Fredrik Åhlin: Never Forget to Have Fun

Fredrik Åhlin: Never Forget to Have Fun

Lifestyle People

Severely injured in a serious accident six years ago, one of the rally’s great talents wanted to call time on his career. Read his story and re-experience with him the moment he decided to race again.

19. 7. 2018

Fredrik Åhlin currently drives a ŠKODA FABIA R5 in the European Rally Championship, but his love for cars began way back when he took his first steps. Check out the video below, which sums up the story of his life with one very serious twist, and read all about it.

“I think Fredrik was five years old when he said, ‘I’m going to be a world rally champion’,” recalls Susanne Kottulinsky, Fredrik’s mother, herself a former rally driver and navigator. “Fredrik was a very lively child. He started walking at nine months, and as soon as he could grab hold of something, it was a car,” adds Susanne, and continues: “His first races were in the living room, where he would speed around the fireplace in a pedal car,” laughs Susanne. “I even had the striped tape to mark off spectator areas, and I would put it up all over the living room,” Fredrik says.

“His first vehicle with a real engine was actually a 50 cc motorcycle,” says Susanne. “He was about five and, to be honest, he was really too small for motocross. I remember one day he was showing off in front of the older boys, who were egging him on, of course, when he crashed really badly on one jump. He was covered in bruises, so when I brought him home I told my husband Jerry I didn’t want our son riding around on two wheels. Four wheels are safer,” explains Susanne.

Talking of Susanne’s husband Jerry... Yes, it’s Jerry Åhlin, another legendary Swedish rally driver. Motorsport history is particularly strong in this family, as it encompasses not only Fredrik’s parents, but also his grandfather. Who might that be? None other than Freddy Kottulinsky, winner of the iconic 1980 Dakar Rally. “The funny thing is that my father was not meant to be racing, but was basically just asked to drive the support car. However, after he won the first stage, the guys he was there to help were actually behind him,” laughs Susanne. Freddy also set up the driver training system now known as the Audi Experience, where both Susanne and Jerry still teach people how to improve their driving. 

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Susanne Kottulinsky, the mother of Fredrik Åhlin

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Discovering a great talent

But back to Fredrik. After dallying with motocross briefly, he moved on to go-karts, where his parents quickly recognised how talented he was. “Fredrik was always the fastest, even on new tracks. Over time, the other boys would practise and come to grips with the circuits, and would start catching him up, but that’s the difference between a track and a rally. In a rally, you only have one shot. And that’s when we realised that Fredrik would be a great rally driver.”

“My parents never forced me into rallying. I had a go at lots of other sports when I was younger – handball, football, ice-hockey, golf... But what I enjoyed most were the go-karts and, later, the rallies,” adds Fredrik. Susanne nods: “For Jerry and me, it was most important for our children to engage in sport, but we didn’t push them into racing. However, Fredrik and Mikaela, our daughter, ultimately made their way into motorsport and we are happy about that.” Mikaela, then, is also continuing the family tradition, though she specialises in circuit racing.

Having agreed that was Fredrik was talented, his parents took the brave step of alternating as his co-driver to navigate him through his first rallies. “It was terrible! We would keep telling him to slow down, but he would get angry and yell, ‘Why are you saying that? Everything’s fine!’ We had to stop racing with him after five races or so,” laughs Susanne, adding that it was at that point that they decided they would only be parents, not fellow racers.

“It was the best solution. He was still very young when he won about 28 out of 30 races. His career sky-rocketed. He is the youngest person to win a rally in Sweden. Eventually, at the age of 19, he was singled out as a talented driver and allowed to start in the Junior World Rally Championship (JWRC),” says Susanne as she picks up the pace.

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Growing pressure and a fateful accident

“I wanted to have everything, but I didn’t have a clue about rallying outside of Sweden,” says Fredrik, continuing the story. “I was in the lead in my first JWRC rally, but then we had problems with the car. In the second rally in Greece, the car suffered engine failure and rolled. In Finland, I was in first place, but then there was a massive crash. In Germany, I got food poisoning,” says Fredrik as he lists his problems. “The pressure kept growing, and by then I was no longer driving for myself, but just to show the others how fast I could be, which was never going to work. I was in crash after crash, and my grand finale came in Spain in 2012, where I hit a tree, and that was really bad.” He pauses.

“The telemetry data showed that I was driving 126 kilometres an hour when I went into the tree. I hit it side on, and fortunately the point of impact was behind my chair, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be here today. I broke some ribs, suffered really bad concussion, and was unconscious for half an hour. I was transported by helicopter. For another eight hours or so, the lights were on but nobody was at home,” smiles Fredrik. “I mean, I could talk, but I didn’t recognise my mum, my sister... I still have no recollection of the day of the accident, or the two days before that. Nothing, nothing, nothing.” Fredrik shakes his head.

“When I got to the hospital, he really didn’t recognise me. He asked me who I was, and whether he was married and had children. It’s still painful to talk about it. That was a really tough time. We were worried he had damaged his brain,” explains Susanne.

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This family has cars everywhere. Even by the fireplace in the living room.

“The first thing I remember is the moment I woke up. It was pitch black everywhere and I could hear a sound like Darth Vader breathing. And I thought to myself, ‘What the heck is that? Am I in a Star Wars movie?’” Fredrik laughs and continues: “So I woke up with a scream, my mum turned the lights on, and I found myself in a room with other people in a very bad way. The person on the next bed next to me was hooked up to a respirator, which is what was making the weird noises,” explains Fredrik.

“Then they ran all kinds of tests on me. These showed that I had no permanent damage and that I would heal. A few months later I was fine again,” says Fredrik laconically, adding that he really was done with rallying at that moment. “I wasn’t enjoying it at all. What was the point in spending so much time on it and almost dying for something that I found no fun at all?”

