Former F1 driver – and sentimental winner of the 1999 German Grand Prix – Mika Salo is turning 44 today.
A childhood Helsinki neighbour and rival of Mika Häkkinen, the pair rose through the ranks of the Scandinavian motorsport and had a thrilling battle for the 1990 British F3 championship crown, which went Häkkinen’s way, even though Salo himself took six race wins.
While Häkkinen would go on to join the Lotus F1 team the following year, Salo moved to Japan and spent several years plying his trade as he aimed to crack Formula 1.
His wish eventually came true at the end of the 1994 season, where he joined Lotus for the last two rounds in Japan and Australia. He managed to qualify the Mugen-Honda-powered 109 first time out, and finished a hugely impressive tenth in appalling conditions at Suzuka.
His performances were enough to see him offered a full-time drive with Lotus in 1995, but the team collapsed and so Mika went to Tyrrell and stayed there for the next three years, achieving five fifth-placed finishes with the underfunded outfit.
He switched to Arrows for 1998 and took the underpowered car to the giddy heights of a fourth-placed finish at Monaco, but he gradually lost confidence in the team as the promised results (rather predictably) failed to eventuate, and elected to sit out 1999 rather than squander his talent at the back of the grid.
The decision paid off when he was called up to sub for Ricardo Zonta at BAR, and then the injured Michael Schumacher at Ferrari.
Finally given the opportunity to show his skills in competitive machinery, he didn’t disappoint, and would have won the German GP had he not had to cede the win to title-aspirant team-mate Eddie Irvine. He consolidated this with further points at Belgium and another podium at Monza before Schumacher returned from his convalescence.
Salo managed to negotiate himself a drive with Sauber for 2000, but it was a thin season spent trying to avoid his crash-prone team-mate Pedro Diniz, with whom he had clashed during their short stint at Arrows.
Joining the new Toyota F1 operation in 2001, he helped the team make its debut in 2002 – picking up the squad’s first points in Australia and Brazil – but was dumped after a single season.
Salo now competes in the GT racing scene with Maserati, and he remains a true talent who never had a proper opportunity in the sun.
[Original images via The Cahier Archive]