Perhaps the Finnish prison guards might be feeling a little generous today, for it is the 46th birthday of Formula 1’s latest felon, former Grand Prix driver and Le Mans winner JJ Lehto.
Born Jyrki Jarvilehto, the Finn was a protégé of 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg, who suggested he use the easier-to-pronounce ‘JJ Lehto’ moniker for his racing career.
Lehto had originally wanted to go into rallying, but the loss of a prospective sponsor steered him in the direction of circuit racing. He dominated the Scandinavian Formula Ford championship and then went on to win the British Formula 3 title in 1988.
Signed briefly to be Ferrari’s test driver, he was slotted in at the Onyx squad for the final four races in place of the out-of-favour Bertrand Gachot. He stayed on with the team into 1990 until it collapsed mid-season in a mountain of debt courtesy of its incompetent management, but was thrown a lifeline by Scuderia Italia for the 1991 season.
He peaked with a plucky podium in the wet-dry San Marino Grand Prix, and stayed on for 1992, but it was a disappointing year, despite having Ferrari engines at his disposal.
He joined the new Sauber team for 1993, helping it achieve points in its debut race, and his solid performances saw him called up to Benetton for the 1994 season as Michael Schumacher’s team-mate.
But his season was blighted by a pre-season testing crash that left him with a broken vertebra in his neck, and it irreparably damaged his confidence. He qualified poorly when he did race, and the team tended to substitute him for the quicker (albeit more accident-prone) Jos Verstappen, and when he did drive alongside Verstappen, he proved slower…
Two outings with Sauber at the end of the season proved a limp swansong, and he disappeared to the DTM championship before going on to win the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1995 driving the all-conquering McLaren F1 GTR.
He would win the great race ten years later, driving for the works Audi LMP1 squad. In between, he’d carved out quite a name for himself in sports car racing, particularly in the United States.
He also dovetailed this with work as an expert Formula 1 commentator for Finnish TV.
But his post-F1 career came to a crashing halt (literally), when he was involved in a fatal boat accident in June 2010, in which his passenger was killed. After a lengthy investigation, Lehto – who was found to be drunk at the time of the accident – was ruled to be the driver, and was convicted of negligent homicide and reckless driving. He was sentenced to a 28-month jail term just six weeks ago.
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