Salo of the century

Mika Salo
Photo: Helen Flinders
Sarah Wakely

Formula One just isn’t the same as it used to be. Back in the days of yore when cars were cars and not just tarmac loving aeroplanes, there existed a wunderbar circuit in the middle of Germany named the Nurburgring. This track was the pinnacle of tracks, the jewel in the F1 crown, and represented all that was exciting - and dangerous - about the sport: 27 kilometers of winding undulating narrow track, which tested a driver’s ability to the limit. The track hosted 22 Grand Prixs between the years of 1951 and 1976, but was deemed too dangerous after Niki Lauda nearly killed himself, and that, it seemed, was that.

Ever resourceful, however, Formula One drastically cut out the long rambling roads at the Nurburgring, and instead introduced a purpose built circuit which held European Grand Prix’s during the 1980’s. Such a success was it that in 1997 the decision was taken to let the track host the Luxembourg Grand Prix, giving the excuse that Luxembourg is too small to have its own track. Thus the Luxembourg Grand Prix was born, and the track was given the revival it deserves.

Also a very different species back then were the drivers: far more likely to be found with cigarette in hand and a blonde on one arm, than with their long term partner, and fitness regime clasped tightly. It was thus with some relief, that, on meeting Finn Mika Salo at the Luxembourg Grand Prix, it appeared that there was at least one driver left who loved the speed in the sport, rather then the money. I began by putting to Salo the fact that this, the Luxembourg Grand Prix was the fiftieth grand prix of his career, something he was obviously unaware of and didn’t seem particularly worried about. "Is it?". Mika seems more interested in where I am from. "What are you doing, where are you from?" I tell him, and that I’m from London, and he smiles - he himself lives in Chelsea. Most drivers choose to live in the beautiful, extravagant tax-haven of Monaco. Mika, on the other hand, appears to love the excitement that our fair capital offers him. What does he think of London? Mika laughs. "It’s good".

It is well known in the Formula One pitlane that Mika Salo is a little unusual; when most drivers can be found on scooters in an attempt to get from A to B, Salo can often be found zipping round the paddock on a pair of rollerblades. Good friends with a certain Jaques Villeneuve, the pair represent the more rebellious side of the pitlane. Does he partake in any other sports? "Yes, I do some others; I do cross-country skiing, and snowmobiles, jet-skis, boats. Everything possible with an engine. I like ice hockey and I also do snow-boarding, things like that." I tell him I have heard that he has a motorbike as well; Salo verifies that he does indeed have a Harley Davidson. Our very own Damon Hill began his motor racing career on motorbikes before taking up in cars. Had Mika ever wanted to race bikes? Salo smiles. "No". Any reason why? "I’d just kill myself. I know myself too well." Which does he prefer to travel by when in London? "It depends where I am going, and if I have to take something or somebody with me. And in London, of course, there is always the problem of parking." In order to travel in the most stylish way possible, most Formula One drivers possess their own jet. Does Salo? "No, I rent one." Surprisingly for a man obsessed with speed, the man cannot fly planes. “I don’t like it. I like flying helicopters.” Does he have his own licence? "No, not yet. But I am working on it." And what is wrong with planes? Salo gives a sigh. “Flying aeroplanes is quite boring, actually."

Considering we are at one of the greatest tracks in the world, I decide to ask if he enjoys a quick blast around the circuit. Salo is more enthusiastic than at any other time in the interview in his reply. "Yeah, it is okay. But I still wish that we could race around the old one." Salo gives a huge grin. "Have you driven around the old one?" I tell him that we tried, but we weren’t allowed as it was so close to race day. He appears genuinely sorry for me. "It’s unbelievable" he enthuses, clearly savouring the thought of being able to race around a true racing circuit, away from the confines and problems that modern safety precautions have brought into the sport. "27 kilometers. It’s really, really good. The new Nurburgring is okay, but it is a normal stadium circuit, you know. They have made it very close." The man is clearly keen on traditional tracks. Which, then, is his favourite for a Sunday afternoon’s drive? "I’d have to say Spa Francorchamps and Suzuka." In Belgium and Japan, both tracks are known for being circuits that test the driver. What does he think of the British ex-airfield recently-altered Silverstone? "I don’t like it. It’s a bit boring." He grins. "An airport. It was a bit better before the changes, but it is too flat and there are no real challenging corners." Is the problem that it is too safe? "No, the tracks are never really too safe, no circuit is ever too safe.

