Jarno Saarinen and Finland – With Phil Hall

Finland is a tiny Scandinavian country and according to the 2016 census, the population is a mere 2.5 million people. Yet, like many other small countries, Finland has produced a disproportionate number of champions and experts in all fields of motor sports (New Zealand also springs to mind in this regard.)

Jarno Saarinen
Jarno Saarinen

The list of Finns who have brought honour to their country is huge. In Formula One there is Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kini Raikkonen, all of whom have achieved world championships.

More recently Valterri Bottas has graduated from being a test driver with the Williams team to being a full-time driver for Mercedes, replacing the retired Nico Rosberg. Rosberg, due to his German mother, claims to be German, but he is of course the son of Keke. so he is half Finnish.

In World Rallying, the list is even longer. Timo Makkinen won the WRC four times, as did Juha Kankkinen. Marcus Gronholm has won it twice and a quick perusal of the current driving roster yields a veritable Who’s Who of Finnish rallying royalty in terms of drivers and navigators.

Drop down to the feeder classes of the WRC and the representation is even higher. Marco Alen was famous in his day and Rauno Aaltonen was a winner on dirt and tar. Aaltonen won the Bathurst endure in a Mini Cooper S in 1966, as well as featuring in the iconic “Race to the Clouds” video where he drove the Renault rally car to a win in the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb.

And the list has been as illustrious in motorcycling (though perhaps not as numerous). In road racing the great Jarno Saarinen won the 250cc World Championship in 1972 and his good friend, Teuvo (“Tepi”) Lansivouri also won his fair share of races (though not championships) in the same era.

In Enduros, Kari Tianen has won the world title seven times while compatriot, Juha Salminen has won the same title 12 times! More recently, Finnish riders have featured heavily in Supermotard,  most especially Mauno Hermunen. In Motocross, Heikki Mikkola won the world title four times and so the list goes on.

Jarno Saarinen
Jarno Saarinen

Much speculation has surrounded the apparent ease with which Finns adapt to motor sports. Of course the fact that they spend a great deal of the year driving on either ice or slushy roads in their native land is often quoted as a compelling factor.

Many young Finnish boys grow up in the countryside where the opportunity to emulate their WRC heroes is ever present and it’s said that a Finnish driver isn’t happy unless the tail of the car is chasing the front.

You probably recall several episodes of “Top Gear” where the team visited Finland and participated in various motorsports events and these are reminders of just how deeply ingrained motorsports is in the national psyche.

But, if the Finns have a national hero (and, God knows they have plenty from which to choose), it must surely be Jarno Saarinen.

Born in Turku, Finland in 1945, he trained as an engineer, a trade that was to prove very useful once he became involved in the hurly-burly arena of motorcycle road racing. Before this, however, he was a champion in ice racing (who can ever forget the ice racing segment in On Any Sunday?) and was also an accomplished speedway racer.

His road racing career took off in 1970 when he finished fourth in the 250 world championship despite having to miss some races as his studies took precedence. In 1971 he won his first Grand Prix in the 350cc class and he ended the season third in the 250cc class and second in the 350cc class. Both achieved as a privateer on non-factory bikes.

Jarno and Soili Saarinen
Jarno and Soili Saarinen

In 1972 he was offered a factory ride with Yamaha. He took over the 250cc bike that had been rejected by Barry Sheene and also rode in the 350cc championship as well. He won the 250cc title easily and finished a close second to Agostini in the 350cc championship.

At the start of the 1973 season, Yamaha introduced their four-cylinder 500cc bike to challenge the dominant MV Agustas and Saarinen got first bite of the cherry. Before that, however, he won the prestigious Daytona 200 mile race on his 350, beating Aussie Kel Carruthers and American rookie, Jim Evans.

On his return to Europe he delivered Yamaha’s first win on the 500 and was leading the championship and the 250cc title race when tragedy struck at the Italian round at Monza.

A high speed accident involving Jarno and his best friend, Italy’s Renzo Pasolini saw both riders die as a result, with 14 other riders suffering injuries in the melee that followed.

It appeared from later evidence that Pasolini’s bike seized entering one of the fastest corners on the track, bringing the bike and rider down. Jarno, following close behind, could not avoid the fallen bike and he crashed as well.

His death hit the motorcycling world like few before or since. It resulted in considerable improvements being made to circuit safety, though this is scarcely a consolation. Jarno was the golden boy of road racing and was destined for a long and glorious career.

He was quiet and shy (as most Finnish men are) but charismatic and personable. His engineering training enabled him to bring to the sport innovations that had not been seen before. He was the first to drop his clip-ons in the clamps as far as they could go, leading to an extreme riding position that few riders could comprehend or copy.

Jarno Saarinen - Global Yamaha
Jarno Saarinen – Global Yamaha

He was the pioneer of the ‘hang off the seat’ riding style that was later copied and refined by Kenny Roberts and became de rigeur for all other riders who followed.

He was always seen in the pits with his delightful wife, Soili, who was the favourite of the paddock because of her nature, her attractive appearance and her propensity for wearing very abbreviated clothing on hot days!

But mostly it was Jarno’s record that stands out. In 46 Grand Prix races he won 15 of them, was on the podium 32 times and set 15 fastest laps. He is still revered in his native land and there are still active Jarno Saarinen fan clubs all over the world.

Former Italian F1 star, Jarno Trulli, was named in his honour and in 2009, the FIM inducted him into the MotoGP Hall of Fame.

There are literally hundreds of photos of Jarno and Soili available on the Internet but the best of them may be found amongst the body of work of Dutch photographer, Jan Burgers. Look him up on Facebook and see two masters at work, the man on the bike and the man behind the camera.

It is impossible to determine just how great the impact of Jarno Saarinen has been on grand prix racing though, perhaps it can best be measured by the fact that, some 44 years later, we are still talking about him.