Lunch with... JJ Lehto

Having kept a low profile since a tragic accident in 2010, the double Le Mans winner looks back on his career - and explains why he might drive again

JJ Lehto is sitting across the table from me, in the elegant surroundings of Fawsley Hall Hotel near Silverstone, piercing blue eyes growing wider by the moment as he describes his afternoon. And for good reason: today he has done something he has not done in nine years. He has climbed aboard a slicks-and-wings racing car and driven it around a circuit as fast as he possibly can.

“It was so strange. I was really nervous. I can remember putting on the overalls, putting on the boots, tying each shoelace. It felt so alien. There was no reason I shouldn’t still be quick but, well, you never know, do you?”

Lehto is doing something else today he has not done for a while too: sitting down for a formal interview over a meal with a journalist. Many of you will recall that he was on a speedboat that crashed into a bridge in Finland in 2010, and that a friend on board was killed while Lehto was seriously injured. 

The accident made headlines around the world and Lehto was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years and four months in prison after a court found that he was drunk and speeding on the boat before it crashed.

What was less well reported was that Lehto appealed the sentence, and in 2012 he was cleared of all charges. He claimed he was not steering the boat, but instead sitting in the back when the accident occurred. Steering the boat drunk or allowing a drunk person to control it are both crimes, but since there was uncertainty about which of the two Lehto had committed, he could not be sentenced for either. 

Even so, the episode has understandably cast a shadow over Lehto’s life and for the next five years he kept a low profile. For a start he is all but impossible to contact. “I don’t have an e-mail address, I don’t have a smartphone, I don’t even own a computer. I have one very secret telephone number, so unless you actually come to Finland and knock on my door, you’re pretty unlikely to hear from me…”

It is McLaren we have to thank for bringing Jyrki Juhani Järvilehto back into the public eye. In 1995 McLaren won Le Mans at its first attempt, the winning car being entered at the last minute, run by a team with no Le Mans experience and in which Lehto played the starring role. Twenty years on, McLaren wanted to get as many of its original F1 GTRs to do a parade before the actual 2015 Le Mans race began and to reunite the winning crew. It tasked Keith Holland with finding him.

“He just wouldn’t quit,” recalls Lehto. “He got my wife’s e-mail address and he kept on trying. In the end I thought ‘he’s never going to stop’ so I just gave up and called him.” 

So Lehto went back to Le Mans with his old overalls and helmet in his hand luggage, and while insurance issues meant he could not drive the winning car in the parade, he drove an F1 long tail fast enough to get into sixth gear.

But today was different. Lehto, 51, had been hired by McLaren to demonstrate its 1000bhp P1 GTR at a customer day on the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit. The last time he drove in anger on a track was at Daytona in 2007, when a one-off drive for Tracy Krohn in a misfiring Riley Pontiac ended with 17th place. 

“I was so worried when I got in the car, but the first lap was, like, wow, the second was ‘WOW’ and the third just…” At this stage Lehto makes a noise that’s as easy to understand as it is hard to spell. Clearly he was happy to be back in the saddle. Three laps in, after nearly a decade away and with 1000bhp under the carefully tied laces of his right race boot, Lehto was back in his element. “It was like I had never been away,” he says. 

* * *

JJ Lehto’s competitive career lasted for more than 20 years. In that time he raced in Formula Ford, Formula Ford 2000, Formula 3, Formula 3000, Formula 1, Indycars, sports cars, touring cars and the DTM. And that doesn’t include his time in karts as a child, nor his little known sideline as an effective performer in 10 Arctic rallies. Last time out rivals included Kimi Räikkönen, Mika Häkkinen and Mika Salo. Lehto beat the lot.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, to learn the plan was always to follow in the great Finnish rally-driving tradition. “I started in 1985. Of course I’d done karting from the age of six and had been doing motocross all over Finland but I wanted to go rallying. I had the car, an old Group 2 Opel Kadett GTE, and over the winter I stripped it right down and put it back together again, ready for the season.

