Former Grand Prix driver Stefan Johansson – nicknamed ‘Little Leaf’ by his contemporaries in racing circles – is celebrating his 55th birthday today!
Very few F1 drivers get the opportunity to race for either Ferrari or McLaren, and Stefan Nils Edwin Johansson is one of the lucky few to have had the opportunity to do both. But in spite of this, Stefan never achieved a race victory in his lengthy F1 career that promised so much. It was very much a case of right team, wrong time.
The son of a successful touring car racer, he started in karts in 1968 and won the Swedish national title in 1973. After purchasing an old Formula Ford in 1975, he won the Swedish title in 1977 and moved to the UK to contest the British F3 championship in 1979. A win at Silverstone saw him offered a race seat in the Shadow F1 team, but it was in hindsight too quick a jump for him, and he failed to qualify the car at both attempts.
He moved back to F3 to try and rebuild his career, and responded brilliantly by winning the 1980 title on the back of six wins. He moved to Formula 2 in 1981 with Toleman, picking up wins at Hockenheim and Mantorp, which was enough to get him signed to the fledgling Spirit Honda operation, which was making its first F1 foray in 1983.
He made his debut at the British Grand Prix, and finished seventh at Zandvoort on his fourth outing, tantalisingly out of the points. But then came the bad news, with Honda deciding to plump for an engine supply deal with Williams rather than continuing with Spirit, and poor Stefan was once again on the sidelines…
Martin Brundle’s mid-season accident at the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix opened up a vacancy at Tyrrell, and Stefan slotted right in and instantly impressed by out-qualifying and out-racing team-mate Stefan Bellof (who was a hugely-rated driver in his own right) at every outing.
But if it couldn’t get any worse, it did… Tyrrell was thrown out of the championship by the sport’s governing body in the wake of a longstanding battle with the powers that be during the height of the turbo era, and it seemed Stefan would again be consigned to the sidelines.
However, Toleman came knocking with a race seat at the Italian Grand Prix, and Stefan grabbed the opportunity with both hands, finishing a hugely impressive fourth after a tigering drive through the field. He was now finally a man in demand.
Back at Tyrrell (now allowed back in the championship) for the start of 1985, he switched to Ferrari before the second round at Portugal after the team fired Rene Arnoux, and at just his second race he was in contention for victory. Another charging drive through the field on Ferrari’s home turf at Imola saw Stefan take the lead from Alain Prost with just two laps to go … only for him to splutter to a halt, out of fuel…
Nonetheless, he backed up his promise with back-to-back podiums in North America while team-mate Michele Alboreto was a championship contender, losing out to Alain Prost. The 1986 season was to prove a struggle, with the Ferraris a distant fourth-best outfit was the Williams-McLaren-Lotus battle waged up front in a titanic championship year, but he still picked up four third-placed finishes and a career-best fifth in the championship.
So Stefan moved to McLaren for 1987 alongside the double-World Champion Alain Prost. It was the team’s final season with the (now ageing) TAG Porsche engine, and it was a stop-gap year for Stefan and the team while they awaited the arrival of Honda engines and Ayrton Senna. In spite of five more podium finishes, Stefan was very much in Prost’s shadow and his services were dispensed with at the end of the season.
Stefan moved to Ligier for 1988, but the Judd-powered JS31 was a dog of a car and he failed to qualify six times.
So it was off to the new Onyx outfit for 1989, with the team hiring Stefan to help it develop the Alan Jenkins designed ORE-1. Getting out of pre-qualifying was the first challenge, but Stefan committed doggedly to the project, making the grid for the first time at Mexico and finishing a plucky fifth at Paul Ricard. But better was to come, with Stefan delivering another sensational performance at Estoril to finish an incredible third, in what proved to be his final podium appearance.
He last just two races under the team’s new ownership in 1990, and contested a handful of outings in 1991 with AGS and Footwork, but grew sick of making up the numbers and pulled the pin on his F1 career.
Stefan moved to the CART series in the US, achieving several podium finishes in the series’ fiercely competitive period in the mid 1990s where the likes of Andretti, Fittipaldi, and Mansell were all big gun drivers.
At the Molson Indy Toronto race in 1996, he was inadvertently involved in an accident that claimed the life of fellow driver Jeff Krosnoff and a track marshal, and he quit the championship at the end of the series.
He moved into the Le Mans Series competition, and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans alongside Michele Alboreto and Tom Kristensen in 1997.
Stefan continued in motorsport in a host of categories, and also founded an Indy Lights team that ran (among others) the likes of Scott Dixon and Ben Collins, the man who would become Top Gear’s tame racing driver, ‘The Stig’.
He graduated to running a ChampCar outfit, American Spirit Racing which, despite its lack of funding, managed several podium finishes and a surprise win with Ryan Hunter-Reay at the wheel.
Outside the cockpit, he has a number of business ventures (including the management of several drivers, most notably Scott Dixon) and is particularly well known for his watch designs, having set up the successful Växjö watch company.
Stefan kindly granted us an exclusive interview late last year, which if you haven’t already read, you can do by clicking this link.