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Jyrki Juhani Lehto, known as “JJ Lehto” is a former Formula One and sports car racing driver from Finland. Once heralded as a rising talent in Formula One, his career was ultimately disrupted by injuries. However, JJ Lehto found success in sports car racing, winning the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans twice.

JJ Lehtos’ Early Racing Career

Lehto began racing karts at age 8, winning numerous events on his way up the junior ranks. He graduated to Formula Ford in 1985 and immediately dominated the Scandinavian series. His performances caught the attention of 1982 Formula One world champion Keke Rosberg, who brought Lehto into the Philip Morris/Marlboro young driver programme.

In 1987, Lehto won the British and European Formula Ford 2000 championships driving for Pacific Racing. He progressed to the senior Formula 3 category in 1988, taking the British Formula 3 title in his rookie season with 8 wins and 14 podiums. He absolutely dominated the season, with 3 retirements, he finished the race only once outside a podium – and it was due to a failure.

Lehto stepped up to International Formula 3000 in 1989, again with Pacific Racing. However, it proved to be a disappointing season as he failed to score any podium finishes in 9 races, with the highest race finish in 4th at the Pau Grand Prix.

Formula One Career

Lehto made his Formula One debut at the 1989 Portuguese Grand Prix, driving for the fledgling Onyx team. Though he failed to qualify for his first race, Lehto impressed with his speed and made his first F1 start at the next race in Spain. 1990 was not much better for Lehto, as he struggled to qualify for the races and when managed to do so – he finished only once, taking 12th at the San Marino Grand Prix.

However, luck struck in the right timing for JJ Lehto. During the 1991 San Marino Grand Prix, he managed to qualify 16th, with a 4-second loss to the pole sitter, Ayrton Senna. In the race, 8 drivers either spun or retired before the end of lap 3, causing chaos and carnage across the whole Imola Circuit. In the front, Senna and Berger had an amazing battle for the lead of the race, and the next driver behind them settled to be…. JJ Lehto. He managed to hold onto P3, and although he finished a lap down, he was one lap ahead of the 4th Pierluigi Martini. Nobody expected JJ Lehto to score, and he made the best of the chaos and took third place, scoring his only podium in F1 career. In the next 13 races of the season, he managed to finish only 4, scoring 8th best at Spain.

In 1993, he joined team Sauber and had a great start to the season, scoring 5th in the South African Grand Prix, and 4th at the San Marino Grand Prix. Those two races gave him 5 points, which he didn’t manage to improve until the end of the season and finished 13th.

For 1994, Lehto signed with Benetton alongside Michael Schumacher. However, he broke his neck testing the new B194 chassis prior to the season and missed the first two races. He made an early comeback for his home race, the ill-fated 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, but stalled on the grid and was struck from behind by Pedro Lamy’s Lotus.

Lehto continued to struggle with lingering injury problems throughout the 1994 season. After being replaced by Jos Verstappen for several races mid-season, Lehto returned for two events with Sauber but his Formula One career sputtered to an end with no drive for 1995.

F1 Career Highlights

  • 3rd place at 1991 San Marino GP – his lone F1 podium finish
  • 13th place in the 1993 F1 World Championship with 5 points
  • Drove for teams including Onyx, Scuderia Italia, Sauber, and Benetton

Sports Car Racing Success

Following his Formula One career, JJ Lehto turned his focus to sports car racing. This proved to be a wise move, as he found his greatest successes competing in series like BPR Global GT and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

1995 – First Le Mans Victory

In his third attempt, JJ Lehto won the grueling 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours, driving a Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing McLaren F1 GTR. His teammates were veteran Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya. Lehto was instrumental in securing the victory by building up a sizeable lead for his team during a long, wet night stint.

1999-2002 – Factory Driver for BMW

JJ Lehto became part of the official BMW factory team as they entered sports car racing in 1999. Though victories proved elusive in 1999-2000 due to the pacesetting Audi R8, Lehto helped develop BMW’s new open-top V12 LMR prototype racer.

In 2002, Lehto began driving for the factory Cadillac squad in the American Le Mans Series. Though again uncompetitive against Audi, he was a fixture on podiums in the second half of the season.

2003-2005 – Back to Winning Form

For 2003 Lehto moved to the Champion Racing team and their Audi R8 prototypes. He scored 4 wins in 9 races that season, finally getting a car capable of beating Audi. In 2004, he won the ALMS championship taking 6 victories from 9 races.

In 2005, Lehto added a second Le Mans 24 Hours victory to his resume. Driving the latest evolution of Audi’s dominant R8, he stormed to victory alongside Tom Kristensen and Marco Werner.

Sports Car Highlights

  • 2 wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1995, 2005)
  • 2004 ALMS Champion with Champion Racing Audi
  • Multiple-time winner in BPR Global GT and ALMS

Racing Retirement and Post-Career

After his sports car racing achievements, JJ Lehto announced his retirement from professional racing following the 2005 season. He made a couple of guest appearances in the Grand-Am Rolex Series and local Finnish events before retiring for good.

JJ Lehto worked for MTV3 broadcasting Formula One races from 2001-2010. He became reclusive in his personal life following a tragic 2010 boating accident which killed a friend and brought legal troubles after it was determined Lehto was intoxicated at the time. However, in 2012, JJ Lehto has been cleared from the charges, as the court had no evidence of him being in control of the boat at the exact moment of the accident.

While Lehto’s Formula One results never matched his early promise, he remains a latent talent capable of brilliance behind the wheel. As evidenced by his Le Mans victories over a decade apart, when provided competitive machinery few could match his pace and consistency for long stints. Lehto is a prime example of a supremely quick driver succeeding through perseverance to find redemption and reward in the crucible of sports car endurance racing.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many Formula One races did JJ Lehto compete in?

Over 5 seasons from 1989-1994, Lehto made 62 F1 starts out of 70 total entries. He raced for teams including Onyx, Scuderia Italia, Sauber and Benetton.

When did Lehto win his two Le Mans 24 Hour titles?

Lehto won the grueling 24 hour enduro in 1995 driving a McLaren F1 GTR, and again in 2005 behind the wheel of an Audi R8 for Champion Racing.

What Ended Lehto’s Formula One career?

A broken neck sustained in pre-season testing prior to the 1994 season disrupted Lehto’s momentum after a promising 1993 campaign. Lingering effects hampered his comeback and he slowly faded from F1 thereafter.

What racing series did JJ Lehto find the most success in?

Undoubtedly sports car racing proved Lehto’s niche, as illustrated by his two Le Mans crowns. He also became champion of the American LeMans Series driving an Audi R8 prototype racer in 2004.

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