A seat in a top team suddenly becomes vacant mid-season and a driver whose F1 career looked to be over is called in to fill the much-envied role.
Nico Hülkenberg benefits from Sergio Perez’s misfortune this weekend at the British Grand Prix and he will surely be dreaming of finding himself in a similar position as Mika Salo who, 21 years ago today led the German Grand Prix as Michael Schumacher’s stand-in.
Like Hülkenberg, Salo had only finished as high as fourth when he found himself at the head of the pack at Hockenheim and on his way to victory for Ferrari.
But as a reserve driver, he was aware that the team, chasing its first drivers’ championship since 1979, needed to maximise points for second-placed team-mate Eddie Irvine.
The radio crackled, and Salo had a decision to make.
“It was Ross [Brawn] – his calm voice, and when he came on the radio I was just like ‘Oh, sh*t’,” says Salo.
With one lift of the throttle, the Finn helped Ferrari to one of their most famous results; Irvine’s win and Salo’s second place contributing to the team’s first constructors’ title in 16 years.
On a personal level, Salo credits that moment with setting him on the path of a lifetime’s association with the Ferrari company and its various brands.
Irvine leads Salo in the closing laps of the 1999 German GP
Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images
Racing stars have groceries to buy like everybody else, so Salo recounted the story of his most celebrated day in Ferrari red to Motor Sport whilst doing his weekly supermarket sweep in Finland.
The Helsinki-native’s career had been building towards this moment in Germany. After finishing runner-up in British F3 to Mika Hakkinen, then forging a successful career in Japanese F3000, the Finn had plied a solid trade at the back of the grand prix grid for a Tyrrell team on the wane.
Following that, a fruitless 1998 at Arrows left his F1 tenure seemingly at a dead-end – before fate intervened.
“It was very clear that I’m there to help Eddie and the team to win the world championship.”
Michael Schumacher’s leg-breaking shunt at Silverstone left Ferrari needing a driver and Salo was far and away the best qualified available man for the job.
“Todt called me and told me to come to Maranello,” Salo recalls, “I said ‘When?’ He said ‘Now!’ I was on the next flight to Maranello.”
After secretly installing himself in Jean Todt’s austere Modena house, empty save for some bits of Ferrari front wing, Salo was announced to the world as Schumacher’s replacement, and was impressed as soon as he walked into the Ferrari factory.
“It was an amazing amount of work they did, really taking everything out of the car,” Salo tells us, “We had more meetings, more details, the resources, the testing – testing all the time – and not just for ‘99 but trying new things which were not really legal (yet), for the future, all the time for the future.”
“You are No2!” Todt with Salo at Hockenheim in ’99
Marcus Brandt/Bongarts/Getty Images
As a driver, the Finn also appreciated the change from his previous roles for backmarker outfits.
“It was fun. They leave the drivers in peace – no PR and this kind of stuff, so you can concentrate on driving as your job.” Salo remembers, as he peruses the shelves in Finland. “That was a big difference to the small teams, you would need to do a lot for promotion, driver appearances, things like this. Ferrari I think did just a couple of them and not on race weekends – small teams would always do it on race weekends, it was really tiring.
During his Ferrari initiation, his role was immediately defined – there would be no gunning for solo glory: “It was very clear that I’m there to help Eddie and the team to win the world championship.”
With limited preparation, he qualified seventh for his Ferrari debut at the Austrian Grand Prix, finishing ninth after running over debris.
After just an installation lap at Fiorano, Salo was plunged into the Austrian Grand Prix alongside Irvine
Tobias Heyer/Bongarts/Getty Images
“Before Hockenheim we then had a real test,” says Salo. “We did a lot of practice starts and a lot of laps of Mugello, so now I was ready.”
The Scuderia stand-in put his F399 fourth on the grid, ahead of team-mate Eddie Irvine. The extra time the Finn had with his car was paying off. “Everything was easier. I was so confident,” he says.
Things then got even better on race day.
“He hit me from behind and broke his front wing. That was it”
A rapid getaway at the start meant that Salo leapt up to second, bravely diving down the inside of David Coulthard and Heinz-Harold Frentzen into Turn One.
The previous year, Salo had been bringing up the rear in his Arrows. Now he was suddenly fighting for the race win.
His first worry was dealing with the attentions of Coulthard in the more competitive McLaren-Mercedes, but the Finn was ice cool as per usual.
“He was faster than me, but luckily he f***ed it up himself. He hit me from behind and broke his front wing. That was it, so after that I was just keeping the gap to Hakkinen.”
Salo between Hakkinen and Coulthard at the start of the race
It was as you were up to the first round of pit stops and, for now at least, Salo didn’t have to worry about moving aside for team-mate Irvine, who was stuck behind the Jordan of Frentzen.
Fate then played into the super-sub’s hands. Despite leading the championship, McLaren had been experiencing operational and driver trip-ups all season, and it happened again in Germany.
On this occasion, Hakkinen’s fuel hose refused to attach, allowing Salo to blast past and lead a grand prix for the first time in his career.
The crowd erupted, apparently rooting for Schumacher’s team in his absence, with Germany’s other F1 star Frenzten now being in third adding to the fervour.
What played out next were two of the most exciting laps of the season. Salo had the lead but Irvine was now looming large having jumped Frentzen, whilst Hakkinen hadn’t given up the chase either.
It was the moment Salo had been working for his whole life, but thoughts of glory sooned turned to despair. “Quite quickly I saw a red car in my mirrors,” he remembers “I thought ‘Oh f**k! Eddie’s second now, so I’m not gonna win this one.’”
All eyes were on Hakkinen and Frentzen scrapping for third place and whilst the two compromised each other, Ferrari’s Technical Director seized the initiative. Salo recalls the moment with clarity.
“It was Ross. It was so annoying, his calm voice, and when he came on the radio I was just like, ‘Oh, sh*t.’
“It’s even more annoying when he’s so calm. He just said ‘I want you to let Eddie past this lap’, all the TV cameras were on Hakkinen, so we could do the move (unnoticed). I had about a 1.5sec lead, so I just lifted on the back straight and let him past.”
Cool Brawn engineered the Irvine win
Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images
Preferring to avoid a media frenzy over Ferrari denying Salo his first win, Brawn had also managed to get the team-mates to switch places without even being picked up by TV cameras.
Moments later, Hakkinen – who had just got past Frentzen – suffered a high-speed tyre blowout, ending his pursuit of the Ferraris. They now had a potentially clear run to the finish.
Despite a first career grand prix win being within his grasp, the dutiful stand-in never considered going against team orders.
“It was made clear before I drove first time. If this kind of situation comes, they will make the call. We needed to play these kind of games”