What’s Behind the Incredible Success of Finnish Drivers in Formula One?

Genetics, geography, luck — or all the above?

Ryan Turpin
16 min readAug 1, 2021
What’s behind the incredible success of Finnish drivers in F1? Featuring Valterri Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen, Mika Hakkinen, and more.

Note: This story was researched and written during the course of the 2021 Formula One season. No data from the current season was included in the statistics used.

Part I — Defining Success

I wouldn’t know of any other way to start this article other than to prove that, indeed, Finnish drivers as a whole are far more competitive in Formula One than drivers of any other nationality. For some readers, no convincing is needed; many longtime racing fans have heard the phrase, “If you want to win, find a Finn.” Others may find this claim surprising, and probably harbor some doubt about its authenticity. For them, I will do my best to paint a complete picture.

A total of eight Finns have raced in the sport (nine if you count Mikko Kozarowitzky, who entered two races in 1948 but started neither¹), and between them are 56 wins.² That makes for a whopping 6.22 wins for Finnish drivers on average — nearly twice as many as the next best nationality can boast (Brazil, with 3.16, followed by Germany with 3.14). In the race wins per capita category, Finland has enjoyed more than twice the success of both Austria and the United Kingdom, and has five times more wins per capita than Germany — and almost 25 times more than Brazil.³

Only the city-state of Monaco bests Finland in this category, but based on its tiny population of 39,000, and the fact that one in three residents is a millionaire, it’s safe to say that Monaco doesn’t make for a fair comparison to any other country in the world.

For context, a brief aside:

My interest in racing comes from childhood, when speed was a daily after-school pursuit, facilitated by bicycles and rollerblades, and the origin of many bloodied knees. My interest in Finland came much later, shortly after meeting the woman who I’d go on to marry, and increased greatly when we moved from the U.S. back to her home country. It was impossible to not want to understand this eccentric group of people boxed in by Scandinavian poster-child Sweden on the west, and oft-maligned superpower Russia on the east. In what did their identity lie? What served as the famously quiet Finns’ collective voice?

As it turns out, competition in general is partly the answer to that question. In addition to Formula One (henceforth shortened to F1 for the sake of convenience), Finns excel at many other competitive activities. Most, in fact, if they put their mind to it. From continuous BBQ grilling and video gaming to the most ice-fishing and skinny-dipping, Finns are nothing if not one-uppers at their core. They hold the most dog shows (adjusted for population), drink the most coffee, and yell the loudest. It’s far from all being frivolous, I should note. No less than 462 Olympic medals have been brought home to Finland over the years. The country is also found at or near the top of global rankings, year after year, in categories like government, education, and economic stability.

Racing, though, is where Finns can’t help but show out. Be it on skis or in cars, they have a penchant for winning. Finnish researchers have even managed to set a speed record involving quantum particles. In fact, a similar article to this one could be written about the World Rally Championships (WRC), with the only difference being that Finns are even more dominant in that sport than they are in F1.

Finland doesn’t have all that many historic F1 drivers per capita, barely making the top 10 (out of 40 countries), yet it has the most champions per capita — more than twice that of Belgium, Austria, and the U.K. — as well as the most driver championship titles of any country when adjusted for population. In that light, Finland’s four titles spread out over three drivers⁴ makes for a phenomenon that’s every bit as impressive — in this author’s opinion — as Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton’s seven titles each.

There’s another category Finland is top in, one that’s possibly more impressive than any of the others: champions per driver.

Having more drivers than another country doesn’t guarantee more success, even when adjusted for population. The U.S. has fielded 158 drivers in the sport’s history, but only 33 wins have been achieved between them all. France, meanwhile, is the claimed nationality of only 71 drivers, but together they have won 80 races. If that was the only available data, the obvious conclusion must be that French drivers are simply better, on average, than American ones. Add in the fact that the U.S. has two champions to France’s one, however, and you might start second-guessing yourself.

Interestingly, both countries have a nearly identical rate of champions per driver. For every 1,000 F1 drivers the U.S. produces, past data suggests there should be roughly 13 champions. For France, that number is 14. For Austria and Belgium, tied for second in the category, it would be 121. Australia and New Zealand aren’t far behind at around 112.

Were Finland to produce 1,000 F1 drivers, however, the prediction for champions jumps drastically, to 333! Another way of putting it is that historically, one of every three Finnish drivers to sit behind the wheel of an F1 car has won a championship (and two of those drivers never even finished a race).

This single statistic is arguably more powerful than any other in making the case that Finns truly are dominant in F1. That leads us to the real question — why? Why does coming from Finland make drivers more likely to win races than any other nationality, and why does it make them drastically more likely to win a championship? This is where we start to get into the fun stuff.

