Championship Denied – The Other Finnish F1 drivers
Back in early 2014, I wrote a blog about the history of Nordic drivers in Formula One. In that blog, I mentioned that for the relatively small number of F1 drivers who have come out of Finland, Finns have achieved the most success out of all the Nordic countries (Norway and Iceland being exempt on the count of no drivers from these countries ever making it to F1s).
Indeed, there have been only eight Finnish F1 drivers since 1974, of which three became world champions. Aside Mika Häkkinen, Finland’s only double champion, Kimi Räikkönen achieved a championship in 2007 on his maiden season in Ferrari and Keijo “Keke” Rosberg (pictured right) made Finland known as an F1 country with his 1982 championship.
Valtteri Bottas of course is still at the very start of his career, but it occurred to me that it would be interesting to also look at the Finnish F1 drivers who sadly never achieved championships during their time in the sport.
Indeed, despite Finland’s success in Formula Ones, the early years of Finnish entries in the sport were anything but glorious. Leo Kinnunen (pictured right) became the first Finnish F1 driver seen in a Grand Prix in the Swedish GP in 1974. It would also, sadly, be his only Grand Prix as Leo failed at every other qualifying he was a part of (to give some context, over 50 drivers competed throughout the season). The afore-mentioned Swedish Grand Prix also holds the record for the most Nordic drivers seen on track in a single F1 race. Aside Kinnunen, he faced three Swedish drivers and one Dane, Tom Belsø.
Kinnunen’s brief stint in the Surtees AAW ended with a retirement from the race. Astoundingly, it was Belsø who achieved the best result of the Nordic drivers by finishing eighth (notably beating future championship runner-up Ronnie Peterson who retired from the race). Kinnunen was far more successful in circuit racing outside F1s (making his mark with the Daytona 24 hour race) which is where he spent the rest of his motorsports career.
Also, frequently forgotten, Mikko Kozarowitzky tried out for two Grand Prixs at RAM Racing in 1977 but failed to qualify both times. His second qualifying in the British Grand Prix also caused a hand injury that put him aside for the rest of the season. A lack of funds prevented him from racing in F1s afterwards.
Jyrki Järvilehto’s career in F1s was full of obstacles from uncompetitive teams to simple rotten luck which effectively ended his career. He adopted the racing alias JJ on the insistence of his coach and mentor Keke Rosberg. JJ started his career in the abysmal Onyx team starting in late 1989 and then driving the majority of the 1990 season. Jyrki’s best result during this time was a 12th in the San Marino Grand Prix.
Next year, JJ switched to BMS Scuderia Italia, a lacklustre outfit which surprisingly saw Lehto achieve his only and the team’s second podium when he finished third in the San Marino Grand Prix. However, due to the unreliability of the car, Lehto only saw the chequered flag three more times during the whole season. His second season with the team was underwhelming resulting in no points. A brief one-season stint at Sauber saw him score points in 1993 but he didn’t achieve much else thereafter.
1994 was a year of utter misery for Lehto despite the fact that he had signed with Benetton as the team-mate of one Michael Schumacher who went on to win his first championship with the team. Lehto instead injured his neck just before the start of the season and had to sit out on the first two Grand Prixs. When he returned his injury kept making racing difficult for him and his results were depressingly poor as a result. Forced to sit out on a third of all the races, Lehto switched back to Sauber to replace Adrea de Cesaris for the last two races of the season.
Despite his underwhelming F1 stint, Lehto went on to achieve success in LeMans, becoming the American LeMans champion in 2004 and beating the 24 hour LeMans in 1995 and again in 2005. He also had a long career in F1 broadcasting which ended abruptly in 2010 when he was involved in a drunken boating accident which resulted in the death of his friend.
Mika Salo’s F1 career would be filled with unmemorable mediocrity were it not for one lucky break during his sixth season in the sport. Salo tried to carve a niche for himself by racing in the Japanese Formula 3000 series in the early 1990s. He made his F1 debut in the Japanese Grand Prix in 1994, the same race where JJ made his switch to Sauber from Benetton. With the presence of a certain McLaren driver by the name of Mika Häkkinen, Salo’s debut at the end of the season resulted in the season ending Japanese and Australian Grand Prixs to be the only two occasions when three Finnish drivers were seen on track.
However, Salo’s brief 1994 stint in Lotus was not impressive and he wound up jumping from one bad team to the next in the following years. He suffered three undignified years at the Tyrrell team which saw him disqualified twice in 1996 for car irregularities. In 1998, he switched to Arrows which proved to be an extremely unwise move due to the state of the team.
In 1999, Salo substituted for Ricardo Zonta at British-American Racing for three races but his chance at glory really came after the first eight races of the season when Michael Schumacher was forced out of the championship race after breaking his leg in the British Grand Prix. Ferrari’s championship hopes rested on Eddie Irvine and Salo was hired to race as his team-mate. This led Salo to drive his single best season. Though he only finished on points twice, he achieved podium finishes both times, with a second place in the German GP and a third place finish in the Italian GP. This was enough to land him 10th in the standings at the end of the season.
Salo’s success even led to a brief Mika vs. Mika ad campaign in Finland from Shell. However, Salo would never achieve similar success again, driving a single season at Sauber in 2000 and one for Toyota in 2002. Instead, Salo would go on to win the 24 hours LeMans race on two consecutive years in 2008 and 2009, has dabbled in F1 commentating and is a regular at the race stewards’ panel for GP events.
And then we come to Heikki. Kovalainen debuted at Renault back in 2007, the same year Kimi Räikkönen achieved his championship at Ferrari. It was the year which saw McLaren have a somewhat shaky season with Lewis Hamilton losing the championship at the last second and McLaren being disqualified from the constructors’ championship due to the Spygate Scandal. Adding insult to injury, Fernando Alonso didn’t like playing second fiddle to a rookie having won the championship the two years previous and left the team in order to return to Renault. This is when Heikki had his shot of a lifetime.
Heikki’s rookie season had been extremely promising with a podium finish in the Japanese Grand Prix. He seemed to be on his way up the F1 food chain with three podiums on his first McLaren season, one of them coming from a race victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix. In 2009 however, McLaren hit a slump with Brawn GP and Red Bull battling for the championship. Lewis Hamilton recovered at the end of the season to push McLaren back into the Top-3 in the constructors’ ranking, but Heikki’s accomplishments were quite minimal.
McLaren jumped at the chance to hire Brawn’s champion racer, Jenson Button, the next year to make an all-British line-up. Heikki instead hopped on board the debuting Lotus Racing team which would later become Caterham. While Heikki felt relieved in the new work environment, Lotus proved to be extremely uncompetitive. Heikki stayed committed to the team for three long seasons but eventually lost his race-driving position in 2013 (though was hired as the test-driver late in the season).
Heikki unfortunately blew his last chance to improve his F1 resumé when he was hired by Lotus (ex-Renault) to replace Kimi Räikkönen for the final two races of the season. Räikkönen had to step aside due to a back injury requiring surgery. In his two Lotus races, Heikki landed 14th both times. Heikki now races in the Japanese Super GT series.