One of the world’s greatest living drivers is ambling down an open stretch of Lake Shore Boulevard, not a car to be seen in the distance.
“Let ’er rip, Mika,” someone in the back seat says.
Mika (Hakkinen) ignores him. Mika is a 10 and 2 driver. Mika treats 60 km/h like the sound barrier.
Hakkinen, the two-time Formula 1 world champion, is in Toronto for the day promoting an anti-drunk driving campaign for Johnnie Walker whisky. We are riding in an engine-with-doors – a 450-horsepower Mercedes.
Earlier, in this same car, Hakkinen went up north of the city and peeled his initials into the tarmac of an empty parking lot for the amusement of the cameras. Someone has shown me the pictures. It looks insane.
“Can we do that again?” Hakkinen wonders hopefully. “No,” he’s told.
Chastened, Hakkinen reverts to his city-Mika guise.
The vehicle leading us puts on its four-way hazards as we leave.
Mika refers to it as the “pace car.” This is promising. We’re planning to go quite fast then, are we?
“No,” says one of two flacks wedged into the back-seat bench. “This is so we don’t get lost.”
During his career, Hakkinen was renowned for two things – his precision while piloting the spacecraft that is a Formula 1 car, and for being gigantically blasé about the whole thing. If you’d removed the flame-retardant suit during the post-race pressers, you’d have guessed Hakkinen was the world champion of Chinese checkers.
We’re toodling along now. Far too slowly. Like, the slowest car on the road. Like, if we went any slower, we’d be travelling backward. In time.
I suppose you don’t like traffic.
“Oh, I hate it,” Hakkinen says, eyes locked on the road ahead.
I imagine you spend a lot of time buzzing around the back roads of Monaco (where he lives), all Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief.
“It’s a small country. Only, like, 10 minutes from one end to the other. Twenty, if there’s traffic.”
Well, this is going poorly.
Hard to get rid of those racing instincts though, right?
Hakkinen agrees. Then he drifts quickly up to the bumper of the lead car. He gets so close – maybe an inch away, on the outside – it’s impossible to believe he hasn’t rubbed them. One of the backseat flacks exhales so frantically, we are all in danger of carbon-dioxide poisoning.
Hakkinen smiles: “I am always being careful.”
He has a business relationship with Mercedes. He also has five kids. So these days, he drives a Mercedes truck. This strikes me as a (very small) tragedy.
Have you ever got a speeding ticket?
“Yes, once,” Hakkinen says. “It was a day or two after I got my driver’s licence. The speed limit was 40. I was going 50. Very annoying. I couldn’t believe it.”
Neither can I.
Hakkinen started his car-racing career in his native Finland at six years old. SIX. He’s 45 now. Maybe he’s just all raced out.
Now we’re crawling through High Park. Joggers are passing us. I am out of questions. All I want in life is to be taken to pant-wetting speeds by a madman. So this weekend, I’m going to ask my mom to drive me somewhere.
Could I drive a Formula 1 car? (This is my sad attempt to coax the inner animal – presumably a sloth or a very sleepy koala – out of Hakkinen).
“Of course you could,” Hakkinen says brightly. “If you could fit in it.”
This just keeps getting better! We stop in the park so that the photographer can drive up ahead and wait to get us in an ‘action’ shot.
“Give it a rip!” a backseat flack tally-hos once more. Hakkinen inches forward as if we’re driving a dump truck across a rope bridge.
I give up.
We’re nearing the end of our Sunday-on-Thursday drive.
Hakkinen and his rep begin discussing their business forays into more exotic climes. Occasionally, the moneymen will be given an opportunity to tear around a racetrack at 240 km/h with Mika at the wheel.
“They need to get a medical check first,” Mika says. “Because some of them are not in such good shape and, you know, the shock.”
He points at his heart. I try not to burst into tears.
The flacks are in the back seat working their phones and Mika and I are up front sharing a complementary pain. He would like to go faster. I would like him to get his wish. But, you know … rules.
We pull up to our embarkation point.
“Oh, we’re back already,” Mika says sadly.