Part II — The Driving Culture

Kimi Räikkönen (19 seasons, 103 podiums, 21 wins, 1 driver’s title) was once quoted as crediting Finns’ winning ways to their native country’s geography and climate.

“Our roads and long winters,” he said when asked why Finland produced so much racing success. “You really have to be a good driver to survive in Finland. It is always slippery and bumpy.”

It’s not easy to tell — it never is — whether Räikkönen’s tongue was firmly planted in cheek while making that statement. If it were true that rural, icy roads were instrumental in Finland’s racing prominence (a possibility that would more realistically factor into the Finns’ dominance in WRC), then why don’t we see a similar trend out of other Nordic countries, or, for example, in Russia?

This notion is a small piece of a larger sentiment shared by more than a few armchair commentators, many of whom reference Finland’s strict requirements for obtaining a driving license. While it’s true that the requirements are more stringent than those of many other countries, the logic doesn’t hold up, as almost every F1 racer begins their driving career well before the minimum age to train for a standard vehicle license. Aside from that, it’s fairly easy to make the argument that the skills involved with driving a passenger car well — even very well — don’t translate all that well to piloting a multi-million dollar racing machine with around 1000 brake horsepower.

Long roads, poor conditions, extensive practical and theoretical driving training — do these combine to form a “culture” of driving that somehow gives Finnish drivers an edge? Nothing can be proven here one way or the other, but the argument feels weak at best. Saying that Finns excel in F1 because of Finland’s “driving culture” is a bit like saying Americans excel at Olympic basketball because of the United States’ “sports culture.” The truth is that the U.S. has so many Olympic golds in basketball because, broadly speaking, Americans love basketball … and Finns love racing.

All of this isn’t to say that culture doesn’t play a part. In fact, culture may be the biggest factor. But rather than “driving” culture, I would give the credit to something much more specific — racing culture.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Finn who isn’t at least aware of the country’s legacy in racing. More significantly, many of them are active participants. Jokamiehenluokka (jokkis for short) translates to “everyman class,” and references a historic brand of folk racing specific to Finland, where indeed, every man (and woman, and non-gendered or gender fluid person who can reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel) is more than welcome to join in the racing. Jokkis was featured in the 12th season of Top Gear, during which Mika Häkkinen (11 seasons, 51 podiums, 20 wins, 2 driver’s titles) teaches show host James May about the sport. At the end of every jokkis race, contestants are obligated to sell their vehicle if another driver wants to buy it — thus keeping competitive advantage to a minimum, and racing to its purest. And this much is true: when it comes to grassroots racing, snow and ice aren’t enough to slow things down.

“Racing culture” is definitely a step closer than just “driving culture” in explaining Finn’s success on the track. But to understand the depth of it, we have to look at tangible products of that culture, how they got there, and what they mean.

Part III — The Racing Culture

Economic development must play a role in any conversation about national participation in a sport like F1. Without karts, tracks, equipment, and other resources (namely, money), none of the above factors would make any difference. And while Finland isn’t the world’s richest country, it’s nowhere near its poorest, either.

At least 20 official karting circuits can be found in Finland, which is about the same number as its Nordic neighbor Sweden, which boasts twice the population and is a much wealthier nation. The U.K., meanwhile, is home to roughly 66 million residents and around 100 karting circuits. That’s 12 times the population of Finland, but only five times the number of tracks. The point of these comparisons is that karting is — debatably — much more accessible in Finland than in many other countries — and these circuits are where potential F1 drivers cut their teeth.

Circuits are just one factor, though. There is also a strong, organized effort to secure long-term success of Finns in global motorsport, evidenced by grass-roots racing programs like AKK’s Flying Finn Academy, where the most promising young drivers learn from Finland’s best racing coaches. It’s no coincidence that Kimi Räikkönen and Valtteri Bottas (as well as world rally champion Esapekka Lappi) came up through AKK’s coaching system.

Another lens worth looking through is that of the sheer power of social networks. To explain its importance in this context, we first need to take a small detour into the history of Finnish presence in F1.

The Keke Factor

Finns in F1 can easily be classified in one of two categories: pre-Keke or post-Keke. For the uninitiated, “Keke” refers to Keke Rosberg, Finland’s first formula world champion. Despite being the third Finn to compete on the track, Rosberg’s nine-season tenure in the sport marked the true beginning of Finland’s F1 legacy. His 17 podiums, 5 pole positions, 38 points finishes, and 5 wins were all the first in their respective categories for Finland, and threw open the proverbial floodgates.

