One thing Mika Hakkinen was always good at was keeping us guessing. He is a complex character, in spite of his deadpan public utterances, and he delivered many surprises during his time in F1. Even his retirement from the sport came as a surprise although, in retrospect, it looks more logical today than it did at the time.
And now he sparks the rumors and counter-rumors by his increasing involvement with his old team, McLaren. Are they considering some sort of driving role for him? Or is this all a public relations stunt? Maybe he is to be a sort of mentor for Lewis Hamilton in his first year in F1. The possibilities multiply every day.
It seems to me that what has happened is this: Ron Dennis and Mika were chatting at the Brazilian Grand Prix and discovered that they shared a hankering for the good old days of championships and glory. This discovery set them to wondering whether there was some way in which they could combine their talents once again in a quest to restore the team to its rightful place at the top of the pile. Even driving was not ruled out as Mika wanted to know whether he still had the skills that brought him two championships.
What I think we are witnessing is Ron and Mika working towards an arrangement that will benefit them both – and I don’t think they have decided upon anything yet. Driving had to be tried but was never a likely option; at 38, Mika is getting a bit old for a return to F1 and no doubt Ron has unhappy memories of Nigel Mansell’s comeback attempt. The seats for 2007 are filled now, anyway, and testing is unlikely too since Mika’s strength was in racing, not in setting up the car.
The idea that Hakkinen should be a mentor to Hamilton, rather as Michael Schumacher is to be an advisor to the whole Ferrari team, looks possible. Mika has experience of driving as a number two to the supremely talented Ayrton Senna and handled the task well, stepping into his shoes when Senna left for Williams. It would seem likely that he could offer Hamilton useful advice and encouragement in his task as number two to Fernando Alonso.
Public relations is another field where Hakkinen could be useful to McLaren and this is underlined by Mika’s recent contract to do something similar for Johnnie Walker. But I wonder whether this would be sufficient for Mika; I get the feeling that he misses the excitement and pressures of the F1 team. That is what I think he is looking for: a useful role in the team, not the company.
I am sure that we would all like to see Hakkinen on track again in a competitive situation. Memories of his great races return and we wonder whether he could do it all again. Realistically, however, it is not going to happen. Niki Lauda may have been able to squeeze a last-gasp championship out of his comeback so many years ago but the pace of change then was nothing like as rapid as it has been over the last five years. The learning curve would be too great for anyone after such a long lay-off, especially as the dread “forty years old” approaches.
It pains me to say it, but the most likely outcome is that Mika will satisfy his curiosity as to driving in F1 today, accept that his glory days are over, and return to the DTM. The two old friends, Ron and Mika, have tried very hard to find a suitable role for the Finn but I think they will fail. When it comes down to it, the motivation is really that Mika wants to drive and the time for that has passed.