Race car drivers not only have great talent behind the wheel, most have great memories and recall of some of the most spectacular moments in their careers.
Former Formula One champ Mika Hakkinen certainly falls in that category. And one of Hakkinen’s greatest memories was his incredible pass by Michael Schumacher to win the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, which Hakkinen calls the “greatest circuit of them all.”
“Alongside Monaco and Suzuka, which in their different ways are also magnificent racetracks, Spa is the greatest challenge for a driver on the modern Formula 1 calendar,” Hakkinen wrote in a recent blog post. “It has everything – fast corners, blind bends, tricky crests, nasty dips – and I have to say I always absolutely loved driving there.”
To commemorate that amazing pass for the win, Hakkinen has penned a post on McLaren’s website that is so crisp in detail, it almost seems like it was just yesterday that it happened.
“My most memorable Belgian Grand Prix was undoubtedly the 2000 race. I had won the world championship in both 1998 and 1999, and in 2000 my McLaren-Mercedes was as quick as ever, albeit not always quite as reliable as it had been in the previous two seasons. Nonetheless, I arrived at Spa at the head of the world championship standings, and in an optimistic mood. My principal rival, as ever, was Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, just two world championship points behind me.”
Hakkinen then replayed his last lap battle with Schumacher in extremely vivid and equally breathless detail:
By lap 40 I was on his (Schumacher’s) tail. As we sliced our way through Eau Rouge on that lap, we both lifted momentarily, and powered our way towards Les Combes. Eau Rouge was a majestic corner in those days, almost flat but not quite, a real test of man and machine. I had taken it well, perhaps a little better than Michael had, and, as he and I approached the braking area for Les Combes, I decided to try to outbrake him.
I thrust the nose of my McLaren-Mercedes alongside his Ferrari, and prepared to brake late. But Michael saw me coming, and chopped across me, at 300km/h (186mph), his right rear tire touching my left front wing endplate as I lifted so as to back out of the maneuver.
After the race, Michael received a lot of criticism for that high-speed chop, but, now, 15 years later, I have no problem with it. I massively enjoyed my Formula 1 career, and one of its highlights was my ongoing rivalry with Michael. I respected him, and I think he respected me. We raced each other hard, but for the most part we also raced each other fairly. He was a terrifically combative competitor, but you could say that about all the great champions. You do not win seven world championships by being soft-hearted, and Michael was never that; but he was a superb driver, one of the best in the history of the sport in fact.
As I drove the remainder of lap 40, I could tell that, although my left front wing endplate had been slightly damaged, my car was still handling beautifully. I knew the entry to Les Combes was going to be the only place where I was going to be able t0 pass Michael, but I also knew that I would have to make my maneuver a very decisive one, simply because Michael was not likely to give up the lead easily. He had made that abundantly clear already. So, as we began lap 41, I decided to take a risk.
It was a big risk, but it was a calculated risk. I was going to take Eau Rouge flat. In those days, taking Eau Rouge flat was not something for the faint-hearted. It was extremely difficult, and the penalty for getting it wrong was usually an enormous accident. Worse still, the track was still damp off-line, so I knew I would have to be millimeter-perfect – not an easy thing to be in the world’s most daunting corner, foot to the floor, powering through the apex towards a blind exit.
As I approached that (in)famous corner, I was right behind Michael. As I turned in, every fiber of my being was imploring me to lift. I decided to count to three, daring myself to keep my foot planted on the loud pedal as I counted, knowing that by the time I got to three I would either have taken Eau Rouge flat or would be in the barriers. There was no in-between, of that I was 100 per cent sure.
‘One,’ I said aloud, and the car began to tremble, assaulted by tremendous g-forces, both lateral and compressional. I knew I would have to fight the car if I was going to avoid a shunt, and I will be honest: I also knew I would have to fight my own fear.
‘Two,’ I gasped, sawing at the wheel as the car was pitched first this way and then that. For a split second, right in the middle of the corner, I thought I could not hold it. The car was absolutely on tippy-toes, but then it gripped, and clung on.
‘Three,’ I yelped, just as the car went scarily light on the exit of the corner. It is always a nasty feeling when a race car goes light at high speed, but, again, the car continued to hold on. I had done it. I had taken Eau Rouge flat, in a race not in a qualifying session, with only a very narrow dry line on which to do it.
Ahead of me on the straight, Michael had clearly not taken Eau Rouge flat, because I was now catching him at a rate of knots. As we approached Les Combes, ahead of us I spotted Ricardo Zonta’s BAR-Honda, which we were about to lap.
I thought to myself, ‘Whichever way Michael goes, I’ll go the other.’ He went to the left, so I went to the right, braking as late as I dared, off-line, on a still-damp track, at 300km/h (186mph). As I turned in, I had done it; I had passed Michael; I had retaken the lead.
Through the next few turns Michael tried his best to harry me into a mistake, chucking his Ferrari around from left to right behind me, in an effort to unsettle me. As I say, he was always such a committed battler, a real racer in fact. But I held my nerve, whispering under my breath ‘Mika, keep calm, keep calm, keep calm.’
By the end of the 44th and final lap, I was still 1.1s ahead of him.
Job done. Great win. Fantastic day.”
In a classy move, Hakkinen added a postscript dedicated to his longtime competitor, but more importantly, friend forever.
“I hope and pray that those encouraging signs are continuing still. No, he will never race again; no, he may never walk again; he may never talk again, for all I know. But, on the other hand, he may. Miracles sometimes occur, and I for one dearly hope that a miracle occurs for Michael some time soon. Keep fighting, my old friend.”