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Stepping stones to F1: Mika Hakkinen and Allan McNish

Submitted by on February 14, 2012

The route used to be simple: Karting, Formula Ford, F3, F3000 and F1. Easy huh?

You would think, but then along came another feeder series in 1988, EFDA (the European Formula Drivers’ Association) Opel Lotus. EFDA’s Euroseries run by Dan Partel had already generated careers for Ayrton Senna, among many, many others when the series was run for Formula Ford. The Opel deal came along, and the marketing behind it was just what the series needed. The races ran on Sunday mornings before the Grands Prix, meaning there was a big audience for the teenage racers, as well as early exposure to what would become an F1 life.

Drivers now had difficult choices. But there were big sponsors and names like Camel, Marlboro, and team owners like Derek Bell and Paul and Jackie Stewart involved.

Allan McNish: “When we were making a decision about what I should do for 1988, I spoke to Jackie Stewart, as I was being advised to stay in Formula Ford and race in the coveted works Duckhams Van Diemen car. Then Marlboro came up and I had the option of both – crazy FF1600 action, or slicks and wings. Jackie basically said: ‘Look… How many races in Formula 1 are won in the last corner like Formula Ford? They’re not. Whereas to get to F1 you will need to learn about slicks and wings.’

“That was one of the reasons I went the Opel Lotus route,” McNish continues. “The other thing for me was the buzz in the Euroseries and the EFDA paddock, and it really had clicked in my head by then that this was a car that I could drive, rather that something that was driving me.”

Mika Hakkinen, meanwhile had been racing extremely successfully in karts in Finland, then won EFDA’s FF1600 title in 1987. He was snapped up by Marlboro and Dragon Motosport, and partnered with McNish, the Finn won the 1988 EFDA Opel Lotus Euroseries, while McNish won the British Vauxhall Lotus title. Honours shared, but as the Scot explains, it was more than just a school. It was a lesson in life.

“It was a time in our careers when we had not been brought up to be the most formidable, selfish drivers solely thinking about becoming Formula 1 superstars as the kids are today,” the Scot says. “There was an extra ‘give’ in us as people that is not there in 18-20-year olds today who are already very honed professionals. Back then our fitness training consisted of going down the water slides at Spa after qualifying or dive-bombing people in the hotel pool. I think the limit of my exercise at that time was carrying my luggage to the airport. I bet the young guys today don’t even have to do that themselves. It was just a different mentality in a different era. It was right for that time.

“I signed to race for Marlboro and Dragon Motorsport,” he adds, “and Mika was my team mate. The second race of the Euroseries was at Paul Ricard in France on the Grand Prix bill. That was the first ever F1 support race for Opel Lotus. It’s not like today, then you could access the paddock. James Hunt was one of the advisers to Marlboro for Mika and he was always at the Grands Prix for the BBC commentaries, and I just used to wander down to McLaren or Marlboro in the F1 paddock to speak to James because passes weren’t an issue. For a young driver, suddenly you were in the Mecca! This was it. Our paddock was often a bit shite, tucked away, and our races only 15 minutes on a Saturday or Sunday morning. But it was great exposure.”

The pair of them were 18 and 19 years old, kids basically learning lessons for life. McNish: “I flew to Frankfurt to race at Hockenheim with 10 Deutsche Marks in my pocket. I got a taxi. The bill was about 140DM. The cabbie wasn’t pleased….”

Mika meanwhile, having shared a house with Mcnish, had moved to West Hampstead in London, and was learning to live on his own. Stories abound about how little he knew about life, apart from racing. But that was all he needed to know, right? The scraggy hair had gone, and he was smart looking – a sponsor’s dream.

Life’s lessons and team-work were still being learned. McNish: “It helped that we drove almost everywhere. That Opel Lotus year, Mika, the team and I drove practically for a month around Europe to the races. You have to remember that a flight from Scotland to Europe was the same price as a flight to America! So it was cheaper to drive, and it also meant that we spent so much time with each other. Ok, there were obviously fractious moments – as competitors there are bound to be – but spending a month on the road together can only make a team tighter.

While Allan’s career soared into F1 test driver-land, Mika’s stumbled. A move to F3 with Dragon for 1989 and a Reynard was not the right move for the Finn, but the following year, fully armed, he won the British F3 Championship, and starred at Macau against future F1 rival Michael Schumacher.

The EFDA Opel Lotus days were a great training ground, not just for racing, but dealing with the world of F1. Rubens Barrichello, who was the 1990 champion describes it as “The best learning school I ever went to.”

McNish sums it up” “The openness of the paddock meant that you could go into a Formula 1 hospitality unit, knock on the door, and say ‘Hi, I’m Allan McNish, this is what I’m doing.’ It allowed you to become known at an early stage in your career.

The pair were a dream for Marlboro. McNish became McLaren’s test driver for Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger, while racing for DAMS in F3000.

Since then, Hakkinen won two world championships, and was arguably Schumacher’s toughest rival. McNish has become a star in sportscar racing with two Le Mans wins, two American Le Mans Series titles, wins at Sebring – and he and Mika also crossed paths again in the DTM in 2005.

He’s also been an F1 commentator, tested for Renault, and in 2002, his years of developing Toyota’s sportscars paid off with an F1 drive.

It’s a long way from the EFDA Opel Lotus days, but that is where Mika and Allan learned their professional trade.

Special thanks to @AllanMcNish

By Andy Hallbery follow me on Twitter @hallbean

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