Keep a cool head at all times.

Hi, Joonas. Tell a bit about your beginnings.
I was born in Helsinki, and lived all my life in Vantaa. I guess my first experience with anything related to racing was when I was three years-old. My father was working on the kart track, so I tried it and became interested. After that I got my own kart and did my first race when I was six or seven. Then it went from a small kart to a bigger one, and in 2012 I raced internationally in the Junior class. I finished 15th in the Finnish championship and 16th in the European. I won the Academy Trophy for the series, where they choose two to three drivers from each country. It was a pretty tough series that year, with a double European champion from Great Britain and many other national champions competing. And everyone had their own chassis and engine, so… I think it’s one of the best achievements of my career so far, because I knew I didn’t have the best material available, but I did pretty well. Then in 2013 I entered Formula Ford in Finland, and in the Northern Championship Racing. In 2014 I entered the Nordic Championship with Formula Renault. And in 2015 and 2016 I raced in the Audi TT Cup, in Germany.

How did it go?
In 2015 I had my first experience with Touring Cars. I was coming from a 400 kg formula car to a front-wheel car with double the mass and the power, so it was obvious my first season would be hard, and that I wouldn’t stand a chance at winning, half of the season would go into learning. Then, in the second half of 2015, I was on the podium four times out of five. And in 2016 I won the championship.

Wow, nice job!
Thanks. We knew the first season would be basically for making adjustments and that the second season would be better, just fighting to win every day. It was easier to get into the car, I knew just what to do, so I could concentrate on the important things. Last year, except for one race, we were always in the top three.

How did you feel when you won?
It was really nothing that special, to be honest. I have won three championships before, so it’s nothing new. Of course it was a greater achievement, but it didn’t feel sooo special…

OMG! You’re becoming KIMI!
(laughs) Of course it was great. It’s hard to describe. I didn’t feel “Oh, now I’m the best!” or anything like that. I achieved something, but I don’t need to make a big fuss about it.

Were there any fans?
Yeah! Finland is difficult for racing, because of the environmental conditions. There’s also no real fan culture except for WRC and F1, the leagues that people follow over here. In Sweden it’s a bit better, with their STCC which is so well organized. And the German DTM is of course another thing, having been running for decades. And about fans… It’s hard to describe. I had people coming to ask me to sign pictures of me when I was ten years-old, driving a kart! It was so different. People are interested in the drivers, they want to meet them… I really liked that.

Well, you already seem way more articulate and media-friendly than Kimi! Your english is excellent.
(laughs) Thanks. My english is good because I went to an English-speaking school, all the way from day-care to primary school. Media-wise, I believe you have to create your own persona, and at the same time be able to tell certain things. How to say? You need to adapt to the situation. Sometimes you can be more open, and other times not.

Since your father was heavily into motorsports (rally, drag races, karts) how much of your motivation comes from him, you think, and how much from yourself?
Hmmm… Maybe until I was seven or eight it could have been more from his side. But now it’s me. And if I say “I don’t want to do this” he says “then we don’t do it, period”.

Let’s talk more about the AUDI TT Cup.
It’s organized by one manufacturer, so everyone gets the same chassis and engine. Otherwise there are many manufacturers and engines available, and differences in performance. It’s a great chance for drivers to show their skill on a more level field.

The car is a basic two-liter TFSI, with 310 HP and modified to race. It has a push-to-pass button that gives you an extra 30 HP. It lifts the power from the engine (I think it’s related to the waste-gate pressure) and gives you 10-20 seconds of extra power, then it needs to reload. It can be used in any part of the circuit, unlike the DRS system.

Last year they modified the chassis, which introduced some changes into the geometry of the car. There were many crashes and spins, so they wanted to make the platform more stable in the rear. This change didn’t suit me because my driving style is more aggressive -I tend to first throw the car in and then control it- but now it was understeering so much that I couldn’t do that. So, it was tricky again at the start of the 2016 season. After the first four races (I think I was third in points) we saw there was not much to do to the car, I just had to adapt my driving style.

What’s your routine to familiarize yourself with the tracks?
I walk the whole track twice. Once at arrival and another the day before the race. I take lots of pictures, of the curves, details (like bumps, etc). I have a very good memory, so I… internalize all this.

Do you ever use racing simulations, like Project CARS or Assetto Corsa, to learn tracks and practice?
Not so much. I like racing games, they are pretty handy for learning the basic layout of circuits, for example. But they can’t fully transfer the immersion of the real world. Take Eau Rouge in Spa Francorchamps, for example. In the game it doesn’t feel too deep, but when you try to walk it up… you’re exhausted one-third of the way! There’s a 77 meter difference in height there.