“But my dad had a wealthy friend and they both decided I’d done enough time on the dirt and should do something cleaner instead, which is how I ended up in Formula Ford. I still had no thoughts of being a professional driver. It was just a hobby, a bit of fun. Lots of us did it, including both Mikas [Häkkinen and Salo] who were old family friends and who I’d raced with since we were kids.

“We got an ’85 Reynard Formula Ford and I did four races and some testing but I was still at school. Then in the spring of ’86 my dad told me I had a new car – the only problem was it was in Bicester. So me and a friend got into a little van and drove to England to collect it from Reynard. I met Rick Gorne and Adrian who said, ‘There’s your car.’ It was in pieces, so we put a little tent up next to the van and spent the next week building it. I always worked on my cars and my friend was really good; it came together well.

“The first race was the opening round of the European Championship at Zolder and, despite never having been there before, I came fourth. I then did the Finnish, Scandinavian and European Championships and won the lot in the same car. Didn’t crash once and it was always just the two of us, me and my friend with our van, up against guys with proper teams and big trucks.”

With such a performance it’s perhaps not surprising that Lehto got noticed. “It was easier for talent to shine back then,” he says modestly. “Cigarette companies had junior programmes back then, but of course the biggest help was Keke Rosberg.”

Lehto’s face still lights up when he thinks of the day he got the call. “I was on holiday and the phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line said ‘Hi, this is Keke Rosberg’ and of course I thought it was a friend fooling around. It took him a little time to convince me he was for real.

“Anyway he said his career was winding down and he wanted to help someone else. So me and my father met him in Helsinki and he got me into the Philip Morris/Marlboro programme. I had to move to England and was lined up to do Formula Ford 2000 the following year. There was even some money, enough for me not to need another job. It had all happened so quickly – one minute I’m a kid messing about with a friend racing for fun and enjoying beating the big boys, next I’m a full-time professional racing driver.”

Lehto reckons he did 27 races that year, one a weekend for the duration of the season. “It was a great time. I got to travel and race and learned lots. I loved places like Thruxton with its never-ending fast corners, Brands Hatch and Oulton Park too. Jason Elliott was my team-mate and one of the quickest guys out there. But I managed to win the British and European titles. So that got me into F3, which was a big step up. It wasn’t just the extra speed of the cars – there was serious opposition too like Damon [Hill], Eddie [Irvine] Martin [Donnelly] and Gary Brabham.

“At first it was very messy. I was with Pacific Racing and they’d just graduated to F3 too, so we all had a hell of lot to learn, but I was on pole for the first round of the British F3 Championship at Thruxton and won the race. It was a decent start.” He duly won the title from Brabham, Hill, Donnelly and Irvine in that order, the only Reynard driver in a Ralt-dominated front of the field.

“I was then meant to go straight to F3000 in ’89 but I got a call from Ferrari asking me if I wanted to be a test driver.” Lehto puts this so nonchalantly despite the fact that Maranello remains probably the most coveted call for any aspiring F1 driver. “I think I realised what it meant sometime after. I remember going to Fiorano. They lent me an F40 to learn the track. It spun its wheels everywhere! It was great to thrash around in. But the F1 car – now that was a big step.”

He has a point. This was the year Ferrari got its semi-automatic sequential box, so the 23-year-old had to deal with that plus carbon brakes and a 750bhp V12.

“That car was so physical. No power steering, no power brakes – it beat me up every time I got in it. We worked from 9am to 8pm. Did many Grand Prix distances per day around Fiorano, which is a track that gives you no rest at all. In the evenings the team would say ‘let’s go out’ but I’d just go back to the hotel, fall onto the bed and pass out. Next morning I’d be back at the track for 8am and drive all day again. But every time I got in it, I learned something new.” With his F3000 season going from bad to worse, it must have provided a welcome distraction.

