- January 31, 1966
- Not Active
JJ Lehto is a former racing driver from Finland who made his name in Formula 1 but he was much more successful in sports car competitions. He recorded 62 starts in the Formula One World Championship between 1989 and 1994, scoring one podium at 1991 San Marino Grand Prix.
In the sports car racing, he was an overall winner at Le Mans 24 Hours two times, in 1995 with McLaren F1 GTR and in 2005 with Audi R8. In 2004, he was the American Le Mans Series LMP1 class champion.
Beginning of the career
Jyrki Juhani Jarvilehto was born on January 31, 1966, in Espoo, the second largest city in the country. The motorsport has always been very popular in Finland and JJ began to drive karting with a considerable success before moving to Formula Ford. By 1986, Lehto won the European, Scandinavian, and Finnish titles.
The following year, talented Finn moved to the UK and became a British and European Formula 2000 champion, while in 1988 he won the British Formula 3 title. The beginning of his career was almost perfect and it looked like the future will be the same. However, in 1989 Lehto’s form declined and he finished the Formula 3000 season without a single podium finish.
Formula 1 debut in sight
Former Formula 1 champion Keke Rosberg was the manager who looked after a career of his talented compatriot. He started a search for the place in F1 for his protege and Keke advised the young driver to abbreviate his name and JJ Lehto was ’born’.
Early in 1989, he had tests with Ferrari which was a good preparation for the debut in the most popular racing series. He was given a chance to race with Onyx team in the last four Grand Prix events of the season. The Finn replaced Bertrand Gachot but failed to impress. He retired from two races and twice failed to qualify for the races.
He stayed with the team in 1990 but again he couldn’t do anything significant because the car wasn’t competitive enough. Onyx team had financial problems despite having a new owner. Nevertheless, Lehto earned many praises and was considered as one of the future stars.
Two years with Scuderia Italia
Signing with ambitious Scuderia Italia F1 Team was a step forward and JJ proved that he is a talented driver, despite not having a first-class car. The beginning with a new team wasn’t glorious as the Finn retired from the opening two races but he was impressive at Imola. With a bit luck, he finished third in 1991 San Marino Grand Prix, behind two McLarens of Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger which was a sensational achievement and Lehto’s only podium finish in the Formula 1 career.
Later in the season JJ had too many retirements and a couple of relatively good finishes but failed to pick more points. At the end of the season, he was 12th in the Drivers’ Championship which was his best achievement.
The second campaign with Scuderia Italia wasn’t as good despite having new Dallara-Ferrari package which was something faster and more reliable. He was in top 10 in most of the races he finished but his account was without points.
Move to Sauber and short spell with Benetton
Sauber was the new team on the grid in 1993 and JJ was a new driver alongside the Austrian Karl Wendlinger. The beginning was phenomenal after the Finn finished 5th in the season-opening race in South Africa. After earning a place in the Sauber’s history as the first driver who won points for the team, Lehto impressed once more finishing 4th at Imola after starting from the 16th place. With five points in his books, JJ was 13th in the Drivers’ Championship.
He moved to Benetton team in 1994, where his teammate was Michael Schumacher. That was another good opportunity for Lehto. Unfortunately, during pre-season testing JJ seriously injured his neck in the crash and missed two opening races of the season. The Finn returned to the seat for the race at Imola, where he crashed again, and raced in the next three events, scoring a point in Canada. After that race, he was dropped from the team as the injury from the pre-season worsened. After five races he was reinstalled as a substitute for the suspended Schumacher in two races. The Portuguese Grand Prix was his last race with Benetton.
Lehto returned to Sauber for the final two events, as a substitute for Karl Wendlinger who was injured. JJ retired from the Japanese Grand Prix and finished 10th in Australia which was his last appearing in Formula 1.
