Though a late entrant into Formula One, Keke Rosberg was the original Flying Finn, known for his dashing and daring style of driving. Even though his Grand Prix victories might not number to those of Formula One greats, Keke Rosberg still ranks among the highest players simply for his speed and talent. Born Keijo Erik Risberg, he changed his name to Keke to make it easier for the media to remember and address him. His parents were students at the time of his birth and returned to Finland after completion of their studies from Sweden. His father, a veterinarian and mother, a chemist, participated in rallies and Keke’s first experience behind the wheel occurred, when he was left alone in the car and he promptly turned on the ignition and smashed the car into the garage door.
Despite his first experience, he soon became an impressive kart racer, having taken to the sport while he was still a toddler. Even though he had wanted to become a dentist or computer programmer, his career path was consistently directed towards motorsports. He won the Finnish kart championship five times and also the Scandinavian and European Championship in 1975. Within the same year he graduated to Formula Vee and Super Vee and won ten out 21 races that he participated in. A few years later, in 1978, he managed to participate in 41 races over 36 weekends, over five continents. While driving for the American entrant Fred Opert, Keke came in an impressive fifth in the European Formula Two championship, an even better second in the North American Formula Atlantic series, and finally in a similar car, he came in first at the Formula Pacific series.
Keke Rosberg was now a professional racing driver, even his passport listed his job as racing driver. The fact that he had never spent his own money on the sport, and had managed to derive a profit from it, only made the claim more legitimate. To facilitate his claim, Keke developed a “bread and butter theory, where the bread was produced by racing, and butter from elsewhere”. The money from elsewhere was from marketing himself, where he would sell off space on his car or his suit and even perform some duties as a salesman for the goods he endorsed.
But all this could not help him make an impact in Formula One, making his debut in 1978, Keke drove a completely inadequate Theodore, for a team funded by Teddy Yip, a wealthy Hong Kong businessman. Keke describes the Theodore as “an absolute pig of a car”, and did not fare any better with his following teams, ATS, Wolf and Fittipaldi.
Keke was 33 years old and though had a more than comfortable lifestyle, had still not made an impact in Formula One racing.
In 1981, Rosberg faced his lowest point in Formula One when the Fittipaldi team folded because of lack of funds, it seemed that his dreams of a Formula One championship were finally doomed.
But a twist of events worked in Keke’s favor, when 1980 champion Alan Jones announced his retirement unexpectedly, Frank Williams had little option but to choose Keke Rosberg as his driver. Keke made the most of this opportunity and though he won only one Grand Prix at Dijon in France, he proved his mettle by piling up points and becoming the 1982 World Champion.
That any one of half a dozen drivers could have won that title, but Keke believes his strategy of driving every lap, absolutely flat out helped him clinch the title. When turbo-powered cars were introduced the next year, Keke was still on his Williams with a normally aspirated Cosworth. “I was probably the fastest I’d ever been in my career. I just refused to accept anybody could beat me and to stay with the turbos I was prepared to take massive risks”, he explained.
The effort showed, as his driving made a huge impact in the race, and his talent shone through. With a self confident air about him, Keke’s personality matched his cocky attitude. And when Williams got Honda turbo engines, he was unbeatable. His most noteworthy achievement being, the sensational pole lap for the British Grand Prix, in 1985, where he averaged 160 mph around Silverstone. This was the fastest lap in Formula One history and it was also the most exciting.
But his all out approach eventually took a toll on the Finn, and himself believed that his style of driving was more wearing than those employed by long time champions such as Alain Prost and Niki Lauda. “Playing defensive tennis is less taxing than playing attacking tennis”, he said.
He soon shifted from Williams to McLaren in 1986, but he retired after that. Keke continued to race for several years after that, for sports cars with Peugot in 1990 and also 1991 as well as touring cars with Mercedes and Opel in the German DTM series. He even started several teams, in several categories. After that he also became a successful driver manager, maintaining the careers of many drivers including fellow Finn and World Champion Mika Hakkinen, and also a youngster, Nico Rosberg, whose future he charted out, with a paternal interest.