I suggested he must have hoped to become one of the main drivers, especially when he broke Nigel Mansell’s Fiorano lap record. “No, that was never going to happen,” he says. “Ferrari always went for experience over youth and still does today. I was just incredibly grateful to have the experience and hoped it would lead me to F1 by another route.”

Which it did. Part way through the season the Moneytron Onyx team sacked the mercurial Bertrand Gachot and hired Lehto. Just over three seasons after turning up outside the Reynard factory in a van to collect a Formula Ford in bits, Lehto was a Formula 1 driver.

* * *

“F1 was so different back then. We had 36 cars competing for 26 grid spaces so 10 always went home. The Onyx was actually a good car for a small team, though it couldn’t be compared to the Ferrari. But if you had the smallest problem or made the slightest mistake, your entire weekend would be over on Friday morning.

“I did to the end of ’89 with the team, after which it was sold to Peter Monteverdi and the whole thing went straight downhill. Old car, old parts, no testing. It was rubbish. But I wasn’t worried, I had a Marlboro contract and got a seat at Scuderia Italia based in Brescia. And with the new Judd V10 in a Dallara chassis, we ended up with a nice little car. We had some money so could do lots of testing and it all resulted in a third place finish at Imola. There I was, standing on the podium with Senna and Berger. Which was nice...”

“We got the Ferrari engine for ’92 which sounded better in theory than it turned out to be on the track. We had big power but the engine was too long and didn’t work in the chassis. As the Mercedes customer teams are finding out today, just having the best engine does not mean you’ll have the quickest car.”

Lehto went to the new Sauber team in ’93 and at first it showed some promise. The Ilmor-powered car was quick enough to qualify sixth at the season opener at Kyalami and finish fifth, but his season followed a pattern with a parallel in F1 today. “If you’re a new team without big team money, you put everything into getting the car as good as you can for the start of the season. What that means is you then don’t have the budget to develop the car through the year, which is exactly the problem that Haas had last year.”

The big break came in 1994 when he finally got the top team drive his talent deserved. He would spend the season with Benetton, as team-mate to Michael Schumacher. Or at least that was the plan until fate intervened.

“After beating six or eight other guys in testing, I finally got the seat, signed the contract in the middle of January and turned up at Silverstone 10 days later to start testing. After that I don’t remember much.”

No wonder: driving the 1993 car, Lehto left the track at near top speed as he tried to turn into Stowe. “I woke up in the wall with a broken neck.”

“I was conscious when they were trying to get me out, but couldn’t move. I remember thinking I was lucky to be at Silverstone because the doctors are so good. They saw instantly that something bad had happened, got a neck support on, got me out, took me to hospital took X-rays and said at once, ‘This is really bad, don’t move. At all.’ Then everyone got involved, Flavio [Briatore], Bernie [Ecclestone], Sid [Watkins]: they organised the best doctors at the best clinic.” Two vertebrae had been completely crushed.

Lehto had an operation at the London Clinic and would remain in hospital for a further fortnight, but his recovery would take a lot longer. “By the time I got home I was in so much pain I couldn’t sleep. I had to walk, all the time. I couldn’t even sit down.

“Slowly it got better, but the season was starting and I had to get back as soon as I could; but my neck was really weak because they’d cut through all the muscles in the operation. I had no feeling in my fingers and toes but was terrified of losing my seat. Trying to get back quickly was a mistake, but I thought I had no choice. In the end I lost the seat anyway. But I was so lucky with the accident: I’m still walking and I’m still alive. In the end that’s all that matters.”

Even so he draws stark contrast to his treatment relative to that received by Häkkinen after his awful accident in Adelaide at the end of the 1995 season. “I wish I had been with Ron and at McLaren like Mika. Ron really looked after him, gave him all the time he needed to recover. I really admired that. Flav is a businessman, Benetton was turning into a good team with Michael and they needed to maintain momentum.