DTM and ITCC career
Keke advised Lehto to try his luck in DTM series in 1995. Driving an Opel Calibra prepared by Opel Team Joest, the Finn adapted pretty well. He scored points in 8 out of 14 races that year, with the 4th place at Hockenheim as the best result, before finishing 13th overall. With the same team, JJ also raced in the International Touring Car Championship. He was 11th overall with the 3rd place in Helsinki as a highlight.
Lehto stayed in the ITCC in 1996 but moved to Team Rosberg and did pretty well. He failed to win any of 26 races that year but he scored five podiums and finished the season in 5th place which was a solid achievement.
Success in 24 Hours of Le Mans
One of the most important moments in 1995 was the victory in 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Finn already appeared twice (1990, 1991) in the world’s most prestigious race, driving a Porsche, but the results weren’t memorable. In 1995, he got a late call to drive McLaren F1 GTR alongside Masanori Sekiya and Yannick Dalmas. Lehto, the most inexperienced sportscar driver of the three, furiously drove during the rainy night and that probably proved to be decisive for the victory. Interestingly it was the first win for McLaren, achieved in his first attempt. It was also the first Le Mans win for a driver from Finland and for a driver from Japan.
Over the years, Lehto was driving for McLaren, BMW, and Cadillac with a considerable success, but when he switched to Audi the success was imminent. In 2003, driving Champion Racing’s Audi R8 alongside Emanuele Pirro and Stefan Johansson, he finished 3rd overall and 1st in the LMP900 class.
Next year, Lehto was again 3rd overall, this time driving alongside Pirro and Marco Werner. Finally, the third attempt with ’Four rings’ brought him the overall win at Circuit de la Sarthe. Sharing the seat with Werner and Tom Kristensen, the Finn finished well ahead of Pescarolo Sport’s and second Champion Racing’s car.
Excellent results in the US
Before he achieved the success in 24 Hours of Le Mans, JJ went to the United States and spent the season of 1998 competing in the CART Series. He was driving for Hogan Racing and the results weren’t especially good. Lehto picked points in five out of 19 races with the 5th place at Surfers Paradise Street Circuit as a highlight.
That was some kind of preparation for the next couple of years in the US. Lehto began a career in the American Le Mans Series and had fruitful seven years in the series. As the BMW factory driver from 1999 to 2001, JJ won 10 races and his best result was in 2001 when he finished the season as a vice-champion, driving alongside Jorg Muller.
2004 ALMS champion
After having an unsuccessful season with Cadillac in 2002, Lehto moved to Champion Racing. During 2003, he was teamed with Johnny Herbert and they finished 3rd in the championship with four wins – at Atlanta, Road America, Miami, and Petit Le Mans.
In 2004, Lehto’s partner was Marco Werner. That partnership was exceptionally good as they won 6 out of 9 races, at Mid-Ohio, Lime Rock, Sonoma, Portland, Road America, and Petit Le Mans, before winning the title, beating their rivals from Dyson racing by 50 points!
The Finn and the German continued their partnership in 2005 but they couldn’t defend the title despite having an amazing beginning of the season when they won 3 out of 4 races. The second half of the season was disappointing, so they dropped to the 3rd place overall.
The end of the career at Daytona
In 2007, Lehto debuted in 24 Hours of Daytona, one of the most prominent races in the world. He was driving Krohn Racing’s Pontiac-Riley alongside Max Papis and Colin Braun but the outcome wasn’t glorious. The car suffered from a misfire but even after spending a long time in the pit-stop, they managed to finish the race in 17th place. That was the very last race in Lehto’s career. He retired from racing stating that he couldn't take it seriously anymore.
In the center of the attention once again
Lehto worked as a TV motorsports commentator in Finland until 2010 when the fatal accident happened. He was driving a boat with his friend in Ekenas, Finland, when the boat hit the base of a bridge in the canal. Lehto was injured while his friend was killed in the accident. Aggravating circumstance was that JJ was drunk.
Police concluded that no one besides JJ was driving a boat and he was charged with negligent homicide and driving under the influence. In December of 2011, Lehto was sentenced to two years and four months in prison but he appealed the decision and in 2012 he was released of all charges.