In Part I, I make the case that champions per driver is the greatest indicator of Finland’s outlying F1 success. To demonstrate the difference in the pre- and post-Keke eras, I’ll refer you to the fact that if we look only at post-Keke, Finland’s already incredible rate of 0.33 (one champion for every three drivers) in this category skyrockets to 0.42.

Prior to Keke (whose son Nico raced under the German flag and won the 2016 F1 World Championship), two Finns earned a spot behind the wheel, but combined for a total of one race start and zero career points — hardly the picture of dominance, but Keke’s success seemed to light a fire. It wasn’t just the idea of winning that Keke introduced, however. He also facilitated a direct transfer of expertise, going on to recruit and manage his successors, fellow Finns Jyrki Järvilehto (JJ Lehto) and Mika Häkkinen. Lehto raced for six seasons and secured only one podium, but Häkkinen picked up the torch from Keke and ensured Finland’s success wasn’t a one-off. Häkkinen’s career stats, including 51 podiums, 26 pole positions, 25 fastest laps, 20 wins, and two world champions are arguably the most impressive among all Finnish drivers to date.

Even though Lehto’s career doesn’t compare to Häkkinen’s (for instance), the pre-Keke and post-Keke eras are still clearly demarcated. Every driver since Keke has finished in the points (Räikkönen has done so 215 times!) — two have won championships. The relationships between Rosberg, Lehto, and Häkkinen are far from the only connections you’ll find if you dive into the off-track world of Finnish F1. In this sense, Finland’s small population is actually propelling its success, keeping knowledge, skills, and resources “in the family.”

Big Money

Another way in which Finland benefits from its small population is the ability of up-and-coming drivers to secure sponsorship from deep-pocketed Finnish companies that are seeking to market their products globally. Mika Salo was sponsored by Nokia, Häkkinen and Lehto had Neste, and Valtteri Bottas enjoyed the support of billionaire-backed conglomerate Wihuri for 20 years. Wihuri also sponsored the only Finnish team to have entered an F1 series, the AAW Racing Team, in 1974.

The obvious counter-point is that most young drivers who end up in F1 are sponsored, and while that’s true, corporate sponsors in countries with much larger populations — and hence, more young racers — are inherently taking a bigger gamble on individual drivers.

All of these things — karting circuits per capita, grassroots development, corporate sponsors, and close relationships in Finnish F1 circles — are pieces of the puzzle, and contribute to an environment in which Finns are in some ways disproportionately poised for success. The success of Finnish drivers, in other words, isn’t random. Winning racers aren’t wildflowers; they are meticulously cultivated prize roses.

In fact, while I started with the question of why Finns are so good at F1, a better question might be this: If you want your child to become an F1 driver, should you move to Finland?

Part IV — Ice In The Veins

The arguments put forth in Part III go a decent way toward explaining why so many Finns (by population) eventually find themselves behind the wheel of a Formula One car. What they don’t explain is why those drivers end up winning races, much less championships. To enhance the complete picture a bit further, we can visit a well-known Finnish trope embodied by the word sisu.

It is said that sisu doesn’t translate well to English. Wikipedia equates it to “stoic determination, tenacity of purpose,” and “hardiness,” but Finns themselves aren’t quick to constrain it with a fixed definition. Broadly speaking, it’s the potential or ability to access a sort of mental or emotional strength that is deeper or more extensive than initially clear. However you define sisu, it’s at the core of Finnish culture, and no Finn exists who isn’t familiar with the concept. It’s credited with everything from the Finns’ ability to endure boiling, 200 degree saunas and swims in icy lakes to their defeat of superpower U.S.S.R. in the “Winter War” of 1940.

Sisu is the stuff of legend, and unsurprisingly, is present in most conversations about Finnish sporting success. But does it help F1 drivers win races? Of all the factors this article attempts to explore, this one is by far the hardest to assess from a factual standpoint. Not only is sisu impossible to observe in any way (much less to quantify), but giving credence to it as a major contributor to race wins almost seems disrespectful to the immense skill that F1 drivers must consciously develop and deploy in order to compete in the sport. To whatever extent it exists, after all, the widely accepted notion of what it means to have sisu isn’t so far removed from simply having good luck in terms of biology and upbringing.

However, sisu is closely related to — and often conflated with — another quality that Finns more definitively exemplify: impassiveness.

To be impassive is show little or no emotion, which is a trait associated with Finnishness almost to the same degree as sisu. I met my Finnish wife while she studied for her Bachelor’s degree in the U.S., and coincidentally, a required textbook for one of her courses stated that Finnish people are “emotionless.” Needless to say, that is a gross mischaracterization, as Finns feel plenty of emotion. What the author was undoubtedly referring to is the fact that you would never know it by looking.

