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Monday, June 27, 2022

Sisu and the forest roads to success: How Finland has dominated world motorsport

Alex Tennant-Holder explores the reasons behind Finland's motorsport success.

If you’ve ever watched competitive racing or delved into the history of motorsports, you’ll likely have observed an interesting, albeit strange, pattern. Among the many thousands of professional drivers over the years across many different racing disciplines, a great number of them hail from a small, sparsely-populated Scandinavian nation that is not often discussed within the sphere of world sporting success outside of those sports which rely upon the use of engines or snow. 

Listed as the ‘happiest country in the world’ as per the annual World Happiness Report, Finland is a country that I have been lucky enough to visit several times since a young age. It is a place of immense natural beauty, piercingly cold winters, and home to a population of straight-talking people (the name Kimi Räikkönen springs to mind!) who especially enjoy the outdoors and are seemingly unafraid of the elements. Finland’s land mass is 39% larger than that of the United Kingdom but its population pales in comparison; with only 5.55 million people living there as of 2022 as opposed to the UK’s 68.53 million. Outside of the largest cities such as Helsinki and Tampere which are mostly situated in the more naturally hospitable Southern half of the country, Finland’s landscape consists largely of vast swathes of woodland that are interspersed with over 187,000 lakes. In the words of Kimi: “Bwoah.”

Famous exports of Finland have included globally-popular tech products such as Nokia phones, wildly successful mobile games like Angry Birds and Clash of Clans, the very palatable Fazer chocolate, and much more. However, it has also produced some of the very greatest racing drivers both today and in the last several decades. From Formula 1 greats Mika Häkkinen, Kimi Räikkönen and current Alfa Romeo driver Valtteri Bottas, to the legends of rally racing such as Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen, the prevalence of Finnish drivers in the highest echelons of the motorsport world is something that no motosport fan or even novice observer can ignore. 

So what is it that gives the Finns such talent behind the wheel? Such a question, of course, has no single answer, but there are perhaps a few principal pistons that form the backbone of the Finnish racing engine. 

The first and arguably most unique of these components, is the Finnish concept of sisu. A Suomi term, this concept is hard to define, and indeed many Finnish people will say that it has no true English equivalent. However, it might most easily be understood as a spirit of ‘guts’, ‘courage’, or ‘determination’. Many years ago, during the golden era of pre-punch Top Gear, Mika Häkkinen explained it to James May as such: “Climbing a tree and jumping down from there, that doesn’t mean sisu. That is not courage. Sisu we can very much relate to in motor racing. For example, you’re driving a rally car in a forest extremely, really fast, and you need courage to be able to brake late, to go on the throttle really early, to go really close to the apex of the corners.” 

‘Courage’ is quite apt in capturing the basic essence of sisu; but seems to serve as an oversimplification. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching some Finnish rally driving – when you come back, you will likely agree that ‘courage’ is not quite the whole picture. Drivers launch their cars into corners, they fly over bumps, slide their wheels over gravel roads and try to avoid the many people on the side of the track whipping their heads around to follow them, who are also quite possibly the bravest (or craziest?) spectators in the sporting world. At 2021’s Rally Finland competition – dubbed the ‘Grand Prix of Rallying’ – drivers clocked an average speed of 123kph on narrow gravel roads. At those kinds of speeds, one mistake can prove fatal; and yet, the Finns have perfected the art of pushing themselves and their cars to the limits in a way that some Finnish people have translated as ‘going beyond one’s own abilities’, leaving no room for fear to produce extremely costly errors, or, even worse in their eyes, slow laps. 

The surroundings and environment of Finland are also a key factor in explaining how Finnish drivers have had so much sporting success in relation to the country’s size. Due to the routine envelopment of asphalt roads with thick snow each winter and the reliance upon rural gravel roads in order to get around, many Finnish people learn to drive cars in different terrains by practicing on quiet tracks from extremely young ages. It is not uncommon for children to regularly partake in woodland racing events, or learn to control slides on Finland’s many frozen lakes. 

The national driving test system is also among the strictest in the world, with drivers required to have completed at least 18 hours of formal instruction (including a mandatory spell on ice) as well as 19 theory lessons – prior to the two tests – in order to receive their interim licence and legally drive on public roads. If that wasn’t enough, they must take a second test after two years in order to gain a full licence. If you’ve experienced the British driving test (or indeed most countries’ tests), you’ll appreciate just how demanding this system is; and it’s therefore no wonder that most Finnish drivers’ base qualifications and abilities seem far better than those found elsewhere. 

In conjunction with the collective sisu spirit, Finnish society has created a special place for motorsports in its culture which enables all kinds of people, both old and very young, to participate in the sport and enjoy the communities and opportunities that it provides. ‘Folk racing’ is a popular pastime in Finland, which involves local people using inexpensive vehicles (often capped at a value of €1,000) to race one another at small gravel circuits all over the country. Racing is in many nations viewed as an upper-class sport that excludes the majority of those who have an interest in it on the grounds that they cannot afford to procure, modify and maintain cars or track fees, but Finns have lowered the barriers to entry and transformed it into an accessible activity that everyone can take part in, whatever their ability. Those that do particularly well are sometimes lucky enough to enter the professional racing world, while others are able to enjoy the sport for its own sake without breaking the bank. 

Accessibility within motorsport is something that most fans agree should be improved upon significantly (the overall costs of becoming a Formula One driver, for example, is said to run into the tens of millions of dollars), and although the inherent costs of the sport will always be a barrier to some, perhaps we should take more heed of the way in which the Finnish people have helped to open up the activity to as broad a demographic as possible. Indeed, how can a nation truly discover its greatest potential champions, if its youngest and brightest talents are never given the opportunity to develop themselves?

Motorsport is to Finland, as the NFL is to America or cricket might be to India. It both informs and is informed by the nation’s culture, serving as a product of the development of the society in which it exists. Finland’s reputation for all things mechanical following its independence from Russia in 1917 as it developed its own economy and identity brought it great success in industry and manufacturing; it naturally followed that this love for engineering combined with the country’s unforgiving environment and sisu spirit to produce a place for its citizens to thrive behind the wheel. 

Say what you will about the brilliance of Brazil’s Senna, Austria’s Lauda, the strength of the Spanish Sainz racing lineage or the many talents of Scottish drivers – in any case, the Finnish have truly carved a place for their nation in the history of all things motorsport, and they’re showing no signs of slowing down. 

Image Credit: Sarah Vessely / CC BY SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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