The Flying Finns
The first Finnish sportsman to be dubbed ‘The Flying Finn’ actually used foot power rather than horsepower. It was a fellow called Hannes Kolehmainen, also known as ‘Smiling Hannes’ who won three gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in neighbouring Stockholm.
After Hannes came Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren, but after the man who won Olympic 5,000/10,000m golds in Munich and Montreal, Finland’s long distance talent dried up and Flying Finns have been exclusively wheel men.
First, it was the rally drivers. Before the world championship proper even began, in 1973, Rauno Aaltonen had pioneered ‘the Scandinavian Flick’ – the practice of flicking a car sideways ‘the wrong way’ on the approach to a corner, so as to increase the arc as you powered through.
Opponents marvelled at how such a small country could produce so constant a stream of driving talent. Probably though, it was down to the fact that controlling a car on snow and ice became second nature.
As well as Aaltonen in the early days, there was Timo Makkinen and Hannu Mikkola and in 1968 Castrol released a film highlighting the battle between the pair for the 100 Lakes Rally.
It was Markku Alen who became Finland’s first world rally champion in 1978. He was followed in the eighties by Ari Vatanen, Mikkola and Timo Salonen. In the mid eighties, the brutish Group B rally cars with almost limitless power were stunning to watch but a series of awful accidents resulted in the cars being abandoned. One of those saw exciting Finn Henri Toivonen killed alongside co-driver Sergio Cresta on the Tour de Corse.
Juha Kankkunen then won the world title four times in eight years before Tommi Makinen won it four times in succession from 1996. The last Finnish champion was Marcus Gronholm in 2002.
Leo Kinnunen was the first circuit driver to adorn his crash helmet with the Flying Finn legend, winning the World Sportscar Championship for Porsche in 1970. By the end of that decade Finland had a racing driver promising great things in F1. More cosmopolitan than some of his rally contemporaries, Keke Rosberg lived in Cookham Dean and joined the big time when he won the world championship with Williams in 1982.
He did it in a tragic year which witnessed the deaths of Gilles Villeneuve and young rookie driver Riccardo Paletti, as well as Didier Pironi’s career-ending shunt at Hockenheim. Ground effect sealing skirts were back after the FISA/FOCA political war, with attendant rock hard suspension to stop them destroying themselves. The drivers loathed the cars and complained that there was no warning of where the limit was and that the g-forces were so high and the ride so awful, that they got double vision. Eleven different winners in 16 races told you how tough it was. Rosberg won just one of them but his title was hard-earned nonetheless.
JJ Lehto was the next to break through to F1, closely followed by Mika Hakkinen, the only Finn to have claimed more than one world title, in 1998-9. Hakkinen was the only driver of that era who Michael Schumacher truly feared and with good reason, Hakkinen beating him after season-long tussles in Michael’s third and fourth seasons with Ferrari.
Hakkinen it was who also pulled off one of the most memorable overtaking moves in F1 history. It came at Spa in 2000, amid another lead battle with Schumacher. On one lap, Schumacher moved over on Hakkinen, ushering him towards the grass at 200mph plus as they approached the braking area at the end of the great Belgian circuit’s long straight.
Had there been wheel-over-wheel contact, it would have been an aircraft accident. Hakkinen was furious. Now steelier than ever, he followed Schumacher around the next lap and as they went through the famous Eau Rouge corner back onto the same straight, they came upon Ricardo Zonta’s BAR-Honda. Coming over the brow, Schumacher flicked left and Hakkinen, his boot firmly planted, shot alongside the startled Zonta on the right, two wheels on the grass, and passed both of them. Afterwards, Mika quietly explained to Michael, with the aid of some measured hand movements, precisely what it was he hadn’t enjoyed… Very classy.
Kimi Raikkonen had Hakkinen-style talent and won the championship for Ferrari in 2007 after coming close with McLaren four years earlier, but lost his Ferrari seat to Alonso and switched to the World Rally Championship. Kimi, like Mika, was never exactly verbose. As with many of the Flying Finns, he was a man of few words but loud actions.
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