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No more rallying. Are you sure about that?

Susanne chimes in to say that, while they avoided talking to him about rallying for several months, they never persuaded him to give up racing for good. “Then one day I called him and asked how he was. He said he was fine, that he was in the garage, and that he was working on a car. So I said okay, and asked no more questions,” says Fredrik’s mum as she recalls when he started to show an interest in cars again.

“My manager called me one day and said, ‘First of all, we have to assemble a practice car so we can sell it, in order for your parents to get some of their money back.’ So I helped out with a few small jobs, painting the wheel arches white and other parts black. And my manager said, ‘You have to do a rally to show everyone that the car runs well.’ So we went to a small rally in Östersund. We only had one spare wheel and one can of fuel,” laughs Fredrik.

And Susanne adds: “He told me he was going to give a rally a go and asked if I’d come along. Obviously, I said yes! And after the first stage, he asked me: ‘So, what do you think?’

And I never lie to either him or Mikaela. So I said, ‘Fredrik, move up a gear, and don’t think, just go and have fun!’ Then he won the second stage, the third one... In the end, he won his class.”

“I said to myself, ‘These little rallies are really fun. I’ll do one more before I quit for good.’ And I won again, so I said: ‘Okay, one last hurrah in Sweden and then I’m done.’ And I won again,” says Fredrik as he describes how he gradually eased himself back into racing.

“After that, we went to Norway, where I battled it out with Pontus Tidemand, who now drives for ŠKODA Motorsport. He won, and I came second. A weekend later, we went to the South Swedish Rally and found myself up against Pontus again. It was the craziest race I’ve ever experienced. We fought for every second; we really pushed ourselves. I won that rally in the end. By the end of the 2013 season, I had won 11 out of the 13 rallies I entered,” says Fredrik in summary.

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Don’t forget to have fun

You have to look forward to winning, but not worry about losing. Because if you enjoy what you’re doing, you are going to be relaxed. And when you’re relaxed, you get better results.

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“I rediscovered the joy of rallying. Whatever you do, you have to enjoy it. You mustn’t do something just because of the pressure to succeed. If you’re afraid, you won’t succeed – the odds are that you will fail. You have to look forward to winning, but not worry about losing. Because if you enjoy what you’re doing, you are going to be relaxed. And when you’re relaxed, you get better results,” explains Fredrik.

Fredrik Åhlin: Never forget to have fun

His mum Susanne agrees and adds: “You can see it with little kids on go-karts: if their shoulders are raised, they are under stress and they make mistakes. When their shoulders are down, they are calm and they cope with everything better.”

About five years after the crash in Spain, Fredrik Åhlin started driving a ŠKODA FABIA R5 and saw his results improve even more. “It’s a very balanced, very precise car, which is great for me. I like making small, precise movements. I don’t like it when I have to fight with my car. Driving this car is very simple because even if you don’t go all out, the car still runs well and you don’t lose that much. It’s a championship winning car because it won’t give you a hard time even if you’re not having one of your best days on the track.”

Susanne, who is also Fredrik’s manager, takes the same view. As a former racer herself, she has a very attuned sense when it comes to cars: “ŠKODA Sweden contacted us and offered to help us with the purchase of a FABIA R5. We’re very grateful to them. It is a really reliable car. Looking back on Fredrik’s career, he had a lot more trouble with his previous cars.”

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Only a fraction of all trophies that are a reminder of Frederik's successes as well as his sisters and parents. 

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The accident hasn’t changed him, he’s even stronger now

Despite the bad crash in 2012 and the months of convalescence that followed, Fredrik is even stronger than before. “I’d say he is very intense, happy and sociable. And when he cares about something, he is really precise and focused 110%.”

“Comparing him now and when he was a teenager, he has made tremendous progress, mainly in his mental control, thanks to his hard work with his mental coach, who has given him the tools he needs to handle so many situations very well. The only thing that is worse is that Fredrik doesn’t sleep as soundly as he did before. But that’s all,” explains Susanne.

Her words are confirmed by Fredrik: “Normally I’m a big extrovert, but when I’m racing, I’m no fun to be around,” he laughs. “I don’t talk. I just stay focused. My co-driver, Joakim, told me that he thought it was going to be a riot with me, but I’m completely silent.

At the beginning of each stage, I calm myself down. I have my own routine: I do a breathing exercise, then I clap five times, tense my body as much as I can, and sink down in the seat as far as I can. Then we lock hands and say ‘Let’s do this!’, as the stage looms closer. Fifteen seconds before the start, I engage first gear. Ten seconds – stage mode. Seven seconds – handbrake. Five seconds before start – launch control, full throttle and go. When you have a routine, you don’t get nervous,” concludes Fredrik.

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It’s quite simple. Driving a rally car is the best thing in the world. Period.

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He was in great form at the South Swedish Rally in May 2018, where we sourced this story. He was the overall winner at the wheel of his ŠKODA FABIA R5, even defeating a few drivers with older rally cars from the highest WRC category. Then he explained why he still enjoys racing, despite spending 280 days a year on the road: “It’s quite simple. Driving a rally car is the best thing in the world. Period,” he laughs.

After a moment, he adds: “I was 30 seconds ahead in this rally and I knew that even if I missed a turn and had to come back I  would still have a comfortable lead. When you reach that point, you can forget about the handbrake and go flat out, testing every turn to the limit. The feeling that you are in absolute control of the car is the best feeling in the world. When I take a hundred corners in eleven kilometres, and I know that I couldn’t have handled any of them better – that’s why I do it. The enjoyment of these moments, the reward for risk, is what makes rallies so cool.”

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