Finland has a growing presence in Formula 1. Not only has it produced some of the top drivers of the sport, but some of them had a true character both on and off the track which made them even more popular. But for a country which doesn’t have a proper infrastructure for motorsports, what could have been its secret recipe to success?
Finland is a country in north Europe that is specially known around the world because of its big motorsport stars. How can a small country like Finland have many talented and successful drivers? I would say it’s because of the dedication that Finnish people have for motorsports since their childhood and also because of “sisu”. The meaning of the word “sisu” is quite difficult to explain because it doesn’t have a proper translation in English. But I would explain it as some kind of a combination of determination, dedication and power. Finland has had three World Champions in Formula 1 so far and we can mainly thank our first World Champion, Keijo “Keke” Rosberg for the tradition we have now in the sport.
The very first Finnish driver in F1 was Leo Kinnunen. After him, a driver called Mikko Kozarowitzky tried to join the sport but ended up being disqualified on the qualifying. He didn’t have any proper race starts in his career. Later, it was Keijo “Keke” Rosberg who arrived in the sport, stayed there and also laid a strong foundation for the sport in the country. When Rosberg started driving in Formula 1, the sport was quite unknown in Finland. In general, people here are interested in sports where Finnish people are good at. Finnish TV didn’t have much of F1 broadcast at that time and thanks to Keke, in the 80′s, Finnish TV started to give more coverage to the sport. Keke was the first really talented Finnish driver he won the championship in 1982 with a car that wasn’t even the best. This was another step in making F1 more popular here in the northern country.
When Keke retired from F1 after the 1986 season, he started to support young Finnish drivers to get forward in their careers. He worked behind two Finnish drivers, the well known double World Champion Mika Häkkinen and Jyrki Järvilehto (who often used the name “JJ Lehto” to make his name easier for international fans). Keke worked as a manager for both these drivers. Unfortunately, JJ Lehto’s career ended sooner than planned because he injured his neck in a very serious testing accident in 1994. He was able to make a comeback but he didn’t fully recover to race with the powerful F1 cars. This was the end of his career in F1. The best result of his career was a 3rd place finish and he was the second Finn in the history to get on the podium.
Meanwhile in 1991, it was Mika Häkkinen’s turn to get into Formula 1. He started his career with Lotus. Later, he joined the McLaren team as a test driver and soon got the chance to race as a teammate of Ayrton Senna. In his first qualifying with McLaren, he was able to beat Senna, which made people really take notice of him. Sadly, in 1995, Häkkinen suffered a serious accident in Adelaide. He thought he could never get back among the elite of F1 after the accident, but he was wrong. He proved that he had the so called “sisu”. He came back fighting. Couple of years after the accident, he started having proper success. In 1997, he managed to get his first pole position and his first victory. In 1998, he was winning consistently and fought for the title with Michael Schumacher and won it. He became the second Finnish driver to win the Formula 1 championship and thanks to him, F1 became very popular in Finland. Everybody loved Häkkinen. He was a local hero for everyone. I remember this very well because I grew up watching Häkkinen. In 1999, Häkkinen managed to win the championship again and Finland went completely crazy. In 2000, he was still fighting for the championship but this time, it was Schumacher who won it. 2001 was his last year in F1 and after that, he decided to retire. He is still a very respected driver around the world and he means a lot to the Finnish people. Later on, he tried DTM for a couple of seasons and managed to get a few victories as well.
The third Finn who arrived in the beginning of the 90′s was Mika Salo, who competed a lot with Mika Häkkinen on smaller Formula series. In 1994, he joined the series with Lotus. Later, he raced with Tyrell and Arrows. In 1999, he had a chance to replace the injured Michael Schumacher in Ferrari and he got his best result in F1 at the German GP. He was about to win the race but he gave up the position for his teammate Eddie Irvine and finished second. In 2000, Salo moved to Sauber and then joined Toyota to help with their F1 project. Salo continued working with Toyota and became their race driver in 2002. This was Salo’s last year in F1. Afterwards, Salo raced in many different racing series, mainly with GT cars.