"When did Salo begin motor-racing? "When I was five years old, twenty-five years ago. I started in karting." And why did he start? "I don’t really know. I used to live near a kart circuit and could hear the noise coming from there ever day. I persuaded my father to take me there and have a look. I was quite good enough so he bought me a kart. I liked it and it was good for my parents as well because I was always full of energy when I was young so it was a good way to get rid of all of that energy." Who were his heroes when he was younger? "I never really had any; I have always been too busy with my own racing career when I was young." Money is always hard to come by for any racing driver. How did the young Mika Salo manage to fund his own career? "In karting of course it was my parents who helped me. I got some sponsorship when I was in Formula Ford and Formula Three. After that I didn’t have any because Finland is too small a country to have three Formula One drivers at the same time; there was JJ (Lehto) , Hakkinen and me at the same time, so it was impossible for me to find money. So I went to Japan, where it was the only place to make money really and I didn’t need to bring sponsorship. So I stayed there for four years then I got this job.

"The hype and publicity that has surrounded two time race winner Mika Hakkinen has tended to leave Salo standing out in the cold. Despite being fellow countrymen, gossip has suggested that the Mikas Hakkinen and Salo are far from the best of friends. The rumour appears to stem from 1990, when both were racing in the British Formula 3 series. Salo was leading the championship, until he span out in a race which Hakkinen went on to win, and eventually take the championship. Indeed, Mika looks far from happy, when during the interview, he is presented with a fax with “Happy Birthday Mika!” splashed across it. Salo quietly points out that it is not his birthday but Hakkinen’s, and the fax is quickly taken away. Oops.

Was it always his aim to get into Formula One? "No, not really. I was happy in Formula 3000 and I was making good money, and I was just enjoying my racing. Then I did a couple of races for Formula One, so I knew by this time that didn’t want to go back into Formula 3000". Mika made his Formula One debut at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1994 with Lotus, finishing in 10th position, which he tells me was the best moment in his career. I ask him why. Salo laughs. "Because I had never been to see a Formula one race before in my life, I just thought it was something simple, and then suddenly I was sitting in one of the cars at Suzuka with no testing, nothing, and I was thinking, "Oh shit, what am I doing here?"" Would he change anything about his career? "Yes, I would, yes. I think that I spent a little bit too much time in Japan. Two years would have been enough, but I had no chance at that point to get into Formula One before".

Spending so much time travelling around the world, does he miss his home country of Finland? "I still like Finland very much, I still have family there. I go there as often as I can." If he had to choose just one thing, what would he say was the best thing about Formula One? Salo answers instantly. "Driving the cars." And the worst? "Travelling". Does he ever feel scared driving at such high speeds? "No, I don’t think about it." What job could he see himself doing if he wasn’t in Formula One? "I don’t know; maybe nothing." Racing is all he wanted to do? Salo laughs. "Oh yes." Which is his favourite part of the race weekend? Salo ponders the question. "The race is good fun. Secondly: the journey back home." Does he have to train very hard to be in Formula One? "Quite a lot, yes." And does he think that it is important? Mika thinks before answering. "It is quite important for everything really, because we fly so much, and we travel so much. If you are fit then you can take all the travel. It is much easier." Does he have to follow a special diet? "Yes." he replies, waving the bottle of mineral water in front of him. Which means he is not allowed to drink alcohol? "Sometimes" he grins slyly. "If I have a good race, or if I want to forget a race." Mika Salo may be a modern F1 driver, but still holds the values of past drivers that racing should be sport, and not a business. Hopefully, some things in Formula One will never change.

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