Following on from the likes of Toni Vilander, Markus Palttala and Jesse Krohn, Juuso Puhakka is part of a new generation of Finnish drivers forging routes into GT racing.
The 22-year-old made his GT3 debut last year driving for Toksport WRT in Fanatec GT World Challenge powered by AWS Sprint Cup and claimed five podium results including a victory at Magny-Cours alongside his Silver Cup class co-driver Oscar Tunjo.
In this latest Pirelli Paddock Pass Q&A, Puhakka discusses his racing upbringing in Finland, his debut in the Mercedes-AMG GT3 Evo and his aims for the coming season.
How did you get started in motorsport?
“I was around eight years old when a friend of my father said, ‘hey, bring your kids down’ because he had an extra go-kart down at the local circuit.
“My father liked what he saw, and he got us a go-kart. I was driving with my big brother. He was always faster than me, so it was a good way to start competing straight away!
“I was at the same circuit where Kimi Raikkonen started, Espoo Bembole.
“Every Tuesday we had a race there, 5 pm after work everybody went there and raced in mini-karts. It was a nice time, spending a lot of time with my brother and father.
“My brother was really good at hockey. When we were 14 or 15 years old, he chose hockey and made a nice career [there] and I chose to move onto racing.
“Then the years went on and I started racing at the European level in karting. In 2015 I went to Formula Renault 1.6 in Sweden, and then in 2017 I went to SMP Formula 4.
“That was a horrible season: I finished seventh and made a lot of mistakes and had a lot of technical issues. The road to Formula 1 was over. That’s when I went to GT cars.”
How did your move to the GT3 ranks with Toksport WRT materialize?
“I was in the Lamborghini junior program, but then everything happened quite quickly.
“Within two weeks I had completely changed my plans and I was testing with Toksport at Paul Ricard.
“The key thing is to have the complete package, the team and the teammate. That’s why I chose to race with Toksport.
“We decided to do the Sprint Cup. I really like the format of sprint racing because if you don’t bang in the qualifying lap your chances are much lower.
“Unfortunately, we had DNFs at too many races. We had the engine explode [before race one] at Misano because of the curbs.
“It was a good season, but the result was bad so I was a little bit disappointed. But that’s motorsport.”
After Misano, your season quickly picked up. How did you and the team bounce back?
“Magny-Cours was a highlight because that’s the point when I noticed that I had this potential and could fight with these guys. I was about one-tenth off the fastest AMG drivers.
“With such a small amount of testing I had, I was really happy with that weekend.
“We were a bit frustrated coming there because we didn’t race at Misano, so we really needed to push and start getting points.
“I remember being really happy after that weekend, because I saw my potential against the Pro drivers I have been watching for a few years.”
How well did you and Oscar Tunjo work together during your first season as a duo?
“Oscar did some races with the AMG in 2017, so he was a bit more familiar with the car.
“We had a really good relationship and came along really well. In terms of that, he was the perfect teammate for me. He was a bit more experienced, even though we were both learning all the time.
“We were lucky to have really good engineers and team managers who supported us really well. In my opinion, we didn’t struggle with a lack of experience.”
Last year also heralded your debut at the Total 24 Hours of Spa, driving a Mercedes-AMG for Madpanda Motorsport. How was that experience?
“Along the season I dreamed I could race at Spa, and about one month before the event I forgot about it, thinking there wouldn’t be a chance. And then, out of nowhere, I got a phone call.
“It was a nice moment because it’s one of the biggest GT races and the level of competition is so high there.
“I had never been to Spa, even in Formula racing. I missed the official test and then went straight to Free Practice 1. Spa is not the easiest track to have 20 minutes to learn, and it was quite a shock.
“But I was lucky that qualifying was wet, so I did a really good job there. When I did my first stint at night it was something else. It’s a different world compared to sprint racing.”
How is your 2021 program shaping up?
“In October last year, I started gaining experience at the Nordschleife. I think it’s an important thing to learn and master.
“This year I hope to say in GTWC Europe, in Sprint Cup or Endurance Cup. I’m also looking to do some races at the Nordschleife. I would really like to do the N24.
“I’m keeping my eyes open for every opportunity. Hopefully I’m going to stay with Toksport and AMG. Sprint Cup and the Nordschleife would be a cool program.
“The ultimate goal is to be a factory driver. Yesterday they announced the AMG drivers and I want to be on that list someday.”