more easier to come to Formula One if you have like Mika from Finland also," he said. "If I have some things that I want to ask from him, he can help me.
"It's always easier than if you would be alone here and you want to ask from someone, you don't have any people to go and ask help. For sure, this year has been very interesting for me and has been lots of fun. I've really enjoyed it."
Raikkonen has faced much pressure with resoluteness this season. But the pressure increases tenfold next year driving for the high-profile McLaren team. He said he can handle it.
"They're waiting, they're expecting lots of things from me," he said.
"But also I had a big push this year to start - came from (Formula) Renault to Formula One - and improved myself in Formula One. So I think it's not going to be any bigger pressure than big enough this year." And Hakkinen agrees.
"He's been handling the pressure this year starting the first season," he said. "I think he has been extremely good." Paavo Nurmi was the first Flying Finn as a runner. Now that Hakkinen is stepping aside, Raikkonen has the opportunity to become the newest one.