Why Hasn't Sweden Produced Its Own Kimi Raikkonen?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2014

Kimi Raikkonen
Kimi RaikkonenClive Rose/Getty Images

When the lights go out at the 2014 Australian Grand Prix, Marcus Ericsson, Caterham's new driver, will become the 10th Swede to start a Formula One grand prix. 

Based on the success of drivers from Sweden's neighbour, Finland, you might expect that there have been many more Finnish drivers in the history of the F1 world championship. In fact, there have been fewer. Only eight Finns have started an F1 grand prix. The difference is, three of those Finns have become world champions.

So, we have two similar countries, with a similar number of drivers. Why have Finnish drivers had so much more F1 success? Why hasn't Sweden produced its own Iceman?

The easy answer is: Sweden has not had any drivers as good as Kimi Raikkonen—or Mika Hakkinen, or Keke Rosberg—the three Finnish champs.

But that is probably not true. Had it not been for a tragic accident at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, Ronnie Peterson might have become the first Scandinavian world champion. (Rosberg became the first in 1982.) Coming into the race—the 14th of a 16-race season—the Swede was 12 points adrift of his Lotus teammate, Mario Andretti.

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On the run into the first corner, a multi-car accident occurred, and, though Peterson was rescued from his flaming car, he suffered severe injuries to his legs. Although his condition was stabilized in the hospital following a lengthy surgery, he developed a fat embolism and died the next day

Andretti scored one point at Monza and none in the final two races.

Another Swedish driver, Gunnar Nilsson, showed promise in his first two F1 seasons, 1976 and 1977. In the revolutionary Lotus 78, he won the 1977 Belgian Grand Prix and finished third at Silverstone, but reliability problems and accidents led to seven straight retirements to end the season.

Sadly, despite signing a contract with Arrows for the following season (Peterson took his place at Lotus), Nilsson never raced again in F1. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer and was too sick to drive in 1978. He died in October 1978.

Thus, in just over one month, Sweden lost two of its best drivers.

Stig Blomqvist in 1983.
Stig Blomqvist in 1983.Mike Powell/Getty Images

The next year, another Swede, Bjorn Waldegard, won the World Rally Championship, followed by his countryman, Stig Blomqvist, in 1984. The popularity of rallying in Sweden, spurred by the success of Waldegard and Blomqvist, could be another reason for the country's relative lack of success in F1, with some talented young racers drawn to rallying rather than single-seaters.

Of the other Swedes who have made it to F1, only a few had notable careers. Jo Bonnier started 104 grands prix between 1956 and 1971. He won once, at the 1959 Dutch Grand Prix, and achieved his best result in the championship that year as well: eighth. He was killed in an accident at the 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans.

No other Swede has won a grand prix, but Stefan Johansson scored 12 podium finishes from his 79 starts between 1980 and 1991. He finished fifth in the Drivers' Championship for Ferrari in 1986—coincidentally, one point ahead of Rosberg in the Finn's final F1 season.

Sweden's only other point-scorers are Slim Borgudd, the one-time ABBA drummer, who finished sixth in the 1981 British Grand Prix, and Reine Wisell, who stood on the third step of the podium in his first race, the 1970 U.S. Grand Prix. Although he achieved moderate success in 1971, with four points finishes, his career fell off from there, and he was out of F1 by the end of the 1974 season.

Hakkinen at the 1998 Luxembourg Grand Prix.
Hakkinen at the 1998 Luxembourg Grand Prix.JEROME DELAY/Associated Press

Meanwhile, a few Finnish drivers wrote an entirely different motor racing narrative for their country. After Rosberg's success in the 1980s, Hakkinen rose to prominence in the 1990s, culminating with back-to-back Drivers' titles in 1998 and 1999. 

When Hakkinen retired, his seat at McLaren was immediately filled by another Finn, Raikkonen. He came close to the championship in 2003 and 2005, finishing second both years to Ferrari's Michael Schumacher. When the German retired for the first time, following the 2006 season, Raikkonen took his spot at the Prancing Horse and immediately delivered another world championship to the Italian team.

While their neighbours have been winning world titles, the Swedes have been without a driver on the F1 grid since Johansson's retirement—22 seasons. But the drought is finally coming to an end.

Of course, Ericsson will probably not replicate Wisell's podium in his first race, if for no other reason than Caterham's lack of pace compared to the front-running teams. The 23-year-old Swede also lacks the pedigree of some other recent F1 rookies (namely, a GP2 or GP3 championship), though, he has won in Formula BMW and Japanese Formula Three. He also closed the 2013 GP2 season strongly, after struggling in the first half, finishing the year sixth overall.

Ericsson at the 2009 young driver test.
Ericsson at the 2009 young driver test.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Ericsson also has some previous experience in F1. At the 2009 young driver test, he spent three days driving the title-winning Brawn GP car at Jerez. After the test, according to Formula1.com, team principal Ross Brawn said, "Marcus had his first opportunity in a Formula One car this week and he has performed very well showing exceptional maturity in his approach and feedback."

Four seasons have passed since that test, but Ericsson will now get a chance to fulfill the promise he demonstrated to Brawn. He will attempt to do so carrying the flag of a country with a star-crossed past in F1. Maybe, though, 2014 will mark the start of a new and brighter chapter in Sweden's F1 story.

Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter @MatthewWalthert