In 2001, another Finn, Kimi Räikkönen stepped into the series. He was very young and made his way in F1 at a very rapid pace. He won the British Formula Renault Championship and in 2000, Sauber offered him a test in the F1 car and the team was impressed. Sauber signed Räikkönen who had only 23 races behind him in Formula cars. In his first race with Sauber, he managed to get points and as the season progressed, people managed to recognize him. In 2002, McLaren signed him after Mika Häkkinen’s retirement. He managed to get his first podium in his first race with McLaren but his first year was very difficult as McLaren wasn’t a reliable car. In 2003 at the Malaysian GP, Räikkönen won for the first time and he was able to fight for the championship, but lost it to Schumacher by 2 points. 2004 was another difficult year. In 2005, he fought for the championship with Fernando Alonso but lost it, thanks to problems with car’s reliability once again. 2006 was a difficult season too and it was announced that Räikkönen would move to Ferrari for the 2007 season as Michael Schumacher was retiring. The contract was great, as Räikkönen won the championship in 2007 and became the 3rd Finnish driver to be crowed as the F1 World Champion.
2008 continued with some victories and Kimi was in the title fight but in the end, he lost his chance for the championship. In 2009, Ferrari’s car wasn’t good, but Kimi was able to win at Belgium. At the end of the year, it was announced that Fernando Alonso was coming to the team. Kimi didn’t have a contract and couldn’t get a seat from another top team, so he made his decision to leave the sport and pursue other interests. He decided to move to World Rally Championship with Citroen. He did quite well, keeping in mind that he is a driver who is used to drive on a track rather than on (dirt) roads. He collected some points in his rally career. In 2012, Kimi made a come back to F1 with Lotus and ended up his championship nicely in 3rd position and with one victory.
In the modern times of Formula 1, there has been another Finnish driver, Heikki Kovalainen. He started in F1 as a test driver for Renault in 2006 and stepped up as a race driver in 2007. In 2008, Kovalainen made a switch with Fernando Alonso and went to McLaren. He was yet another Finn to step into the McLaren car. In his 2 year McLaren career, he had one victory to his name. In 2010, Kovalainen made a big decision and joined a new team, Lotus (switched its name to Caterham in 2012). Kovalainen has raced for the team till now and is currently without a contract. The future will show if Kovalainen will continue in F1.
So, what is the future going to bring for Finland and F1? Räikkönen will continue his career with Lotus and is surely hungry for more victories in 2013, if not the championship. The question is, will Lotus be a competitive car? It’s something we will see when the season starts. Another interesting thing is that another young Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas has a race seat for Wiliams this year. Bottas managed to win the GP3 championship in 2011 and spent the 2012 season learning how to work with the Williams team. Time will tell if Bottas will be another Finnish star. Kovalainen’s future is a big question. Maybe we will have 3 Finnish drivers in F1, or maybe only 2.
Looking at the feeder series of F1, there were two Finnish drivers racing in GP3 – Aaro Vainio and Matias Laine. The Finnish duo finished in 4th and 5th places in the championship this year. Neither of these young Finns have revealed their plans for the 2013 seasons but I could guess they are thinking about continuing in GP3 or possibly moving into GP2. They are both still young and have great potential. These two guys are quite different and actually remind me of Räikkönen and Kovalainen. Laine is more closed and quiet person, similar to Räikkönen, while Vainio reminds me more of Kovalainen as he is a very chatty guy.
Apart from Vainio and Laine, there surely are young Finnish karting drivers who have a dream and a goal – to compete in Formula 1 and to win the F1 championship. In general, Finns must have dedication and money to get forward in their careers, but I think this is what the motorsport is in every country these days. The sport is very expensive and takes much resources but it’s totally worth it if the young driver has true talent. The money spent for the sport when being young will be easily paid back with success later. Of course, not everyone is going to have this success if they aren’t talented.
In Finland, there are karting series, and some of the young drivers compete in karting in Central Europe too. For Formula Series, you must go to Europe. In Finland, there doesn’t exist a proper international racing track, even though we have lots of talented drivers. It’s something what I would like to see here in the future. It doesn’t need to be such a big track that it would be ready for Formula One, but for example, a track where F3 and World Series by Renault could compete can be built. Surely, it would be amazing if our country had a proper race track and if F1 could arrive here because we have such a successful history in F1. The population of Finland is only 5 million people, but there are so many racing fans and I’m quite sure the race would be a success.
But being realistic, the time for a race track is not now. In general, Finnish sportsmen and sportswomen are having a difficult time. We used to have success in winter sports along with motorsports, but in winter sports now, we are having many difficulties. We used to win and have great results as individuals and as teams in ski jumping and skiing, for example. Also, in athletics, there has been always someone from Finland who has had success. But these days, we are facing a very difficult time due to the lack of proper financial support for our sports. Training is difficult and because of this, I don’t believe we will get a racing track any time soon. But I hope someday this would be possible, and it would be a great thing for us Finns; the people with “sisu”. And with “sisu”, we can get our sports back to the top, and maybe get a racing track. One day, surely.