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Hakkinen’s advice to Verstappen as F1 title looms

by Edd Straw, Jack Cozens
6 min read

Suzuka has been the scene of some of the most iconic Formula 1 title deciders in the past. But even if Max Verstappen seals the 2022 championship at this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, with four races to spare, he won’t be without pressure while doing so.

That’s the opinion of two-time F1 world champion Mika Hakkinen, who clinched both of his titles in end-of-season showdowns at Suzuka and also had a championship challenge ended at the Japanese track.

Verstappen will secure a second drivers’ championship – on the home soil of Honda, and where the Red Bull Powertrains-badged engines are still built and assembled – if he ends the weekend 112 points clear at the top of the standings. He currently has 104 in hand over Charles Leclerc and 106 over Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez.

His seemingly inevitable run to this year’s title comes in stark contrast to the way in which his battle with Lewis Hamilton was decided last year, and to how Hakkinen beat Michael Schumacher then Eddie Irvine to the 1998 and 1999 titles respectively.

Speaking on the new Flat Out with Mika Hakkinen section of The Race F1 Podcast, Hakkinen said the absence of an incentive to put everything on the line in such situations can invite a driver to lose concentration.

“It is for sure of very high interest for the whole team and particularly for Max to be able to get this year behind and to get that world championship result [sealed early],” said Hakkinen.

“But for some reason when you are in this position when you know that, ‘I’m pretty sure I will get it, I don’t even need to win a race if I’m top three a couple of times, that’s enough’, you’re losing a little bit of focus, and when you lose a little bit of focus in Formula 1 it’s incredible how the chance is to make mistakes, it’s incredible how much you lose per laptime, every lap, if you lose the focus.

“And I’m sure when Max goes to Suzuka he has to raise his concentration level more than normal, because the pressure what we are experiencing, that is a very positive thing – if he can turn that pressure to be positive.

“When you are going to grands prix and you just have to finish in a position, where is the pressure? How to maximise your body in a level that you then do it.

“It’s another challenge again that Max is experiencing now.”

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Hakkinen said it was also the responsibility of the team, in Verstappen’s case Red Bull, to encourage its driver to remain in the zone.

He cited the 1999 Japanese Grand Prix and McLaren’s response when it saw his laptimes starting to drop off as an example of this.

“I would say more for 1999 was the situation where I was quite comfortable in the race and it was still quite a few laps, but I knew, ‘That’s it, I’m going to be fine, I’m going to win this grand prix’,” he said.

Japan Grand Prix Suzuka (jpn) 29 31 10 1999

“It was incredible how the team reacted. Because they saw in the laptimes what I was doing [and thought], ‘hold on a second, now Mika’s started lifting the throttle, he’s not going flat out, he’s getting now so confident that everything’s fine’.

“The team really contacted on the radio just to say, ‘Come on man, keep pushing, go for it’ because it is also about the constructors’ championship.

“You never know; it could be a situation that way when there is 15 laps to go, you’re leading a grand prix by let’s say many, many seconds, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I just have to finish the race now’.

“But what if you get a little bit of puncture in your tyre, that way you must come to change the tyres? So you need to build up the gap constantly for your competitors, that way if something goes wrong you can still come [out] in front of your competitors when you do the pitstop.

“It’s teamwork; the team has to advise you and the human, when the driver is driving and it is the last grand prix and you’re leading a grand prix and you know you’re going to win the championship, you automatically in your mind start thinking, ‘I have to slow down a little bit that way I save the engine, that way the engine doesn’t break, the gearbox doesn’t break, drive that little bit slower that way I don’t make a driving error’.

“But it’s not the right thing to do; like I said, there can be some debris on the racetrack causing you some issue, so the team, that is teamwork advising a driving to put his back into action and not slow down, it’s a very important factor.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Singapore Grand Prix Practice Day Singapore, Singapore

Asked if sealing the title early would help because it will not have taken as much out of Verstappen as last year, Hakkinen said: “100% correct. He will have definitely have time to, physically, start preparing for next year.”

He again cited his title-winning campaigns with McLaren and while he said the team had given him “incredible confidence” before those races, having a title fight go down to the final grand prix of a season where the regular commitments of any other weekend are still expected of a driver can “destabilise your balance, preparing psychologically for the grand prix”.

“When you are constantly under pressure, it’s incredible how much you’re burning energy,” said Hakkinen.

“And that’s why this kind of moment when you know you are world champion, you can put your mind already [at ease and say], ‘OK, OK, now I can chill out, I can start training’ and psychologically and physically start already training for next season.

Japanese Grand Prix Suzuka (jpn) 30 01 11 1998

“In both my championship years, absolutely it was decided in the last grand prix and the marketing programme was very intensive for other months after the last race and in my time, we started testing quite early with the new car, and now regulations don’t let the teams test the cars so much so drivers do have much more time to focus on themselves if they want.

“But when you are paid lots of money, I think it’s very natural that you are maximising your commitment towards the team and when you start the following season that way you are absolutely flat out.”

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