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Q&A with Stefan Johansson: "Senna was the fastest..."

To label Stefan Johansson one of the brightest stars of Swedish motorsport history can hardly be considered an exaggeration. Born in 1956 alongside a range of other Swedish sporting greats - including Ingemar Stenmark and Björn Borg - Johansson can look back at an almost unbelievable career which has landed him everything from top drives in Formula 1 to outright victory in the classic 24 Hours of Le Mans.

With the world as his office - and an undiminished devotion to his sport - the "Little Leaf" continues to live an active life that would make even the most energetic of entrepreneurs green of envy.      

Felix Racing sat down to hear from Sweden's latest Grand Prix driver about his roots, his love of watch design, street racing in Macau and - of course - about his thoughts on Felix Rosenqvist...


Mattias Persson: Stefan, you are one of the most successful Swedish racing drivers of all time and still keep on driving to this day. Where does your passion for motorsport come from?

Stefan Johansson: I grew up with it, my father was into racing well before I was born and I began going to races with him when I was three years old.


Mattias Persson: You are the only Swede to have raced for the two "giants" of Formula 1, Ferrari and McLaren, and you’ve also won the classic Le Mans 24 Hours. How did a kid from the small town of Växjö reach that level of success in such an international and demanding sport?

Stefan Johansson: I don’t think it really matters where you come from or how you were raised. It’s all about the mind-set you have and how motivated and willing to succeed you really are.


Mattias Persson: What do you know about Felix Rosenqvist? How would you describe him as a driver?

Stefan Johansson: It’s difficult to follow everything that happens in Sweden when you live in the US like I do, but if you’re good enough to win the Masters of Formula 3 - like Felix did - then you are also Formula 1 material. The talent, undoubtedly, is definitely there, and then it doesn’t matter too much what type of driver you are or what your driving style is like. At the end of the day, everyone is still different and you always have to adapt to new cars, teams and situations. It all comes back to the same thing; a willingness to beat the rest and always bounce back, no matter how bad things look from time to time.


Mattias Persson: Felix has found himself in the spotlight mainly because of his successful stint in Formula 3 – the same class you once used as a stepping-stone to greater things. Why is Formula 3 such an efficient category for nurturing talented drivers?

Stefan Johansson: Unfortunately, there are way too many series to choose between on the road to Formula 1. F3 is definitely one of the best and most important, but the current inflation in single-seater options has meant that it’s almost impossible to go straight from Formula 3 into F1 – which wasn’t at all the case in my day. Back then, many drivers went directly to Grand Prix racing from F3, but today it has become almost a necessity to win in GP2 to get any attention from the F1 world. It makes it tough to go all the way, not least with respect to how expensive a GP2 seat is.


Mattias Persson: If you could pick one highlight from your career that you are a bit fonder of than anything else, what would that be?

Stefan Johansson: If by that you mean pure victories, then Le Mans is obviously top of that list, but there have also been races where the results haven’t been particularly good despite the fact that you still produced some of your best driving – the material just wasn’t there to win. Sadly to some degree, we are in a sport where the machinery plays a central role for the outcome, and there is only one car in every race that has the edge…


Mattias Persson: You were active in Formula 1 during an era which featured some of the greatest drivers of all time. You’ve raced against the likes of Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and not least Ayrton Senna – and then we haven’t even begun to mention your ensuing career in the USA. Out of all the drivers you ever encountered, who do you regard to be the very best? Please note that you can't pick yourself!

Stefan Johansson: Haha! Even if I’d wanted to, I still don’t think I would have chosen myself. Out of the drivers I met, there was no clear winner; Senna was the fastest – particularly over one flying lap – but he had weaknesses in his psyche that held him back from becoming the best driver of all time. Alain Prost was a genius when it came to setting up the car and planning the races to his advantage, so my choice has to be a tie between Senna and Prost.


Mattias Persson: Nowadays, you live in the USA and run a number of different projects; everything from an Argentinian vineyard to designing your own watches. You are also the manager of Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon. How would you describe your life today compared to 20 years ago?

Stefan Johansson: Much busier than when I was driving full time. I don’t think drivers appreciate how simple life is when you are actually just driving and how spoiled you get – particularly in Formula 1. It’s completely different when you get out into the real world and try to make things happen. I’ve been extremely privileged and have been fortunate enough to do what I love for pretty much my whole life, so I definitely wouldn’t complain. This far, I still haven't woken up without looking forward to what the day has in store.


Mattias Persson: How often do you return to Sweden and Växjö?

Stefan Johansson: Maybe once or twice a year, it depends on how much time my different projects need and where in the world they take me to.


Mattias Persson: The next big goal for Felix is the Formula 3 world finals on the streets of Macau, at a circuit many consider to be one of the most challenging on the globe. You have obviously driven at numerous street venues over the years, and even been on the podium in Macau – what makes that type of racing so special?

Stefan Johansson: Macau, in my opinion, is one of the best circuits in the world, and with a little bit of luck I might be driving there myself in the GT class this year… Street circuits are always unique because there is absolutely no room for mistakes – not even the smallest of them – which means you have to be extremely precise in your driving. Then you have to experiment with different lines in order to find the best grip etc. It’s very challenging, and a lot of fun!


Mattias Persson: Finally; since you left Formula 1 in the middle of the 1991 season, no Swedish driver has managed to step into a Grand Prix race seat. It’s been 20 years. What will it take for Sweden to finally get a driver into Formula 1 again?

Stefan Johansson: A rock-solid will. If you unreservedly believe in yourself and commit 100 per cent of your dedication towards the success of something, it will eventually come about – not only in motor racing, but in all parts of life.


Mattias Persson: Thank you for your time.

Stefan Johansson: Thank you.

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