You raced in Spa?
Yes. In 2014 with the Formula Renault.

Cool. Did you lift at Eau Rouge? (note: this is a cliché regarding that particular, and pretty scary, section of the track: “lift” in this context means not going at full speed but “chickening out” and slowing down – ed)
(laughs) Just on the first lap. Because I realized if I lifted, my stomach would also lift! It’s a classic track, very nice. But it’s not my favorite.

Oh. Which one is?
I like Oschersleben, because I prefer more technical tracks. The tracks until that race had been fast and relatively simple: Hockenheim, Nürburgring and the Red Bull Ring. All the triple left and really slow corners, and fast chicanes make Oschersleben very technical.

The Audis should be all equal, but are they?
It’s impossible for me to say, as I raced only one. They say there’s no difference, but even when you really try, you can’t make two things exactly the same. And after you’re given the car, you can’t complain. You have to do the best you can with it. I’ve always had the attitude that, if I don’t have the best equipment, I just have to fight. There’s no other option, because it won’t get better by whining or complaining. During a race, for example, you may have contact and something gets misaligned, or broken. You cannot say “oh! I can’t race like this!” and quit. You have to adapt your racing style. Many racers put too much emphasis on the equipment, but I think if you’re a good driver you have to be able to fight with what you have.

In F1, the pinnacle of motor-racing, cars are so hyper-designed and the materials so light and brittle, that any kind of contact will almost certainly put you out of the race. How is it with the Audis? Are they more robust?
Yes, of course they’re tougher than a Formula car, but things get broken all the same. For example, I overtook one guy fighting for second position, and there was contact. The other guy went into the gravel and dropped out. My right rear tire went out of alignment, so the car was wobbling all the time, zig-zagging on the straights… But I come from racing indoor karts, I’m used to adapting because karts have big differences (they are adjusted all the time for different ages and heights) some understeer, some oversteer, some have good engines, others not. So it’s a race, I have a chance at the podium, I have to fight with what I’ve got! I adapted my driving style (the car was wobbling a lot when braking) and defended my position. I finished second.

Is this Finnish sisu at work?
Maybe. But I see this approach in others too. It’s a mental attitude. You can either think “my tire is bent, the car’s wrecked, I can’t race like this” or you can show what you’re made of. You can finish, while doing the best you can. It’s also important, I think, to drive different kinds of vehicles, to learn how they behave, and how to adapt to them. Knowledge gives you more experience to adapt.

How are you planning your career? Formula 1?
Probably not. It’s a bit unrealistic, because you need so much money to get there. Ten years back it would have been enough to have five million for your whole career. Now five millions would barely buy you into F1.

It’s your own money?
More or less. Red Bull is a bit different because they have the Junior Academy. You get in through Toro Rosso and then onwards. Otherwise you need a pile of money to get in. Your begin in Junior Formula, where you already need a ton of money. That’s why I moved into Touring Cars, because the chances of making it into F1 are so tiny.

But isn’t it so that a team may say “we want that guy, let’s offer him a contract”?
Most of the time it doesn’t work that way. You have to be a millionaire to buy your way in. The only teams that don’t worry about money are Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull (perhaps Renault). But others can’t even cover the costs of their own team, they’re putting in 300 million a year, so they have to get the money from somewhere. And to race in Formula 1 you must have been racing GT2, which takes from four to six years from karts, nowadays. Then on to S3 for one or two seasons. Nowadays even these classes need so much money. F4 costs from 200 to 300 thousand per year! So they don’t come to ask you to drive. They need the money, their expenses are going up all the time.

Only rich guys get to drive?
If you have the money maybe you will get in. If not, maybe through a scholarship by Red Bull. It’s sad because there are so many great drivers who should make it, but won’t. And others who will make it and shouldn’t. But they can afford the whole career.

This is why I moved to the touring class, because it’s cheaper at a higher level. Our costs for 2015 and 2016 were beyond 120,000 euros each. GT3 would cost between 150,000 and 300,000, without support by a factory. But as winner of the 2016 series I got awarded 150,000 euros for the 2017 season, to be spent into AUDI Sport Customer Racing. This means it’s either GT3, or the new TCR championship that AUDI launched in October 2016. The car is similar to the TT Cup model, but made into a sedan, because under the regulations it must have five doors. And the races are all in Scandinavia (five in Sweden and one in Finland).

