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 have a true character both on and off the track which make 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 the north Europe that is specially known around the World because of it's big motorsport stars. How can a small country like Finland have many talented drivers with success? I would say it's because of the dedication that Finnish people have for motorsports since their childhood and also because of a so called "sisu". The meaning of the word "sisu" is quite difficult to explain because it doesn't have a proper translation into English but I would explain it as a some kind of combination of determination, dedication and power. Finland has three World Champions in Formula 1 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 who made a only start in the series. After him, a driver called Mikko Kozarowitzky tried to join the sport but ended up to be disqualified on the qualifying. He didn't have any proper race starts in his career. Later it was Keijo "Keke" Rosberg who arrived to the sport stayed there and also laid a strong foundation to the sport in the country. When Rosberg started driving in Formula 1, the sport was very 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 in tv on that time and thanks to Keke, in the 80's Finnish TV started to show more of the sport. Keke was the first Finnish driver to have enough talent and he won the championship in 1982 with a car that wasn't even the best. And this was another step in making F1 more popular here in northern country.
When Keke retired from F1 after the 1986 season, he started to support young Finnish drivers to get forward on 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 of both of these drivers. Unfortunately JJ Lehto's career in F1 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 wasn't fully recovered to race with the powerful F1 cars. This was the end of his career in F1. The best result of his career was 3rd and he was the second Finn in the history to get on the podium.
Meanwhile In 1991, Mika Häkkinen had his 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 team mate of Ayrton Senna. In his first qualifying with McLaren, he was able to beat Senna, which made people really notice his name. Sadly, in 1995 Häkkinen suffered a serious accident in Adelaide. He thought he could never get back to the elite of F1 after the accident, but he was wrong. He proved that he has the so called "sisu". He came back fighting. Couple of years after the accident, he started to have his proper success in the series. In 1997, he managed to get his first pole position and the 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 totally 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 still is very respected driver around the World and he means a lot for Finnish people. Later on he tried DTM for couple seasons and managed to get couple of victories as well.
Third Finn who arrived in the beginning of the 90's was Mika Salo, who fought 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 injured Michael Schumacher in Ferrari and he made his best result in F1 at the German GP. He was about to win the race but he gave the position for his team mate Eddie Irvine and finished second. In 2000 Salo moved to Sauber and then joined to help Toyota 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 has been racing 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 to F1 at a very rapid pace. He won the British Formula Renault Championship and in 2000, Sauber offered him a test in 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 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 reliability once again. 2006 was a difficult season too and it was announced that Räikkönen will move to Ferrari for the 2007 season as Michael Schumacher was retiring. And the contract ended up well, as Räikkönen won the championship in 2007 and became the 3rd Finnish driver to be the F1 World Champion.
2008 continued with some victories and Kimi was in the title fight, but in the end he lost his chances for the championship. In 2009 Ferrari's car wasn't good, but Kimi was able to win at Belgium. In 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 looking with the fact 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 also 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. In 2010 Kovalainen made a big decision and joined a new team Lotus (switched it's name to Caterham in 2012) to help them in this new project as a racing driver. Kovalainen has raced for the team until today, and is right now 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 surely is hungry for more victories in 2013 if not 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 feeder series of F1, there were two Finnish drivers racing in GP3 - Aaro Vainio and Matias Laine. The Finnish double 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 potential to show. These two guys are quite different and actually makes me think about Räikkönen and Kovalainen. Laine is more closed and more quiet person, similar to Räikkönen, while Vainio reminds 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 very much resources but it's totally worth of it if the young driver has a true talent. The money spent for the sport when being young will be easily paid back with success later. Of course, not everyone are going to have this success if they aren't talented.
In Finland there are karting series, and some of the young drivers compete karting in Central Europe, also. For Formula Series, you must leave 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 License, but a track where F3 and World Series by Renault could complete, for example. Surely it would be amazing if our country had a proper race track and if F1 could arrive to our country, because we have such a good and 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, if this ever happens, the time for a race track is not now. In general Finnish sports men and women are having a difficult time. We used to have success in winter sports along with motorsports, but in winter sports we are having big difficulties. We used to win and have great results as individuals and as teams in ski jumping and skiing, for example. Also in some normal atheletics there has been always someone from Finland who has success. But these days our sports are having very difficult time and mostly it's because there aren't proper financial support for our sports right now. Training is difficult. So because of this, I don't believe we will get a racing track any time soon. But I hope some day 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 can get a racing track. One day.