When Valtteri Bottas leaves the pits in Melbourne for his first weekend as a Mercedes driver, two out of the four most desirable seats in F1 will be filled with a Finn. Eight Finnish drivers have qualified for a Grand Prix and three of those have gone on to become World Champions. If Nico Rosberg had chosen to race in F1 under a Finnish licence, as he did in the early part of his career, then the statistics would further highlight the dominance of the Flying Finns. Bottas is in a position where he can very easily make it four out of eight. It’s an astonishing boast.
For a country with a population of only 5.5 million Finland has had an incredible amount of success not just in F1, but across the motorsport world. In rallying past they have the edge over their competitors, with greats Ari Vatanen, Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen all hailing from that tiny corner of the world. In 1967 Timo Makinen set the third fastest time in the Ouinpohja stage of the 1000 Lakes Rally, despite driving with his head stuck out of the side window because the straps holding down the bonnet had broken. It takes a certain type of driver not to be fazed by such adversity.
So what makes the Finns so adept at driving quickly? There are a few theories. The emptiness of Finland certainly plays a part, with it being common for teenagers to spend their evenings driving about on deserted lanes and farm tracks, honing the skills that will prove essential in a racing career. Football is of less importance than in most European countries and go-karting and snow-mobiling, along with ice-hockey, are national hobbies. All this exposure to driving creates an entire country who have been bitten by the racing bug. The arctic road conditions are also excellent preparation for rally driving and helps Finns to get ahead of young racing-wannabes in other countries.
Even the obstacles to racing can be seen as helpful. Finland’s isolation means that drivers have to be very dedicated and prepared to go to great lengths to have a real shot at success. Mika Salo had to sell everything that he had, take out numerous loans and work his way through school to afford his career. Whilst this is by no means unique to Finland, and teenagers and their families across the globe go through similar experiences to go racing, with little support available to young drivers the system ensures that only the most committed and hard working are able to rise to the top. These are the drivers who will exploit opportunities to the full and accomplish the most. The cool determination so ingrained in the Finnish psyche also cannot be overlooked as a potential advantage and this unemotional hard-headedness is seen to be helpful in getting ahead.
Whatever the reason, Finland doesn’t need to worry about its motorsport future. Today, the Toyota WRC team, with Team Principal Tommi Makinen, drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Juho Hanninen and test driver Esapekka Lappi are flying the flag for Finland and showing their continued strength in rallying. And much talked about teenager Kalle Rovanpera seems set to keep Finland at the forefront of rallying in years to come. Within F1, Valtteri Bottas’ move to Mercedes proves that the Finns are at the top of their game in the single-seater world too.
The prospects for young Finnish racers are better than ever. The Flying Finn 100 is an initiative in honour of a hundred years of Finnish independence that works to provide a hundred karts for young racers who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to compete. This proactive idea stands to ensure Finland remains highly relevant in motorsport. The recent creation of the SMP F4 championship by the FIA also eases drivers onto the single-seater ladder and allows Finns to have a stepping stone up to the fierce world of F3. And it isn’t just their four wheel future that looks bright. Finland is set to host a MotoGP round in 2018 for the first time since 1982. In Finland, motorsport runs in the blood, and there is nothing that other countries can do about it.