The money stays with AUDI, then.
Um, yeah. But our costs go down dramatically, as we don’t need to pay for the car, which helps a lot.

What’s different between GT3 and the new STCC?
Basically, costs. We could enter GT3 for a year, but it’s a really tough championship. There are many factory teams, with different manufacturers, and professional drivers. It would be really hard to achieve good results under those conditions in one year. It requires a lot of testing, which requires a lot of money, and so on. And then there’s no certainty that we could do a second season, so…

And after STCC, if you choose it?
Hard to say. STCC is a great championship to participate in, it’s only 15 cars. The TCR league in Germany is a big thing now; last year there were 20 cars, and this year it’s gonna be 35! So that would be a logical step after STCC, in 2018 perhaps. But nothing is decided yet, we’re considering.

Like in any professional sport, politics and money are heavily involved. Are you ready for that? Would you throw a race if they told you to?
It’s hard for me to say at this point.

Have you seen politics at your level?
No, I haven’t seen anything yet. Of course there will probably be, on more advanced levels.

Are drivers aggressive on the track?
Not so much. Sometimes they try to give you a little nudge…

And after the race? Do they ever come to you and say “Hey, icehole..!”

What GT3 car would you like to race in?
An AUDI. Or a McLaren 650S.

Now that you’re 18, what car will you drive?
I’ve already got one. AUDI Finland lends me an A3 sedan, ’cause I’m an AUDI driver.

Sweet. Is there any special car, modern or classic, that you worship, or covet?
Not really. I’m not so much into the cars themselves. I just race them.

Niki Lauda or James Hunt?
Niki. He’s more my type of character, more analytical. Not a playboy, but more of a subtle person.

Räikkönen, Bottas?
Well, Kimi… is Kimi. He went there ages ago, and he’s very fast, very talented -even though we haven’t seen much of him in the last few years. And I think Valtteri will be the last Finn we see in F1 for a long time. He made the transition from karts to Formula at the right time, and still has many years ahead. I’ve met them both, nice guys, they have made great careers so far. I don’t know what Kimi will do after F1. He has been a hero to every guy in racing, because he’s so fast. I respect them both.

Any contemporary heroes?
The guys who race the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Formula 1 is about lifting, saving tires and fuel, a few laps and it’s over. But Le Mans… in the morning, they’re pushing, maybe with a 20 second gap, three hour stints, and keep pushing… When André Lotterer was driving the Audi, on that 3-hour stint to bring the gap down, I was just crazy. He was doing qualifying laps one after the other, for three hours! That’s real racing, not lifting and saving fuel.

Would you like to race at Le Mans one day?
Yeah, maybe. I know personally Toni Vilander, who raced with a Ferrari there.

What makes a good driver, would you say?
You have to be both fast and consistent, and you have to keep a cool head at all times. Everyone can be a fast driver; for some it happens quickly, for others it takes longer. But a good driver needs to be fast AND to have a good mental side. If you’re weak mentally, or others are stronger than you… Or if you can’t cope with different situations and you crack under pressure, it’ll be very hard. And you need to become your own persona, in a way that you get people interested in you and what you’re doing, to create an image for yourself. Mika Häkkinen or Kimi, for example, they are more or less themselves. They project this Finnish-ness so that people around the world think all Finns are like that, because they are the ones they see -which is not the case. I understand it and got nothing against it, but it’s fun to prove people wrong. (laughs) So, those three things. Plus you need to be good at talking with the team; to know the car well and to be able to maintain good communication with them.

What does mom say about racing? Does she worry?
I don’t think so. She doesn’t have anything against it, she’s always been supportive. She doesn’t come to the races, I think it’s best for her to stay home (she watches some, online). But I don’t think she’s worried. She wants the best for me… (thinks) Okay, maybe when I’m racing she IS nervous. But she wouldn’t tell me to quit, she knows how much I love it.

What would you do if racing doesn’t work out?
I’m interested in mechanical engineering. Also finance and law, maybe… I’m not sure yet. But what I know is that racing could end up any day, so I want to have a good education. I know some guys who race karts or Junior Formula, and they don’t give a hoot about school, because they think they are going to do this in the future. I don’t think they realize it may end. That’s why I didn’t pick a sports-oriented high-school. I’ve always have this in the back of my head: to finish school with good grades. By the way, we need to wrap this up because I’ve got two exams coming…

This is Joonas’ website, and this is his Facebook page. All photos © AUDI and the respective photographers.