Case in point: Kimi Räikkönen’s endearing nickname, “The Iceman.” There are two possible connotations here, and both work. First, that Räikkönen’s comes across as “cool” (if not downright cold) in the sense that he is generally reserved and brusque. If ever there was a human embodiment of the phrase “to not mince words,” it would be Kimi. The second, equally applicable meaning of “Iceman” is Kimi’s ability to seemingly deflect all stress, worry, or nervousness, on and off the track. A quick listen to any of his (somewhat rare) press interviews or to any of his in-race communiques paints a clear picture of this. “Not much, really,” was how Räikkönen once answered when asked about his emotions after a nail-biting win at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

From a worldly perspective, The Iceman’s behavior may seem odd or even off-putting. But put him alongside fellow current driver Valtteri Bottas, and you’ll see two peas in a pod. More to the point, most Finns can be seen behaving like this, particularly when interacting outside of their innermost social circles. Make no mistake, Räikkönen’s sense of humor is well-rounded and intact. He, like many Finns, simply doesn’t care for small talk, and has a predilection for showing a minimum amount of emotion.

Unlike sisu, impassivity — often mistaken in Finns for shyness or the more closely related introversion — is objectively real, and in some ways measurable. And whether you think of it as an eccentricity, a blessing, or something else entirely, the natural ability to remain cool under pressure clearly has serious implications in a context like Formula One. Team drama, personal rivalries, self esteem, career prospects, celebrity status — all these are at stake on the track as drivers simultaneously navigate G-forces and speeds of over 350 kilometers per hour.

While racing in Monaco in 2006, Räikkönen’s car caught fire due to a wiring issue. With not so much as a hint of stress in his voice, he piloted it to a portion of the track with plenty of shoulder, safely parked, and calmly exited the vehicle. If that’s not ice in the veins, I don’t know what is.

Part V — Putting The Pieces Together (Conclusion)

The bottom line seems to be this: the reasons why a statistically high number of Finnish drivers make it to F1 and excel when they get there are many and complex.

Of course, this isn’t the answer we want. Humans thrive on categorization; differentiation; perceived causality. We want things to be simple and explainable, because life is just easier that way.

In this case, the reality seems to be that all the factors mentioned in Parts II-IV are self-reinforcing because of their relationship to one another. This is the way a spider’s web works, too — it’s not the strands that matter, it’s the whole, created by their connections. The more success that Finland has in racing, the more capital — human and otherwise — gets created in Finnish racing circles, and the more resources get diverted toward continuing that success. Take any one thing away, whether it’s the many karting circuits, the corporate sponsors, or the typical Finnish level headedness, and the legacy could crumble.

To the extent that this story has a “so what” factor, I think it’s off the track, outside the paddock, and maybe even totally unrelated to racing. Finns dominate in F1 — so what? The underlying web of narratives shows us a few things:

One, that a simple question like “Why are Finns so fast?” is often just the skin of a deep, complex equation. Maybe this is something we can all afford to apply to today’s most pressing political and philosophical matters.

Second, that what seems like an obvious pattern is often informed by randomness (had Keke Rosberg never won a championship, would any of his successors enjoyed the same success?). How aware are we of unavoidable biases that dictate the parameters of our understanding?

Third, that despite wanting to believe in destiny and ingrained greatness, we often find that what matters more is sheer luck coupled with hard work. It may be cliche, but I often think of the Roman philosopher Seneca, who said: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Seneca is one of history’s most prominent Stoics, and Stoicism, broadly speaking, revolves around the art of maintaining control over one’s emotions. Is it just coincidence that Finland is the country to beat in F1, while Finns are often described as a “stoic people?” I’ve said enough by now, so I”ll just leave you with this … probably not.


¹ Ten if you count Nico Rosberg, who is Finnish but races under the German flag.

² 79 wins counting Nico Rosberg’s 23, which is the highest of any Finnish driver. Kimi Räikkönen’s 21 wins are the most for drivers under the Finnish flag.

³ Finland has almost four times the wins per capita of Austria and the U.K. counting Nico Rosberg’s statistics.

⁴ Five titles spread out over four drivers … if you count Nico.

If you found this article interesting, or otherwise enjoyed it, then I am beyond pleased. The creative process is my primary reward, but your appreciation of it is the icing on the cake.

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Ryan Turpin

Writing about things that I want to when the mood (muse?) strikes. #sustainability and #innovation at the forefront. Thanks for reading :)