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The Driver Files: JJ Lehto

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The next driver on the list is JJ Lehto, who had some natural speed but lacked luck, consistency and has fallen on hard times especially since his F1 career ended.

JJ Lehto’s best season came with Sauber in 1993 (ESPN)

NAME: JJ Lehto

TEAMS: Onyx (1989-1990), Dallara (1991-1992), Sauber (1993-1994), Benetton (1994)

POINTS: 10

GP STARTS: 62

BEST FINISH: 3rd (1991 San Marino GP)

THE Finns have produced three Formula One world champions in Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen.  JJ Lehto was another Scandinavian who seemed to have been born with natural speed but luck and injury seemed to be against him.

Lehto won junior formula titles in Britain and Scandinavia but struggled in the international Formula 3000 series in 1989 racing for Pacific.  Fourth place at the event in Pau was the only highlight.  However Lehto was in Formula One by the end of the season, competing for the Onyx team.  He took over from Bertrand Gachot but failed to pre-qualify for his first event in Portugal and didn’t make much of an impression in the other events.  He stayed on for 1990 but by now, the team were in dire financial difficulties.  He recorded only one finish, 12th at the San Marino Grand Prix as both he and Gregor Foitek always struggled to get out of pre-qualifying.  The team folded shortly after the Hungarian race and it left JJ out of a drive and at this time, a danger he might be quickly forgotten about.

A test for Ferrari though before his Onyx days came back to him when he signed up to drive for the Scuderia Italia or Dallara team as they better known.  The close links between the two at the time helping with Lehto being signed up alongside Emanuele Pirro.  Once again, finishes were at a premium thanks to poor reliability but out of the five times he got to the chequered flag, there was a memorable result at Imola.  In mixed conditions, he kept his cool to record a shock podium finish where others fell off the road.

He stayed on with Dallara for 1992, with Pirro replaced by Pierluigi Martini.  Sadly, there were no points but more a more reliable car and some creditable qualifying performances.  Seventh at Spa was his best result.  Dallara went bust and Lehto was a free agent again.  The new Sauber team snapped him up for 1993 and this was his most consistent and best season.  He qualified sixth on the team’s debut in Kyalami and finished fifth in wet conditions.  Another fourth place followed at Imola although he didn’t get along well with Karl Wendlinger, his team-mate.  Crashing into him on the first lap in Monte Carlo didn’t help relations.  As the season drifted towards its end, he got involved in more incidents with other drivers and Sauber decided not to renew his contract.

Flavio Briatore noticed something and put him into the Benetton team alongside Michael Schumacher for 1994.  Luck deserted him when he sustained a serious neck injury thanks to a testing crash at Silverstone.  He was forced to sit out for the first two races and returned at Imola.  Still struggling with his neck injury, JJ’s qualifying effort of fifth was excellent.  However he was seriously affected by the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger and he had his own lucky escape on raceday when he stalled his car and was ploughed into by Pedro Lamy in the Lotus.

He lost a certain third place in Barcelona thanks to a late engine failure and raced well to a point in Canada but injury and a loss of confidence saw him rested by Briatore in favour of test driver Jos Verstappen.  He returned to Benetton for two races when Schumacher was banned by the FIA for the black flag infringement but struggled still and a final shot at Sauber in the final two races didn’t work out.  Looking tired and confused after a traumatic campaign, Lehto was finished in F1.

He moved into sportscars afterwards and actually won the Le Mans 24 Hours twice, for McLaren in 1995 and Audi in 2005.  He was an expert commentator on Formula One for Finnish Television and there was an unsuccessful season in CART in 1998 and he has fallen on tough times in recent years.

In June 2010, Lehto was involved in a boating accident in Finland, killing a passenger and leaving the Finn with injuries.  He faced charges of reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident.  Last December, JJ Lehto was sentenced to two years in jail, found guilty on two charges of homicide and drunk driving of a boat.  He denied all the charges and has served intention to appeal.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES: One of the most experienced drivers on the Grand Prix grid, Riccardo Patrese.

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