“When I came back I was sick and in pain; Flavio didn’t give me any testing, so I can’t say the car was so different I couldn’t drive it. Truth is, I never got the chance. I did some races after the accident but was in so much pain I couldn’t drive.” 

Or perhaps Schumacher was just given a far better car? Lehto is not shy about quashing that notion. “Michael and I always had identical machinery. I never doubted that. His advantage came from his talent but also the fact the car was designed for him and his style of driving. He liked it edgy; it was quite strange to drive and I never really got the chance to get on top of it.”

Lehto was released from his contract and though there was an end-of-season call-up from Sauber, in his heart he knew his career as an F1 driver was over. “I’ve never thought about how far I could have got had I not had the accident. You could have that same accident again and wind up dead, so I feel lucky. I’d done more than 60 races and scored good points with small teams. Back then that was really hard: only the top six got points so when you were up against Ferrari, Williams, McLaren and Benetton just scoring one single point was so, so difficult. Now you get a point if you come 10th: it’s ridiculous. Back then sixth was party time. Besides, if I’d not had the accident I would never have won Le Mans in 1995.”

* * *

Lehto’s hitherto bright demeanour becomes positively breezy when talk turns to his second career as a sports car driver. He started ’95 doing DTM for Opel in an old car and got a late call to do Le Mans in a McLaren F1. “I always loved Le Mans, and really looked up to guys like Derek Bell and Hans Stuck. The cars looked amazing and had huge power but Keke always said, ‘Are you effing crazy? No way are you doing that race until they put chicanes on the straight’.”

Chicanes arrived in 1990 and after outings in Porsche 962s resulted in a retirement in 1990 and a ninth place in 1991 he turned up at the track in 1995 to drive McLaren’s own works-backed F1 GTR test car.

The car was run by Paul Lanzante who was worried about his new signing, fearing Lehto would treat the race as a sprint and break a car that was completely unproven over 24 hours. Also the car had a reputation for being tricky, especially in the wet.

That year it rained for 20 hours.

“Lots of drivers didn’t like it. The car was built around this big BMW V12 engine and they felt the back end was heavy and hard to control. I just loved it, especially in the wet. It had loads of traction, lots of torque – no problem.”

Yannick Dalmas, already three times a winner, started the race and drove so slowly Lehto thought the race was over before it began. “In fact he was being clever and keeping it out of trouble. Then when I got in at night I was able to use all the sand and gravel that had been thrown onto the circuit, find some interesting lines and go a little quicker.”

A little quicker. At the time Lanzante said no one could believe how quickly Lehto was driving. “Before the race we had decided on the lap time we should try to stick to. JJ appeared to think that still applied in the wet…”

But while Lehto was terrifying everyone in his pit garage as his wet-weather, night-time laps times appeared ever more at odds with those of everyone else on the track, inside the F1 all was peaceful. “Whatever anyone else says, I wasn’t pushing. I was enjoying, and there’s a difference, you know. I’ve been told that on some laps I was half a minute quicker than anyone else but I don’t know what the real number was and it doesn’t matter. Once you find the lines, the rhythm and the grip, everything else just flows. I remember Paul coming on the radio saying, ‘Are you sure, are you sure you can do this kind of lap time?’ Everyone was so nervous but I was completely relaxed, wondering what all the fuss was about. I was being careful with the box, keeping off kerbs, taking nothing out of the car. It was then I realised I had fully recovered from the accident. It had taken 18 months.

“I made one mistake, coming out of the last left in the Porsche Curves. There was a lot of water and I was just catching the Harrods car with Justin [Bell] driving. I was right behind him in fifth gear, hit the water and lost it. I just the kept throttle down, did a 360, kept the wheels spinning and didn’t even need to change down. I overtook Justin on the next lap…”

It was a fine victory for Lehto, Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya, who would become the first Japanese driver to win Le Mans.

