There have been many good Formula One drivers over the years. But how many have that one career-defining moment that pushes them from a mere good driver to a great?
I’ve been watching F1 since the mid-1990s – since then, I’d put the greats down as Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Mika Hakkinen. Schumacher’s great moments are too long to list, but I’d put Alonso’s as his pass on Schu around the outside of 130R at Suzuka as his moment, while Mika’s was his near-200mph pass on Schu (again) at Spa – all with Ricardo Zonta in the middle.
Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel have all won titles in that time. And none of them would be considered greats in my eyes at this stage, although Vettel’s lights to flag victory in the Monza rain for Toro Rosso makes him closest to greatness in my eyes of the six.
I spent the afternoon with Mika at Goodwood yesterday and got a real insight into his fascinating character. It can be quite unnerving interviewing Mika; he looks you straight in the eye and you can see him thinking about each question. There is no waffle, no PR speak; just honest, revealing and interesting answers.
So, does he miss F1? “F1 is just so much fun,” he says. “Driving the car was brilliant. All the extra stuff around the sport was… okay, quite fun.”
Was he at his happiest driving? “It wasn’t just driving and winning races and championships. It’s also the teamwork – mechanics, engineers, management, marketing – the driving just came on top. The team element was so much fun.
“Of course when you stop something is missing. But you have to make sacrifices... you have a life, have a family – you cannot have it all.”
Are there any envious glances over to his old mate Michael Schumacher? “Michael made an unbelievably brave decision and a very big challenge. We are all different individuals, we all think and operate differently so who are we to judge anybody? You need to look at yourself first.
“Michael made the decision with his brain and his heart – I say ‘good luck and all the best’. Will he win? I think so – but he needs a car, and he has to beat his teammate.”
What struck me most about Mika was the lack of an ego; there were no boasts, nothing was too much trouble and he showed an interest in everyone he encountered. Nice guys don’t always finish first, but Mika did – twice.
Where would you rank him on a list of your top F1 drivers from the modern era?