Mika Salo

Former F1 driver Mika Salo is embarking on a new career in sportscar racing, or more specifically, the FIA GT championship. He made his first step with a Ferrari at Spa, and very nearly won, but that was just a taster for his proper debut with Maserati at Imola this weekend. Adam Cooper spoke to the Finn

Mika Salo

This should have been Mika Salo's second season in America, and his chance to build on the experience he gained there in Champ Cars last year. However, it was not to be. There's no question that Mika is a little frustrated that things didn't work out for him in the USA.

"It was good fun, and I liked Champ Cars a lot," he says. "It's a shame that it's turned out to be what it is now. I was let down by PK Racing a little bit. Until February I was still going there, and then suddenly they said no. There was some business deal with Jimmy Vasser. I was pissed off when they said I can't do it. Life there is nice, and the racing was close. But anyway I'd have to move all my family to America, and my expenses would have been higher than what I would make there.

"This year I'd done no racing at all until Spa, apart from one super touring race with Audi in Finland! It was fun, but they're very slow cars."

Mika's GT career kicked off when he got in touch with his former F1 boss, Jean Todt. Driver and team got on well in 1999, and finally Todt was able to help him out. Before long Mika was testing Maserati's GT prototype.

"I talked to Todt and told him I wanted to do Maserati already the year before. He said to wait a little bit. Luckily when the Champ Car thing ended I called him back and said 'Can I do it now?,' and he said OK.

"We've done a lot of laps, and it's a very professional team. The car has been working well. We've done a lot of race simulations, and it seems to be OK. It's not an easy car just to jump in. It's a big thing, and you have to lap consistently through the race distance.

"I'm fully prepared to race in Imola, I really want to race the car that we've been testing and developing so much. A lot of people from my times in F1 with Ferrari are working there. I got along well with them then, and I get along well now. It would be difficult after F1 to settle in a private team."

While Mika waited for the Maserati to be made race ready he was invited to get a first taste of the FIA GT series at Spa at the end of July. He found a seat in the GPC Giesse Squadra Corse team, alongside Fabio Babini, Philip Peter and former Spa winner Vincent Vosse. The drivers in the sister car included former F1 men Gianni Morbidelli and Emanuele Naspetti, so Mika felt at home.

After the disappointment with Audi at Le Mans in 2003, Mika was eager to have a proper run in a 24 hour event - and get to race at night!: "I never drove in the race, so it left something missing, because we stopped so early."

Practice and qualifying confirmed that he had made a good decision, for the 575M Maranello was one of the most competitive cars in the field. The early stages of the race went according to plan. A couple of early pacesetters retired, and just a few hours into the race the Ferrari was established in the lead, with its main opposition coming from Scuderia Italia.

Mika was hugely impressive in his first stint, and kept the crowd on its feet as he ran just ahead of the second placed car. There was a drama when the boot lid had to be replaced, and valuable time was lost in the pits. However, the car continued to lead through the long hours of darkness, and into Sunday morning.

"It is different, because you don't really recognise the circuit in the dark at all. You know which way the corners go, but you can't see the kerbs, you can't see the braking points. There were a lot of flashing lights in the car which make it harder. It took me half an hour in the car before I started to get used to it, and it began to go well."

Unfortunately things began to go wrong just before lunchtime on Sunday. The undertray began to come adrift and started to wear away as it dragged along the track.

"It was hard. We'd been leading the whole race, and we were not pushing at all. Then suddenly we get a little thing like this. It took seven minutes to fix it, and it put us a lap behind the leaders. All the aero parts which I tested at the test day had fallen off the car! So it was a difficult car to drive..."

The car lost downforce and the lap times suffered, and a lot of time was wasted in the pits while the mechanics attempted to fix the diffuser back on with tapes and straps. Inevitably the car dropped to second, a lap behind the Scuderia Italia car. While all this was going on Mika put in some heroic laps, and really impressed the team with his commitment. When he got out of the car for the last time, he was worn out.

What he didn't know until I told him was that it was five years to the day since he gave up the lead of the German GP to Eddie Irvine. He hasn't won a race outright since his British F3 days, so Spa would have meant a lot. Instead Scuderia Italia gave Ferrari its first win in the event since 1953, when Farina and Hawthorn triumphed!

"It was a good experience," he says. "The car is so hot inside! Otherwise overall the 24 hours is not so hard. I thought I couldn't sleep in between stints, but I was surprised, as I could sleep quite well. At the end in the sunshine doing a double stint was a bit over the top. It was hard work compared to the Maserati, which is so easy to drive. It was a very professional team, and it's always nice to work with Ferrari."

A Spa victory for an ex-Ferrari F1 driver would have been perfect, but sadly it wasn't to be. But he now has the chance to add to Maserati's glorious history. And some pretty famous names have been involved in that company's past.

"I'm hoping with Maserati that we can have a long future together. Why not? In CART it was getting quite intense, because there was testing and races every week, but this is quite relaxed. They don't have races every week. You get to drive nice cars and on nice circuits."

Meanwhile he's keeping an eye on what's happening in grand prix racing, although he says he doesn't miss it.

'Nothing has changed since I left, and the same guy is still winning! I miss driving the car, but I don't miss the bullshit there. It's too much, especially the last two months at Toyota. You just had to cover your own arse all the time. I had things that would make the team better, but you couldn't say it, because you were scared for your job.

"I knew they made a mistake when they let me and Allan go, and they've suffered from it since, and they will next year, because the latest driver decision wasn't the most clever one in the world. I think Ralf is a very strange choice. I remember I told Panis in Spa in 2002 to enjoy it, because he might lose his job at any moment! Mike Gascoyne is good, but even he can't do it alone..."

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