Country rallies around leading drivers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 December, 1995, 12:00am

FINLAND is probably better known for its rally drivers than racing drivers. The reason behind this phenomenon can be found in the fact that, for much of the year, the country is covered by snow and the drivers need to be adept at controlling their cars under constantly changing conditions.

The most famous rally driver is probably Hannu Mikkola, now retired but, in his day, the quickest man over a rally stage no matter what the car. Competing in the 555 Hong Kong-Beijing Rally this year, after winning the event for Subaru in 1993, was fellow Finn Ari Vatanen. He was driving alongside Sweden's Kenneth Eriksson for Mitsubishi.

Finland's Juha Kankkunen was leading the World Rally series until the penultimate Catalonia Rally in Spain. The eventual winner was Scotland's Colin McRae. Kankkunen has won four world titles and has consistently demonstrated he is one of the world's leading rally drivers.

Keke Rosberg, world champion racing driver in 1982, is from Finland, as is his protege, Jyrki Jarvilehto, or JJ Lehto as he is more popularly known. JJ has raced in Formula One for six years without a great deal of success and, following a severe testing accident last year at Silverstone and the subsequent tragic deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in May last year, Lehto appeared to have lost his outright speed.

JJ was dropped by the Swiss Formula One team, Sauber, in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen from Germany.

This year, JJ has raced an Opel Calibra V6 in the highly competitive DTM series, hoping to revive his career and prove that he still has the talent to succeed.

At Tyrrell, Mika Salo has recently been confirmed as number one driver for the 1996 season after making his debut with the team this year.

The best-known Finnish Formula One racing driver is, of course, McLaren's Mika Hakkinen. Managed by countryman Rosberg, Hakkinen has this year not had the results he deserves with McLaren-Mercedes due, in part, to the problems the team has had with its recalcitrant chassis and all-new Mercedes V10 engine.

Hakkinen has been both Scandinavian and European Formula Ford champion, a European Formula Vauxhall champion, British Formula Three champion and a Lotus Formula One driver.

Hakkinen's speed is undisputed but he still makes mistakes, notably at the Belgian Grand Prix this year when he spun off on the first lap.

He is now recovering from a serious accident suffered during practice at the Adelaide Grand Prix. But he is on the road to recovery and has a good chance of starting the 1996 season.

Only 27, the Finn has it in him to become world champion.