In comparison to their neighbours Finland, Swedish success in motorsport has been strangely limited. Since the golden-era for Swedish motorsport in the 1970s, when the likes of Reine Wisell, and the late pairing of Gunnar Nilsson and Ronnie Peterson represented their nation in Formula 1, Sweden’s presence on the international stage has largely been restricted to rallying and tin-tops; Kenneth Hansen‘s astonishing 14 European Rallycross Championships and Mattias Ekstrom‘s two DTM crowns about all that Sweden has been able to muster. With Kenny Brack and Rickard Rydell overlooked by F1 in the nineties and Bjorn Wirdheim and Alx Danielsson likewise in the noughties, Sweden’s search for a hero out of the Peterson mould has still to bear fruit. That’s where Felix Rosenqvist comes along.
“He probably didn’t inspire me as a young driver but the older you get the more you realise how much he meant for Swedish racing,” Rosenqvist says of Peterson. “For sure, he’s a big hero not only for me, but also for Sweden. His spirit still lives on, but less and less.
“I think that’s what killed Swedish racing a bit, is when he died. It was a big shame, and that’s why we need a new star.”
The 20-year old is one of Sweden’s best F1 prospects in a long time, and sits within striking distance of championship leader Daniel Juncadella in the F3 Euroseries. With the next round at Spielberg in Austria, Rosenqvist is confident of making up the ground lost after a tough weekend at Brands Hatch, wrecked by a disappointing qualifying and clutch problems.
“Austria was good last year, we were really quick there, but then I had a weekend much like this one!” Rosenqvist laughs. “But we had the speed for sure, we were fighting for pole position in the qualifying, I had a fastest lap, and we were fighting for the lead in the third race when I had a crash with Roberto Merhi.”
The 20 year old is conscious that staying in contention until the end of the season will be crucial for him to have a chance of winning a highly-sought after DTM ride with Mercedes for 2012, which is a goal he has been working towards since stepping into the Euroseries in 2011.
“It’s been my plan for two years already that I want to go to DTM with Mercedes, who are helping me. That’s my biggest chance of getting to Formula 1,” Rosenqvist says, citing the example of Paul di Resta, who graduated from the series last year.
“It’s a much better chance than going through GP2 because first I can’t find the budget to do GP2 and then if I get there I don’t know what would take me to Formula 1, even the drivers who have good connections with other people and good sponsors like Perez and Maldonado. I don’t have any of that really.”
The struggles of talented Italian Luca Filippi, who spent 6 years in GP2 without attaining his goal of racing in Formula 1, has demonstrated that the F1-feeder category is not foolproof. Indeed, the difficulties experienced by Rosenqvist’s countryman Marcus Ericsson in GP2 have only strengthened his determination to go down the factory route. Ericsson had looked like becoming Sweden’s first F1 driver since Stefan Johnasson, and tested for Brawn GP in 2009 after winning the Japanese F3 title at a canter and qualifying on pole for the Macau GP. But now in his third year of GP2, Ericsson appears to have lost the all-important career momentum which saw the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Hulkenberg fast-tracked to F1.
“I followed him and it’s really sad for Sweden because we really need a Formula star right now,” Felix shrugs. “Marcus looked very promising and I’m sure everyone knows he’s a quick driver but right now something’s not going right, but I’m not sure what.
“I know myself right now that things can be very hard in racing. Probably he has the same; something isn’t perfect and it’s really hard to solve it during the season. I hope it gets better.”
There is a lot of pressure on Rosenqvist to deliver this year, because with Swedish national motorsport having hit the self-destruct button, it is unlikely that more young Swedes will be following him onto the international scene any time soon. Able to attract top names like Colin Turkington, James Thompson, Fabrizio Giovanardi and Gabriele Tarquini in 2011, Sweden’s national touring car championship (STCC) had been flourishing into one of the world’s premier series, and boasted strong manufacturer representation from Chevrolet, Volvo, BMW, VW, SEAT and Honda. But an acrimonious split with the Touring-Car Teams Association (TTA) has led to an Indycar-style divide, leaving the Swedish motorsport scene in a precarious position.
“I am really worried abut Swedish motorsport because the only series that has more than 20 cars is the Camaro Cup,” says Rosenqvist. “They need to rethink a bit: for sure you cannot have two major touring car championships in one small country like Sweden. I hope they will solve it because it’s not good for the sport.”
So can Rosenqvist be the man to return top-flight motorsport to Sweden and end their troubles for good?
“It’s a normal question: am I the one who is going to do it? Well if I continue like I did this weekend then probably not,” he laughs. “But I’m working all the time, I’m trying so hard.”
No doubt, Rosenqvist certainly has all the right credentials to make it to F1. Always smiling, the Swede presents an easy going demeanour which is hard to dislike, and as a double winner of the Rydell Special Award, the Swedish equivalent of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award, (“it’s probably the biggest award you can get for a young junior driver in Sweden”) Rosenqvist’s talent has been noted by all the right people. Since his victory in the Zandvoort F3 Masters invitational race – the first by a Swedish driver since the event began in 1991 – his profile in his home country has elevated dramatically, with a Swedish TV crew coming to meet him before our scheduled interview.
But while the world has taken a while to cotton on to Rosenqvist, anyone who saw him during a one-off appearance in the Formula Palmer Audi championship at a leafy Snetterton in October 2009, when he simply blew the competition out of the water, will have been left in no doubt about the extent of his talents. That weekend was particularly special, especially considering it was his first time in the car, and that the competition included Jolyon Palmer, none other than the son of the series bossâ€¦
“It was a special one,” he laughs. “I didn’t really have any expectations, and didn’t know what the car was like. Snetterton was also new for me, but it went really well as my driving style obviously suited that car quite well and the track was quite easy actually.
“That was one of my great memories because I came at the end of the year when they had already done the season and no-one really knew who I was because I had only done the Swedish Renault championship. That was really a boost in my career; even if the Palmer Audi was not the most competitive championship, it was still really nice.”
While a successful defence of his Zandvoort title would mean the world to him, it is the invitational race at Macau later in the year, won by his countryman Rydell back in 1992, which the Swede has set his heart on.
“If you’ve won it, you’ve won it,” he says of the Dutch circuit. “But we’ll try to win it again. I think we can be quite competitive because it’s with the old tyres, which we have more knowledge with.
“In theory it should not be too bad. It will be tough to beat the Italians, but it would be great to win both. That would be perfect!”