Whenever you achieve success in a hugely competitive field, people like to believe there is some secret behind it, like a recipe that can be followed again and again. Over the years I have been asked many times why Finns make such quick racing drivers, as if there were some genetic predisposition towards great speed, or some quirk of the climate or geography, or maybe even something in the water!
Still, a journalist once told me that Finland has produced more motor racing world champions per capita than any other country. Who am I to argue with statistics?
Perhaps it is because we start early. Certainly my introduction to driving came earlier than most – long before I was big enough for my feet to reach the pedals, in fact. The first time I ‘drove’ a road car I was two years old. Almost every family in Finland has a summer cottage to which they retreat for weekends away from the city, and ours had a long private road leading to it. We were in the car and my dad said “Jump on my lap.” I did the steering.
That was my first taste of driving and I loved it. That is where it all started for me.
I started racing in karts at the age of nine, against my friends at first, and I have some fantastic memories of that. Also I remember learning some of the real basics of racing at that time, lessons that would remain ingrained throughout my career: you need to be safe, give the other guy space when you are passing – or being passed – and not bang wheels.
But any nine-year-old learns that in karts, right? That is not unique to Finland.
Our country is not very densely populated, but it is pretty big, fairly remote, and a lot of the land mass sits within the arctic circle. Many of us grow up enjoying outdoor pursuits and winter sports. It makes us tough, tenacious and self-reliant, and maybe a little crazy sometimes, too – because you want to have fun in those dark winter months, right? All those elements feed in to that typical Finnish quality - sisu - which is hard to translate into English but refers to our tough attitude and desire to enjoy life despite the adverse conditions.
When you grow up in Finland you have to acquire the skills to drive in slippery conditions, because we get a lot of snow throughout the winter and you just have to get used to it. Now, I have lived in other countries where this is not the case – I will not name any names – and at the first sign of snow on the roads everything descends into chaos.
I drove a road car properly for the first time when I was 13 – again in a private area, I should add – and, although I was big enough to reach the pedals by then, I had to sit on a couple of pillows to see over the wheel. It was winter, so the surface was dusted with snow and ice. All you could hear was the sound of the engine and gears, and the light crunch of the snow under the tyres.
It being the early 1980s, the car had a manual gearbox and no traction control or power steering. It was a very pure lesson in raw car control: just me, my hands and my feet, feeling out the constantly changing equilibrium of grip and slip, smoothly synchronising every input into the throttle, brakes and steering, while trying to be flat-out, of course.
For sure, ice and snow are among the fundamentals of learning to drive in Finland. You learn early to feel when the car is sliding, or about to slide, and which end is going first – or the whole car. Your body becomes attuned to the messages the car is sending it. No doubt about it, that helps you if you want to become a racing driver.
There is more to becoming a professional driver than just talent, though, because the road to Formula 1 is a long one and you need help along the way. I think, over the years, Finnish drivers have assisted one another as they come through, led by Keke Rosberg. When he won the Formula 1 world championship in 1982 it gave us all confidence – that not only could we break through, but also we could win the ultimate prize.
I was 14 then, the perfect age to be inspired. Four years later I met Keke for the first time, when I was karting in Italy, and soon afterwards we began having discussions about my future. In 1988 Keke became my manager, and we achieved a lot together. By 1991 I was in Formula 1 with Team Lotus, and you probably know the rest.
Later I gave a little help to Kimi Raikkonen, another son of Finland, but only in a friendly way, since I was still busy at McLaren-Mercedes with my own racing career and, besides, Kimi was being managed by Steve Robertson and his father, the late David Robertson. But, from the first time I saw Kimi in a kart, I knew he was very quick, and inevitably I got to know him a little bit – but more so when he reached Formula 1 with Sauber, in 2001, and was regularly in the Formula 1 paddock.
By then I was giving some thought to retirement, and, that same year, 2001, I engineered a meeting between Kimi and McLaren-Mercedes boss Ron Dennis at Guy de Laliberté’s Cirque du Soleil party after the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. Then Kimi flew back to the UK for the Silverstone test with me on my jet, and we talked some more.
It was a friendship rather than a business relationship, as I say, but I was very pleased when it bore fruit in the form of Kimi’s taking my drive at McLaren-Mercedes when I retired at the end of the year.
At McLaren-Mercedes, Kimi was quick straight away, and only mechanical unreliability prevented him from winning the world championship in 2003 and 2005. In racing you do not always get that many chances, but finally in 2007 he won it with Ferrari. I was pleased for him and for Finland, and satisfied with the very small part I had played.
Now I am working with Valtteri Bottas, another fellow Finn, and I am very proud of him. He has a great personality and that, in many ways, is as vital to becoming a complete driver as is being quick. When he and I first met, I invited him to my apartment in Monaco, and we had a productive discussion about what he wanted from his career. In some ways it reminded me of my first encounter with Keke, but with my role reversed of course. Valtteri said he wanted to become Formula 1 world champion, and I had no doubts about his ability to do so. I knew we could work well together.
In Formula 3 I first saw the extent of his talent behind the wheel. Formula 3 is and always has been a tough series. The cars are technically demanding and the other drivers are usually at a high level. At the first test at Hockenheim the track was damp, and, as Valtteri went out on his first run, I said to myself, “Let’s see what he can do.”
Almost immediately he was absolutely flat-out. At Turn One his car swooped from entry to apex to exit, from kerb to kerb to kerb, on a perfect line, its driver leaving no margin. He was totally on it: early on the gas, a little bit sideways, but always under control. And he improved throughout the test, learned from his few mistakes, and was quick all the time.
“He’s got it,” I said to myself.
And now, watching him from the sidelines, I really enjoy it. I am pleased by how good he is. But, more than that, besides being quick and committed in the car, he is also a proper team player, and you can see how well all his working relationships have gelled. He will go far.
Although, at the age of 47, I have no desire to race again myself, my passion for racing will never leave me. Every time I drive anything I get great pleasure, but I do not want to race. I have done it, and I have won in so doing, and I do not need to do it again. It is up to the others now.
And my son? Hugo tried karting, and he was good, but it was not his passion. He is 15 now, and his passion is football. He is committed to trying to become a professional football player and I will support him in that. I do not mind that he will not become a professional racing driver, although I would have supported him if that is what he had wanted. You support your kids like that, don’t you? Anyway, it is tough for a racing driver to be the son of a double Formula 1 world champion, because it makes things harder as well as easier – just ask my old friend and rival Damon Hill [whose father was double Formula 1 world champion Graham Hill].
So, football it is for Hugo, with my maximum support. I am there for him. For Hugo and Valtteri. For both of them.
And that, I think, is one of the reasons Finns make such good racing drivers. It is part skill, part sisu, but mostly it is about where we are from and how we support and inspire one another along the way.
Would I say it was the secret of our success? Perhaps, but it is still not something like a recipe or a template. We do not have a secret racing driver factory hidden in a remote part of Lapland (the northernmost region of Finland), as I have sometimes heard rumoured!
Anyway, to sum up, if this blog entry has seemed unusually reflective, I think that is because this is the traditional time of year for all of us to get together with our families, to celebrate and reflect on the year that has passed, and to look forward to a bright future. Although this the final blog of my mclaren.com series, I have very much enjoyed writing them, and I do hope you have enjoyed reading them just as much.
All that is left is for me to wish you a hearty and enjoyable festive break, however you choose to celebrate it, and good fortune in whatever the new year brings.
And, whatever you do, do it flat-out!