Cosy in the cockpit with a Formula One champ
Mika Hakkinen has the air of a man who has seen it all before.
He stared death in the face when only an emergency trackside tracheotomy saved his life after a crash at the Australian Grand Prix.
He returned to Formula One to win the drivers’ title in 1998 and 1999. He enjoys homes in Monte Carlo, France and his native Finland.
And he is sitting on my knee.
Terry Dolphin has been building, servicing and fine-tuning high-performance racing cars for 30 years. He paints this picture best.
“This is the same technology that won the World Championship in the mid-90s,” he smiles genially, glancing admiringly at the sleek, black Supercar baking in the Singapore sun while Hakkinen gets into his racing gear in a tent next door.
“The sort of car your Ayrton Sennas and your Damon Hills were driving. It’s quick. You’re talking nought-to-sixty (miles per hour) in under two-and-a-half seconds. Top speed, this will go more that 200 miles per hour and you’re pulling more than 3Gs in braking and cornering force. Depending on set-up,” he added.
Set-up. The very two words fermenting in my mind.
“Be prepared… it gets hot in there,” Terry continued needlessly. “The temperatures top 100 degrees in there and plus, you’re wearing that big suit, gloves, balaclava, helmet… and you are strapped in tight,” he grinned.
“If that’s not bad enough, you have got an engine bolted directly on to the back of that bathtub you are lying in. Every piston that pumps, you are going to feel the vibration.”
Terry continues to talk about valves and hydraulics, but I place the yellow foam ear plugs in their new home. They were the springy, plastic guardians standing between my ear drums and the teeth-loosening roar of the Supercar engine situated centimetres from my head.
The car, and Hakkinen, are in Singapore ahead of Sunday’s F1 grand prix to promote Johnnie Walker’s responsible drinking programme. ‘Never drink and drive’, Hakkinen tells me, and what better way to illustrate his assertion that control of a car must always mean total control — not just sort-of-control — than with an eye-widening, stomach-churning race across shimmering Tarmac.
Like the Viet-Cong and their considerate widening of the Cu Chi tunnels to allow the corpulent visitor to squeeze through in a rough approximation of the slender tunnel rats of more than 30 years ago, they’ve expanded the cockpit of this machine. But not by much.
Two mechanics lower me down into the reclined black leather seat and I ease first my hips through the housing and then twist to fit my shoulders under the wing.
Seconds later Mika is with us.
Striding across the track in his black racesuit, black gauntlets and black boots, topped off with his distinctive blue-and-white helmet, the Finn steps onto his seat — which pretty much overlaps mine — and slides his 1.79m frame down into the driving position.
A grin I assume was meant to be comforting crinkled the double world champion’s eyes through his visor and, after Terry and his colleagues clipped the steering wheel in front of the Finn, suddenly the engines screams and cones and barriers loom large.
The speed you anticipate.
It is fast, but the brain compensates for that, feeding exhilarating doses of adrenaline into the system but keeping fear at bay.
The braking and cornering, though, that is what prickles the skin and causes the flinches.
This, I sense, is what Hakkinen enjoys when driving at — for him — pedestrian speeds.
We head into a corner at almost impossible velocity and stick to the ground as we maneuver round it. As a party piece, my speed king chauffeur deliberately wheelspins our back end away.
Were the engine not screaming in my ears I would hear the Finn chuckling. Instead I make do with him grabbing my hand and shaking it in an amused and excited waggle of friendship.
Hands back on the wheel, please, Mika — total control is everything.
For video of me and Mika, cosy in the cockpit, click below: