The Finnish co-driver taking ‘sisu’ to another level

Reeta Hämäläinen is making waves in the WRC as a co-driver, but cancer in 2019 has made her journey tougher than most

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Forget the awesome displays of bravery, ultra-close competition and the thrill of speed – you’ll often be told it’s the people that make rallying so special. Reeta Hämäläinen does nothing to disprove that theory.

Her story is simply incredible: one that perfectly encompasses the Finnish spirit of ‘sisu’ – the ability to display susatined courage and incredible resolve in the face of adversity – unfortunately far beyond just calling the pacenotes in a rally car. And the really gripping part of this story is you can sense that the best chapters are yet to come.

Because her father Teuvo competes, Hämäläinen was no stranger to the service area from a young age. But it was a different kind of horsepower – the literal kind – that first captivated her; and in fact still does as DirtFish’s call is occasionally interrupted by her horse perhaps competing with us for Reeta’s attention.

“I still have one horse left, she’s such a big personality that I don’t think I will ever be able to let her go,” Hämäläinen explains.

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But as she neared the end of her teenage years, Hämäläinen started to become drawn in by rallying. However her initiation wasn’t typically Finnish – her desire sparked by a Spanish driver in a French car and her first rally over in the Czech Republic.

“I was with my dad working in one Finnish championship race [SM O.K. Auto-ralli] and I saw people like Dani Sordo driving and so on and was like ‘this is so cool’ and I wanted to be part of a rally,” she remembers.

“When I was young the horses were much more interesting to me than cars even though they were also interesting but not that much, horses came first. So after that we decided to do a rally with my dad and we found a car and built it for one year because my dad had done the Czech Republic historic rally [Historic Vltava Rallye] before, he wanted to go there so we just decided, fine, we start from there.

“It was quite a story to begin with. It was all the things coming in one time, reading the regulations in English and everything.”

I tried a few rallies but to be honest I was totally s*** Reeta Hämäläinen on her brief driving career

Hämäläinen did her first rally at 20 years old and has been hooked ever since. As most beginners do, her initial events after sitting with her dad were with amateur drivers out for fun, but Hämäläinen wanted to take herself further.

“I actually tried driving a few times because I started with co-driving and then I wanted to learn more and at the time I was sitting beside some hobby drivers who did it for fun and I wanted to get better so I wanted to train,” she says.

“I didn’t find anybody to train with me so I decided ‘OK I will buy my own car and then I will start driving’, because then I can decide how much I train. I actually built a rally car with my boyfriend, he’s a mechanic, a really good one, so he did it and I did the easy jobs!

“Anyway I tried a few rallies but to be honest I was totally s***. Every time they had to tow me out of the snowbanks, so then I decided ‘OK, I’m better as a co-driver!'”

It was a shrewd tactic to develop her career though, and soon she was part of a training program with the Finnish federation that helped her enormously. Teaming up with Laura Suvanto, they began to rise through the ranks and made the Opel Adam Cup in Germany.

This was the first true time Hämäläinen’s resolve was tested as the pair suffered a rather serious accident: “I actually broke my back and had to stay in Germany for one month, some of it in hospital,” she says.

“But I think the worst part is we couldn’t do our first WRC event, Rally Germany, [which] was part of that series at that time. This was a disappointment but I got through it and I was a little bit worried if I was scared or something like that after the crash as it was the first crash where I properly hurt myself, but I managed to do some rallies still in 2015 and to be honest I realized in the first rally that no, I’m not scared, and this is still the thing that I want to do.”

It was just as well, as Hämäläinen’s international career was now about to take flight. That crash in Germany would mark the end of her partnership with Suvanto but new relationships began to forge as she became a regular in R5 cars and on entry lists abroad – alongside the likes of Mikko Lehessaari and Miika Hokkanen.

I was of course a little bit doubting myself: do I make some mistakes that causes us to roll the cars? Reeta Hämäläinen

However competing at home still gave Hämäläinen plenty of joy, particularly with Jonna Olkoniemi because “when you are doing it with your best friend, it’s just fun”. And that partnership also led to a huge opportunity as Olkoniemi’s godfather is none other than ex-works driver Janne Tuohino, who asked if Hämäläinen fancied doing Rally Sweden in 2018.

“That was a really big opportunity for me, like really, really big, and I think because everything went well with Jonna that was maybe the reason he asked me to do Rally Sweden with him and of course I was like ‘wow, how cool, yes sure I will do this.’

“It was big pressure for me also because we had had several not so good rallies before, I think we rolled in the five last rallies six times, so I had quite many airplane feelings! How do you describe this rollercoaster?

“I was of course a little bit doubting myself: do I make some mistakes that causes us to roll the cars? So actually, with Janne I realized again what I should do and it went really well, it was amazing to be honest. And probably because of that people maybe noticed more who I am and so on.”

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Everything was on the up. The career Hämäläinen had worked so hard to achieve was finally bearing fruit. But her world was about to be turned completely on its head when she received the news absolutely nobody wishes to hear.

“It was 2018,” she begins. “For the whole autumn I had like really big pains in the side of my back and so on, so finally I had to go to a doctor in November 2018 and that was also the time that we were planning to do more rallies with Mikka [Hokkanen] and also in December Janne called saying he was buying the WRC car and would like to do Rally Sweden with me.

“It was December 5 when I discovered that I had cancer and I was 30 years old at that time, and was like what the hell, this cannot be true because I don’t have any reasons to have cancer because they searched me and examined me and I don’t have anything family related or any gene mutations or anything.

“Maybe that was also the hardest thing to accept for me was I had lived a healthy life, no smoking, no drinking – well, the normal amount but not too much! – so I didn’t have any reason to have the cancer.

“But luckily I was so fit at that time because I had been training so much physically for three years, that was the only thing that made me think ‘good, that was the right timing’ because my physical shape allowed me to get so much of the medication against the cancer because I got double the dose normal people would get.

“That was actually really funny because the nurses were always calling the doctor and saying ‘are you sure that this is the right amount’ and they said ‘yes it is.’ But yeah at that time the most difficult thing for me actually was that I couldn’t do the rallies.

“Janne kept pushing away the [Sweden] entry, saying OK we will do the entry on the last day in order to see if I can do the rally because my treatment started January 3 and the entry was closed on the 15th or something like this, but after the first dose of the medication it was clear that I cannot do it.

“We waited because I wanted to see if it would just take a few days to recover or something like that so then I could do the rally, I just needed to plan having the medication at the right time, but really there was nothing to do. It was horrible, it was just absolutely a nightmare.

“For me maybe it was the amount of stuff I got but I have never felt that much pain in my life, never. It was just crazy, really, really crazy and suddenly life changes. Earlier I was worried ‘will I get to go in that rally?’ or ‘this is my biggest problem if I cannot go to that rally’, suddenly life was about ‘how can I cope until the night, and how can I get through the night and into the morning’ because I had like every possible symptom, like everything you could get. It was horrible.

I don't see death anymore as an enemy because when I was in such pain I actually saw that it could be relieving Reeta Hämäläinen on how cancer changed her view on life

“Of course you get used to it step by step but finally I had to have more medication in order to cope, and it was so horrible because when you took morphine the next thing was you were puking all the time, so you had to choose that it’s either the pain or the puking. It was a rough year to be honest.

“But it’s actually weird because after that I’m not anymore scared about dying,” she says, candidly.

“It also changes the thought of death as I didn’t see it anymore as like an enemy or something like that, because when I was in such pain I actually saw that it could be relieving. Dying is maybe not such a bad thing after all.

“Of course I don’t want to die, but somehow I see that finally eventually everybody has to die and you cannot really decide when you are dying, so you just have to make everything out of your life when you are living it.

“I know that you cannot be everyday 100% like ‘now I need to do everything because I might not be alive tomorrow’ but somehow the main thing for me is just to do what you love. Do what you love and make the best out of it. Of course everybody has to work but make time for your life, don’t waste it is the only thing I nowadays think about.”

Hämäläinen did sneak in one rally start throughout 2019 – SM Itäralli – alongside friend and well-known drifting driver Kristiina Aalto as “she just wanted to cheer me up because I couldn’t do the rallies”.

“She had never done any rally, she knew just as much as zero about rallying, and at the ceremonial start she was like ‘there’s one thing I don’t understand about this, do we start here like full speed’ and I was like ‘no! No we don’t, so please don’t'”, Hämäläinen laughs.

“But yeah anyway because she is used to drifting cars that have 700-1000bhp and we were driving the rally with a standard Renault Clio which had like 120bhp or something so the small Clio got a few clutch kicks! Finally we actually broke the driveshaft, but yeah we had so much fun. It was amazing.”

The resumption of Hämäläinen’s professional rallying career was far from a foregone conclusion though. Although she would ultimately carry on – and emotionally finally got her chance to compete with Tuohino on the WRC’s winter rally in a World Rally Car in 2021, two years after missing out – there were risks associated with a return.

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“At some point I really thought that I cannot make it back to a rally car because one year after the cancer I still could break my small bones just with my own body weight because I was so fragile,” she says.

“But then came Covid and there were no rallies and I actually had four horses at the time, because after the cancer I just decided f*** it I will do whatever I want, so I had four horses and my own stable and I guess that made me quite strong to be honest because in Finland the gyms weren’t open or anything like that so I couldn’t really do a proper workout, but with the horses when you are mucking their stalls and everything it’s actually quite physical!

“So somehow I got better and better and better and finally then when actually Janne called in the summer and said one of his clients will do Rally Estonia, would you like to drive with him? And I was like ‘OK, maybe I’m ready now’ so I went to try it again because at that time I wasn’t actually sure if rallying was the thing anymore that I wanted to do, because I really enjoyed the horses.

“I wondered if I was fit enough or if I’m fast enough anymore, if I am just good enough for rallying anymore. But luckily I did that rally and in that rally I really realized that yes this is the thing that I want to do, and from there it just went forward and somehow now I’m here!”

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And here is a very exciting and promising place to be. Despite everything that life has thrown at her, Hämäläinen has never been performing at a higher level than she is now. Alongside Emil Lindholm, she is leading the Finnish Rally Championship and has won rallies in class in the WRC including, famously, as a driver…

“I think I make history with that one because I think I’m the only driver in the world who has won a WRC rally without driving even a meter!” she laughs, remembering last year’s Rally Spain where she was entered as the driver of Lindholm’s Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo to enable the pair to have priority seeding.

“I guess normally maybe somebody is driving over the finish or the start ramps or something like that but I didn’t drive at all.”

But jokes aside, her partnership with Lindholm is going very well and has the potential to take her to the place she’s always dreamed about: a factory seat in the WRC. Working with Škoda Motorsport to develop its new Fabia Rally2 has given her a taste of what that might be like.

“It’s really actually something that I enjoy, I enjoy a lot,” she says.

“It’s difficult to admit because it’s such a big thing to get into and it’s not easy because there are so few places and the competition is so hard that it’s always really scary to admit that yes I want to be on top of the world, but yeah it’s my dream.

“I dreamt about it when I was young, when we started the training and so on, but then maybe reality hit or something like that and then the cancer came and I was like ‘OK maybe that dream isn’t coming true’ but then because I had these few opportunities with Janne and now with Emil, the dream is back in action and somehow you need to call it a goal because otherwise it will never happen.

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“It’s scary to say it out loud, but of course that’s something I want to have. We will see what the future will bring and of course we will work really, really hard for that, and at least I’m trying to go as far as I can and to be honest with Emil I have a really good chance because Emil is fast, he kind of has everything that it takes.”

There’s no disagreement from DirtFish, but the same absolutely rings true – and perhaps more so – for Hämäläinen given the extraordinary battle she’s already faced, on and off the stages.

After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Words:Luke Barry

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