Jyrki Järvilehto, better known as "JJ Lehto", (born January 31, 1966 in Espoo), is a former Formula One driver from Finland.
He was a protégé of Finnish 1982 Formula One World Champion Keke Rosberg, who first suggested that Jyrki Järvilehto would abbreviate his name to the more manageable JJ Lehto, much as Rosberg had done before him (Keijo Erik his own given name).
Like many racing drivers he began in karts, winning numerous events, before graduating to Rally Driving. A switch to single seaters saw him dominate the Scandinavian Formula Ford and win the coveted British Formula 3 title in 1988. The following year Lehto tested for Ferrari before making his Formula One debut for the Onyx team. Financial difficulties forced the small team to quit Formula One in the summer of 1990 leaving Lehto free to move to Scuderia Italia, where he remained until the end of the 1992 season, when the Italian squad also withdrew. During that time he collected his only podium finish in the 1991 San Marino Grand Prix.
In 1993 Lehto signed for the new Sauber team, who had moved into Formula One from Sports car racing, where he partnered Karl Wendlinger. Despite failing to repeat his 1991 podium result, Lehto scored a respectable 5 points before signing for the front-running Benetton team to partner Michael Schumacher in 1994.
Sadly, when it appeared Lehto was finally to receive his break in Formula One, disaster struck. A testing accident at Silverstone shortly before the beginning of the season forced him to sit out the first two races with an injured neck. Lehto made his return at the ill-fated 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, in which Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were killed.
In that race, Lehto's Benetton stalled on the starting grid and was plowed into by Pedro Lamy's Lotus. Instead of stopping the race to clear the track of debris and then restarting the race (which was the normal procedure at the time), race officials decided to bring out the safety car to lead the cars around the track until the track was clear. Some people believe that the loss of tyre temperature and pressure that results from such an extended period of low speed driving may have contributed to Ayrton Senna's fatal crash on lap 6.
Benetton were fighting for the constructors title in 1994, and despite a sixth place finish in Canada, Lehto lasted only four races before once more being replaced by Jos Verstappen, who the team felt was in better form at the time. Lehto made two more appearances for Benetton while Schumacher was suspended in the latter stages of the season, but by now, with his confidence terminally damaged, it was clear that Lehto's Formula One career was effectively over. Benetton replaced him with Briton Johnny Herbert. Lehto was then drafted in to the Sauber team for the final two events of the 1994 season, races which would be his last in Formula One.
Post-Formula One career
After his Formula One career stranded, advised by his manager Keke Rosberg, JJ joined the German Touring Car Championship, DTM, in 1995 and 1996. Even though rated highly, victories eluded him, but this loss was probably made up by his successes in GT and sports car racing.
He was a late addition to the 1995 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a McLaren F1 GTR, but he won the race outright, at his third attempt, sharing the car with Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya. He had three more guest appearances in the same car the next year, winning another race, before he got picked up by BMW to join the factory squad in the inaugural FIA GT season, partnering the talented Steve Soper. Even though success came initially easily (a highlight must surely have been winning in front of his homecrowd at the Thunder In Helsinki event), the might of Mercedes-Benz caught up with the McLarens and left JJ conceding the title to former DTM rival Bernd Schneider.
After an unsuccessful 1998 campaign as a Mercedes-Benz factory driver in the American-based single-seater CART series with Team Hogan, JJ stayed States-side but returned to the BMW camp, which entered their V12 LMR sportscar racer in the American Le Mans Series, ALMS. Even though he ended up winning four races, JJ lost the title on the account of a formality (he wasn't awarded the points gained for winning the 12 Hours of Sebring because he didn't have an American racing license back then). 2000 proved less successful as the near-unbeatable Audi R8 entered the scene.
BMW and JJ stayed in the ALMS series, but stepped down to the baby GT-class with the controversial M3 GTR. The team was virtually unbeatable but still JJ lost out in the championship to the driver he shared the car with, Jörg Müller, as the latter had more fastest laps and laps in the lead to his name.
He found the M3 already not fast enough to his liking, so it was not surprising when JJ turned down BMW's offer to join them in the European Touring Car Championship, ETCC, the following year, having to race a near standard 320i tin-top racer. 2002 started with unemployment, but he was picked up by Cadillac as an addition to their Northstar LMP sportscar programme at Le Mans and in the ALMS series. Although the car wasn't on the pace of the Audi R8s or Panoz LMPs, the car's fortunes did seem to turn for the better when it started to notch up regular podium finishes in the second half of the year. Cadillac's mother company General Motors pulled the plug on the project, leaving JJ again without a job if it hadn't been for Champion Racing, who offered him a drive in their Audi R8.
JJ won four times in 2003 (including the prestigious Petit Le Mans event at Road Atlanta), but it wasn't until the factory Audi squad left the ALMS series that he was finally able to reap full rewards in 2004 and score his first championship success since his 1988 title in the British Formula 3, picking up six victories on the way.
A disappointing second half of the 2005 season prevented him from scoring double championship success, but nonetheless he managed to end his career (for now?) on an impressive note when winning both the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans again.
In 2001 Lehto joined Finnish television as an expert race commentator.