Mika Salo competed in Formula 1 from 1994-2002, but achieved his biggest success when deputising at Ferrari for an injured Michael Schumacher in 1999. Károly Méhes caught up with the Finn 20 years on to look back on his time at the Scuderia.
How did you enter the picture after Schumacher’s accident at Silverstone?
It all happened in a hurry. I found myself put in a Ferrari and was sent out to race without any testing. Basically, I was the only free pilot at that time which meant I did have some expectations. Luca Badoer was Ferrari’s official test driver at the time and he would have been a logical choice, but for some reason the management didn’t opt for him. But it was still a surprise they actually called me.
How was the atmosphere at Ferrari?
Pretty pleasant, I liked it. After our agreement, President Montezemolo gave me a tour of the factory. There was a big room where the team gathered to greet me and I was introduced. Everybody was happy and, of course, they tried to help as much as they could. Michael was also very kind to me, we spoke a lot on the phone. He gave me advice and told me who I needed to approach with certain problems.
In your second race for Ferrari, the 1999 German Grand Prix, you were asked to move aside to let Eddie Irvine take the win. How did you feel about this?
Well, I was hired to help Ferrari win the Championship. This was evident for me from the very first moment. There is nothing to regret because it was simply my task. Before my first race, we agreed if a situation like this would come I had to move over. Evidently, I hoped that it would never happen but unfortunately – or not unfortunately – it did occur.
You had quite a tough weekend in Hungary, starting 18th and earning no points. What happened?
Tell you the truth, together with the team, we tried many things during practice but only a few worked – this is the explanation for this rather weak performance. One race later Spa was better and then, in Monza I was up on the podium again. All in all, I find it quite a good result from a declared No. 2 driver who was a substitute!
Schumacher returned to his Ferrari seat before the end of the season, but you continued to have a relationship with Ferrari.
When I had the chance to drive for Toyota, I talked about it with Ferrari. After the Toyota story was over, I got another call from Jean Todt and discussed the GT programme. I can’t complain that I was forgotten! [Salo went on to achieve two class victories with Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2008-2009.]
How do you feel to have been part of Ferrari’s history?
I’m proud of it. Before Ferrari, I had only driven for smaller teams. Thanks to Ferrari I could experience what’s it like to be part of a huge and influential team. I also made my own small contribution to Ferrari winning the Constructor’s Championship in 1999; the first time in more than 15 years!
Mika Salo drove for Lotus, Tyrell, Arrows, BAR, Ferrari, Sauber and Toyota in his 8-year Formula 1 career, scoring 33 points and 2 podiums. Post-F1, the Finn drove in CART and sportscars. He’s also a regular in the F1 Paddock in his role as a driver steward at select races.