* * *

After that there was more DTM for Opel but his Le Mans drive had not gone unnoticed elsewhere. “BMW got in touch and told me it was doing FIA GTs with McLaren. It was nice to be working with a works team again, nice to be back with V12s after the DTM. Looking back it’s clear that F1 was incredible, but I always had more fun in sports cars. It wasn’t the cars, it was that family feeling you got with the whole team.”

Lehto came second in the 1997 FIA GT Championship, stymied by a loophole that allowed Mercedes driver Bernd Schneider to jump from one car to another. But he still had fun. “I was driving with Steve Soper who was at the end of his career. We had a great time. By then the McLaren was a completely different car from the one I’d raced at Le Mans: lighter, more downforce, sequential gearbox, better brakes, less drag – it was improved in almost every area.”

There followed a brief flirtation with Indycars, which fascinated Lehto. “There was so much to learn about ovals: how to set the car up, play with the stagger and make it so it’s perfect at the end of the race when it needs to be quickest.” But Gerhard Berger’s appointment as BMW’s Motorsport boss soon led him back to sports cars, this time behind the wheel of its prototype LMP1 car.

“Really we should have won Le Mans in ’99. We had a four-lap lead with four hours to go and were cruising. Then a rear damper broke, dropped the ride height, pushed the roll bar onto the throttle and jammed it wide open in the Porsche Curves. It was a big hit, and I was lucky to get out with only a cut on my knee and scar for the memory. But we won Sebring and a lot of other races too.”

Lean times were to follow. Lehto raced a BMW M3 GTR in the US but yearned to be back in sports cars, so much so that he accepted an offer to drive Cadillac’s new LMP1 car in 2002. “It was a nice car with a good chassis, but the engine was hopeless. After two laps it just got hotter and hotter and, don’t forget, Audi had the R8 by then. We never stood a chance.”

Salvation came from Dave Maraj and Champion Racing. “Dave was a wonderful man to drive for. He built a brilliant team around him, made sure that everything was right and I found myself happier than I’d ever been in another team. So I decided: while Dave raced I would race for him, and when he stopped I would stop. I never wanted to race for anyone else again.”

Lehto and the Audi R8 were often the class of the field and he would win many races in the three seasons he raced for Champion or Audi North America as it was sometimes called, including two more Le Mans, in 2003 and 2005. “We won together and we lost together. When we won we had a big party; when we lost we had an even bigger party.” But then at the end of 2005 Audi decided Champion was going to be its factory team, and it would be crewed by factory drivers. Lehto’s career was over.

“I just walked away. There were other places I could have gone, but I didn’t want to.”

* * *

Lehto was happy in retirement, happy to spend some time with his three young children who’d been used to not seeing him for months at a time. “There’s always an end and you want to stop when you’re on top. Some drivers are happy driving slower and slower cars for smaller and smaller teams because they can’t bear to think they’re no longer a racing driver but not me. 

“So I stayed home. Enjoyed my family, enjoyed seeing the seasons. I’ve done commentating work on Finnish television and help a few young Finns with their driving.”

But perhaps buoyed by his day in the 1000bhp McLaren, I sense a certain restlessness about Lehto today. So I ask the question: would he consider strapping on his racing boots one last time?

“If someone were to offer me a race now, I’d have to think about it. It’s not impossible: if the right opportunity was out there, I’d look very hard at it. If someone offered me a good GT3 car, if I can do the testing and feel good, why not? All I need is super professional team of nice guys who don’t mind me wearing shorts and a T-shirt…”

In the meantime, Lehto is happy to chill out at home, ride his beloved Harley on vast solo journeys around Finland and come home to the ’59 Corvette he’s owned for 26 years. 

But there is something in his demeanour that suggests he may not be quite as done with racing as he once thought he was. In fact, I suspect that the kid who turned up in a van outside the Reynard factory over 30 years ago may soon be out there again. It will be a sight to behold.