Being a Formula One driver is arguably the most exciting profession in sport. Fast cars, fast women, fast everything. Today’s racing environment has become stagnant, but Stefan Johansson drove in arguably the most exciting era the sport ever witnessed.
The Swede may never have come close to winning a world title – his best finish was fifth in 1986 with Ferrari – but he claimed 12 podiums from 103 races and drove alongside some of the sport’s biggest icons, including Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
Away from the pits he has been a huge success as a drivers’ manager, including IndyCar’s Scott Dixon. He is also a supremely talented artist, and is particularly known for his watch designs. Sport360° caught up with him at the Gulf 12 Hours last month.
It’s been a while since you ended your professional career. What brings you here to the UAE?
I’ve just turned 60 and it sounded like fun. I haven’t driven in anger for about four years so I thought I’d give it a go again. It was good but it takes time when you’ve been out of it to get used to it again.
How did you find Yas Marina Circuit to drive?
It’s a very interesting track, very technical. It’s a typical modern Formula One track; lots of chicanes, low and medium speed corners. It’s a challenging circuit.
As an old school F1 driver, are you a fan of new tracks or do you hark for famous old circuits like Suzuka, Monza, etc?
There are some great old tracks like Spa, Suzuka, really challenging tracks and punishing if you make a mistake, which is what you want. It’s sad for the old tracks but it’s the nature of the beast.
It’s always an involving sport. Tracks come and go. It would be nice to maintain a few of the classic tracks but Idon’t think there’s anything wrong with the modern tracks.
What’s your favourite F1 circuit?
Spa or Suzuka. They have everything. High and low speed, challenging corners, they’re nice rhythm tracks.
Away from the track, what are you doing now?
I’m very involved in racing still. I manage a few drivers and am involved in some projects with Ferrari, mainly on the sports car side. I’m very busy. I also do my watches too and my art so I’m very busy.
Looking back, you must reflect on your career with immense pride?
Yes and no. I could have done better. I won a few grands prix but everyone who enters the sport at the sharp end wants to be world champion. The timing wasn’t right for me but I’m not complaining.
It was hard initially for you to break in at Spirit, Toleman and Ferrari. Did you ever lose hope?
It’s strange but no, I never did. I kept pushing and never gave up and thought sooner or later the doors would open. And they did.
Are there any regrets with how it ended first time when you were replaced by Gerhard Berger?
I’d already started discussing with McLaren so it was mutual. It was extremely political at the time at Ferrari and it worked out for everyone.
At McLaren you worked for Ron Dennis who you’d first met racing in Formula 3. What was he like to work for?
He was great, one of the best team owners in history. I have nothing but good things to say about him.
At Toleman you raced alongside the late, great Ayrton Senna. What made him such a special driver?
He had an extreme amount of raw talent, but he worked very hard at it. He had an unbendable belief in himself and almost willed things to happen for him. He was one of those characters, had he been a banker he would have been the best banker in the world.
Endurance racing also played a key part in your career. What did you prefer, F1 or racing somewhere like Le Mans?
Both. Endurance racing is great but F1 is the pinnacle so that’s where you want to be if you’re an ambitious driver. I was lucky enough to do both.
Do you agree F1 is boring now, and if so, do you have any solutions?
A little bit. F1 has always been about the cars. There’s never been a world champion that didn’t have the best car, that’s a simple fact. It’s always been a technical exercise, but it would be nice for there to be a bit more emphasis on the driver.
My biggest thing is that aerodynamics in racing have ruined motorsport. There’s no benefit to downforce except to make the car go faster. It’s ruined racing because as soon as you get close to the car in front you lose the downforce and you have to create artificial methods of passing like DRS.
What I would do is take out two thirds of the down force and add 300/400 more horse power. It would allow for much more opportunities to pass.
Nico Rosberg finally won the F1 world title last season. What do you think about him announcing his retirement?
I can certainly understand it. What he had to bring out of himself to do what he did. I think it was a brave and courageous decision. He obviously thought about it carefully.
Who is your favourite driver to watch?
I like (Daniel) Ricciardo. He always has a go. He’s a good racer, a hardcore racer, he’s notpolitical, he just gets on with it. I think he’s the purest racer.
Who would you rank as your top three F1 drivers ever and why?
Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and I think Lewis (Hamilton) is getting up there. Whatever you say about him he’s done a phenomenal job. He’s the real deal. Lewis has massive raw talent.
Fangio was so graceful, he destroyed his competition but in a very classy way. Bravery beyond belief. The epitome of a great racing driver.
Not only was Alain super fast but it was the way he worked around the car. He changed the game for everyone, he was so professional in his approach.
I don’t put Senna up there because I think he was flawed in many ways. He was maybe the fastest driver ever but for me there was always too much drama. A bit like (Fernando) Alonso, he didn’t really choose the best team at the right time when he had the opportunity. I don’t think anyone was near him in speed but I think you need more than that, and Prost was the complete package.
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