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Interview with Mika Salo - visibility in FS, career development and racing days memories

A few weeks ago Mika Salo announced his intention to become Metropolia Motorsport FS team’s honorary member or, in his own words, “a Godfather”. We had a chance to have a chat with Mika and discuss how he could support our team’s development, as well as hear stories from his racing days. Fun fact: ex-racer has known about our team for quite a while now – his goddaughter used to be a part of it some years back.


One of the things important for any team in Formula Student is visibility. Even though motorsport is quite popular here in Finland, it seems that FS is not a very known class of it yet. We have asked Mika’s opinion on what kind of footprint can work like ours leave in the industry. “I think it is a really good preparation for the future, for the work environment”, the sportsman says. “A Formula team has so many different parts: there are mechanics, drivers, marketing, public relations, everything. For example, a Formula One team has a hundred people and every member has their own role. The sport is not only about the car; it is also about the background work, which can be even more important than some of the visible things. The whole show would not go on without every part of the team”. He also adds that a good leader is essential for the team’s success.


Next insight we asked was an advice Mika could give to people who would like to pursue a career in motorsport after graduation. Naturally, some of our team members share such dream. “I think studying in the engineering field is a good start. If you apply for a job without knowing anything from the racing team, you end up cleaning the floors and looking at other people doing important jobs”, Mika laughs. “But here you learn the first steps already and get to know the high level of work. So that you do not have to start from cleaning the floors and wheels and polishing the car. You are already actually involved in here so deeply”. He then shares his experience from a driver’s perspective: “The same thing goes for the drivers. I had to start from go-karts and go step by step further because there is no school for us; I have to learn everything myself. This is where the school is very handy because engineers and designers are very wanted people in the motorsports. If you study and participate in FS teamwork, you practically get work experience. It is a big step already”. Another important factor which the ex-driver mentions is continuity. “Continuity is one of the key parts in every industry and preparation is everything”. He finishes his thought with a simple but truthful fact: “If you are well-prepared, you do not fail”.


We also could not miss the opportunity to ask what Mika thinks about the car we are developing. Mika points out that sure there are rules which need to be followed when designing it, but from his pilot experience, it does not matter for him how the car looks like. “For me, it just needs to be fast to win the races”, he smiles.


After a fruitful discussion on the “serious business” topics, it was time to ask questions which our team members were curious about. First one was related to one of Mika’s most memorable F1 moments for Finnish public: Hockenheim Grand Prix 1999. “Mika, we all know something about speed. But what does it actually feel like to be driving more than 350 kilometers per hour while leading a race?”. The sportsman smiles and takes a moment to think. “Those cars are made to go so fast that it is more comfortable the faster it goes. It is a very uncomfortable car in the slow speed. But yes, it is always a nice feeling to drive those cars - they are amazing things and made to go flat out all the time. Formula One cars are incredible machines which are amazing to drive; it is an unbelievable sensation when you drive those”. We then share that it is fun to hear his thoughts because it is hard to actually imagine how that may feel like. “Yes and how fast they are in the corners”, Salo adds. “Since the circuit is not just a straight line, the corner speed is unbelievable. You see it only when you are standing next to the circuit. You realize “Oh shit, they ARE fast!”.


Next thing we ask is how well were the F1 cars in the 90’s and early 2000's built. “Mika, have you ever had one of those "what the hell are we doing" moments?”. He laughs and replies “All the time. It is very frustrating sometimes if things fail and it is not my fault. As a driver, I try to do everything I can not to make mistakes to get those last few tens of a second. And then, for example, one pit stop goes wrong and we lose five seconds. It takes me a lot of laps to get that time back by driving as fast as I can. Quite often, very bad language comes in on the radio… It is all adrenaline; it just comes out and it is impossible to hold it in. On TV, the conversations they show are very well muted…”. We agree by saying that even it feels very frustrating to watch something going wrong during the pit stop even on TV. He nods in agreement: “That is the longest time: when you sit in the car thinking “Come on, what the hell are you guys doing?”. And normally the stop takes around 3-4 seconds, and then by mistake it takes 15 seconds instead. It feels like forever. It is very frustrating sometimes when things go wrong for reasons which are not under my control. But also of course I have to understand that sometimes I make mistakes and they (the team) have to live with that. I might destroy a million euros “toy” just like that. You need to try to take care of the things the team provides and minimize all possible risks and mistakes. If there is a driver who keeps crashing all the time and they do not bring any results, at the end of the day they become very expensive and nobody wants them anymore”.


At the end, Mika expresses that he is willing to support Metropolia FS team’s development by giving advice and helping with employment opportunities upon graduation. He adds that, importantly, he wants to drive our new car when it is ready. Being asked where he is planning to test it, he jokes: “It does not seem very busy here on the streets in the night time… just around the campus”.