What do you say when you get a chance to meet your hero?
That was the thought that was going through my mind the moment I put my hand on the doorknob, about to walk into the room for our 20 minutes with Mika Häkkinen.
Rewind about 20 years. Back then, I was just a 9 year old kid, glued to the TV for the broadcasts of the 1991 Formula One season. I wasn't much of a fan of Alain Prost, because like most people who weren't French, I was (and still am) a Senna fan.
That season, which the Brazilian eventually won as the driver's champion (his last one) was remarkable that it launched the career of two new rookies: a certain Michael Schumacher with his chin and one Mika Häkkinen with his ice-cool demeanor. Immediately you can see the greatness in the two drivers, especially with Schumi in the Benetton and Mika in the number 11 Lotus.
After two years at Lotus (then a team in decline), he was partnered with Ayrton Senna for 1993. Perhaps the greatest achievement for that '93 season was the fact that on his debut, the Hakk, which would be then called the Flying Finn, outqualified the qualifying master: his team mate. At that moment I knew this would be the guy I would keenly watch every Sunday raceday.
I wasn't disappointed, as in the following seasons, Mika wowed us with his driving. He won the world championship in 98 and 99, pushing his West McLaren Mercedes and other drivers on the grid to the limit and beyond. His battles with his F1 batchmate, Michael Schumacher were legendary, perhaps the most memorable of which came in the 2000 season with his insane overtaking maneuver at Spa-Francorchamps' Kemmel Straight into Les Combes at well over 300 km/h... all to the bewilderment of of one sad, sandwiched backmarker.
I have to admit, I lost interest in F1 when Mika announced his sabbatical after the 2001 season. I'm a Schumacher fan too, but watching him from win every driver's title from 2002 to 2004 without Häkkinen to battle with, Schumi seemed like the salt without the pepper. It just wasn't the same.
After mixed results at the German touring car championships (DTM) and a second retirement from competitive racing, Mika is once again touring the world circuit, this time as the Responsible Drinking Ambassador for Johnnie Walker.
Which brings us here to the Shangri-la hotel in Makati as we get a chance to get face to face with the Hakk, the Flying Finn or (perhaps the best name he's ever been called) the one man Schumacher feared most on the track. After the exchange of pleasantries, we get on to pick his brain about his new life after F1 and as a part of Johnnie Walker's Join The Pact campaign for responsible drinking.
A few minutes into the interview, we were surprised. He was a much nicer person than we expected. Of course we've seen his post race interviews on TV and how different he was when it comes to answering question after just spending the better part of 2 hours in a hot, noisy, brutal Formula One car.
Some just wanted to get out of the room (that's you, Kimi), some can almost put you to sleep (again, that's you, Kimi), some seemed arrogant (that's you, Irvine), but Mika was very different. His post-race quips (after a win, mind you) were usually laced with a bit of humor and quite a bit of light sarcasm... all to the laughter of us watching at home or those lucky enough to be in the room with him.
He seemed to genuinely believe in Johnnie Walker's cause... unusual as it may be for a company that bottles the world's leading brand of scotch whiskey to advocate such a pact.
"The whole campaign is not to tell people to stop using alcohol," says Mika Hakkinen. "Enjoy your life. Choose the right moment. Drink responsibly and never drink and drive."
Now I'm beginning to get why they picked Mika Häkkinen to do their Join The Pact campaign. Lewis and Jenson, yeah, possibly, but they're still at the age where the parties never end... especially with the F1 lifestyle. Kimi Raikkonen on responsible drinking? Hell no.
Mika today still has the look in his eyes that commands attention, yet he disarms any misconceptions about Formula One Finns, especially when it comes to their ice-cold nature. He still parties with Johnnie Walker for their events all around the world, but his dignified presence and warm demeanor tells us that he's long past the crazy partying back from his championship days at Suzuka's Log Cabin, and is walking on (sorry, couldn't help it) to what the future will bring for him.
If our 20 minutes with the Flying Finn has told us anything, it's that Johnnie Walker certainly has the right man for the job.