Brilliant role models and a fascination with technology have made Finland a front-runner in motorsports.
The fashion in which Kimi Räikkönen won the Formula One world championship came as a surprise to many. But the fact that Räikkönen became champion after several years of trying probably did not surprise anyone who follows the sport.
Räikkönen’s exceptional talents became known as early as 2001 when he debuted in F1 after skipping over two formula racing series that drivers normally compete in before advancing to the pinnacle of car racing.
There may have been more confidence in Räikkönen because he’s a Finn. Over the decades Finnish drivers have snapped up Formula One and World Rally Championship titles, as well as winning championships in Grand Prix motorcycle racing, Motocross, Trial, Enduro, Ice Speedway and Snowcross.
For years, the directors of rally teams have known the sure-fire recipe for success: “If you want to win, you need a Finn.”
Reasons behind the success
Relative to its population, Finland has been the number one country in the world in motorsports, measured by international success.
But what is it that makes Finns so successful?
Kari O. Sohlberg, Chairman of AKK-Motorsport (AKK), believes that car racing became ingrained in the Finnish psyche back in the days of the Eläintarha Race, which was held in Helsinki from 1932 to 1963.
“After that we got a few role models: Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Mäkinen were successful in rally racing back in the 1960s, while in Formula One Keke Rosberg blazed the trail by winning the title in 1982.”
Most success stories have a varied background in different motorsports. Rally drivers have sped on Finnish dirt roads since their teenage years, while all Finnish F1 drivers have started their racing careers in the karting series.
Professor Matti Urrila, who specialises in the psychological coaching of athletes, believes that it was Rosberg who left Finns with an important cultural legacy a quarter of a century ago.
“At first, people made fun of him but, in the end, he proved that anything is possible. The victory boosted the confidence of our increasingly motorising nation. No-one’s chances were doubted anymore,” says Urrila, who has long co-operated with Marcus Grönholm and earlier with Mika Häkkinen.
Matti Urrila stresses that in rally and Formula One circles, personal connections are also important.
“As a result of our drivers’ success, Finland has an abundance of expertise in how to become a World Champion in Formula One, for instance. Beginning with sponsorship and connections, there is a very realistic understanding of what it takes. And that puts Finland in quite a unique situation,” believes Urrila.
For example, Keke Rosberg has managed Mika Häkkinen and Jyrki Järvilehto (J. J. Lehto), whilst in rally racing, businessman Timo Jouhki has worked as the manager for Juha Kankkunen, Tommi Mäkinen and Mikko Hirvonen.
The success of present Finnish (car) racing drivers owes a great deal to AKK’s coaching programme which prepares young, promising karting and rally drivers for an international career. In addition to driver training, the programme includes training camps, psychological coaching, rehearsal in public performance, teamwork and career planning. Kimi Räikkönen and Heikki Kovalainen are examples of drivers who have gone through this coaching programme.
“We employ coaches from each sport who systematically scout for talents. Three to four prospects are taken into coaching. We also have our own TV productions with which we aim to guarantee publicity for our young talents and their partners in co-operation. We even had motorsport professionals from the UK a few years ago who wanted to share our expertise and get acquainted with our system,” says AKK’s Sohlberg.
But all of this would not be possible without the special character of the Finnish nation.
“Finns are fascinated by technology, the collaboration of man and machine. War reparations that had to be paid to the Soviet Union after the Second World War could not have been taken care of with agriculture alone, so we started developing our engineering industry. As a result, our society became mechanised,” Urrila explains.
It is hardly a coincidence that Kimi Räikkönen has studied as a car mechanic at a vocational college, Mika Häkkinen studied plating and welding and Mika Salo was an electrical fitter.
The job of a mechanic is also familiar to Juha Kankkunen, Tommi Mäkinen and Marcus Grönholm who have wrestled with tractors while working as farmers in their spare time.
But the final truth about Finland’s success may be summed up by this:
“Finns are crazy,” said World Rally Champion Sébastian Loeb in the summer at the Neste Oil Rally Finland, in Jyväskylä, after losing to Marcus Grönholm.
By Pekka Anttila, November 2007; a version of this article originally appeared in the weekly news magazine Suomen Kuvalehti, issue 43/2007
Finnish World Champions
Table updated in May 2022.