Flying Finns have now become so much a part of rallying folklore, it’s easy to forget that it was one man, Raunto Aaltonen, who started it all. John Davenport recalls a sublime talent
Wagner may have preferred Dutchmen, Erica de Jong may have been scared of it, and daring young men may have done it on a trapeze, but, in the world of rallying, flying and Finns are an item. There have been so many successful Finns in rallying and all of them skilled in the art of aerobatics that it is easy to overlook the driver to whom that epithet was originally applied — Rauno Aaltonen.
Aaltonen himself points out that the title itself was not new, as it had been coined in America for Paavo Nurmi, the great Finnish athlete and record breaker of the 1920s, but he was the first to whom it was applied in motorsport.
Rauno’s career of speed started back in 1950 when he raced hydroplanes at the age of 12. The Finnish authorities did not actually permit anyone to hold a racing licence until they were 16, but as as Aaltonen recalls, “my father taught me how to manage things and we simply gave my age as 16. The organisers said that I was rather small to be 16, but we replied that people do not all come in the same size”.
When he started winning races, naturally everyone agreed that this could not be the work of a 12-year old and the matter of his age was dropped. He went on to win seven Finnish championships and the Scandinavian Championship in the 500cc class. Typically, his only regret was that the chap that he beat for the Scandinavian title went on to win the World Championship two weeks later. Rauno could not get out of school to compete…
In 1954, he turned to motorbike competitions. Although he had some difficulty learning to ride a push-bike, he had been expert with a motor bike from the time that he had started racing boats. “Every day I rode my motorbike,” he recalls, “as my dream was to go race it. Boats were okay but one always wants more.”
His first two-wheel event was a 24hour winter enduro covering some 1,600 kilometres. The same year, he was Finnish champion racing a 350cc JAP on 1000-metre dirt ovals and also raced a 500cc JAP-powered bike on 400-metre speedway tracks. He motocrossed a home-made bike with an NSU 250cc engine, raced a MV Agusta 125cc on conventional tracks and then topped it all off with some ice racing.
In 1955 he was captain of the local Hakkapeliita speedway team that won the Finnish Championship and for circuits swapped the MV for a 125cc Ducati with desmodromic valves and three camshafts. The following year he won the Swedish GP at Hedemora with a fully streamlined 125cc Ducati and thus became the first Finn to ride to victory in a World Championship motorbike race. The progression from boats to bikes lead naturally on to cars, and in 1956 he entered his first local rally driving a Mercedes 170S saloon. The following year he acquired his first “real rally car”, a Saab 93B, which “wanted to make car-sized holes in snow banks by understeering. The others used the handbrake. I invented left-foot braking”. He failed to finish his first 1000 Lakes Rally in 1958 with it but the next year, now converted to a GT with 748cc, three carburettors, 70 bhp, and a three-speed gearbox, the Saab brought him home 17th. His idol, Erik Carlsson, finished fourth overall in a similar car.
It was in 1961 when he really put his name on the rally map when he won both the Finnish national championship and the 1000 Lakes Rally. He had gone to Sweden in June to drive his father’s Mercedes 220SE in the Rally to the Midnight Sun, a European Rally Championship event. Apart from a strong sump-guard, minimal engine tuning and a low final drive, the car was very much standard.
The rally comprised secret stages mainly on “unsurfaced, winding forest roads with many brows and naturally tightening bends but no hairpins. The Scandinavian cows three hundred years ago knew which way to go home and did not change their mind every five minutes!” In conditions like that Rauno was totally at home and was consistently beating the factory Mercedes until they broke down. He was lying second overall on the last day when one of those “naturally tightening bends” caused him to park his father’s car less than tidily. But he had been noticed by Karl Kling, the formidable boss of Mercedes’ sporting activities.
At this point in his career, Rauno thought that his sporting activities were virtually over and that the future might be the odd rally or race fitted in with his career in the family business of selling cars. However, not long after the Midnight Sun event a short telephone call changed his life.
“This is Karl Kling of Mercedes Benz,” said the voice at the end of the line. “Would you like to drive for us? You must be in Stuttgart tomorrow morning with your helmet.” After which there was a click and Rauno’s career as a professional rally driver was launched. The following morning he was in Stuttgart being introduced to Eugen Bohringer, the man for whom he was to co-drive on selected European Championship events.
The first of these rallies was to be the Polish Rally which turned out to be a key event because also competing was Stuart Turner, co-driving for Derek Astle in a Healey 3000. Turner had won the RAC Rally of 1959 in partnership with Erik Carlsson, so he needed little convincing about the abilities of Scandinavian drivers on gravel roads and, as he was to become BMC Competitions Manager in a few months time, his thoughts were very much on rally drivers and their skills. Turner recalls that “one section and one section only was on the loose. Rauno took the wheel and murdered everybody. I came away from the Polish Rally convinced that if you were going to win on the loose you needed a Scandinavian driver, and preferably R Aaltonen, Esq.”
The Bohringer/Aaltonen partnership won the Polish Rally and went on to finish fourth on the Liege-Sofia-Liege and second on the German Rally. They would have won the Liege had it not been for the tyres. Before the start, Mercedes was convinced that they would only need to change rubber once during the four day event. But as the tyres wore out and started to puncture, Aaltonen was continually changing and mending tubes in the back of the Mercedes just to keep going.
When Rauno won the 1000 Lakes in his factory-supported Mercedes 220SE shortly after the Polish success, Stuart Turner’s mind was made up. The first BMC event for the Flying Finn was the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally. The 997cc Mini Cooper was as new to international rallying as Turner was to his appointment, but both were to show the stuff from which future success bloomed. Rauno was paired with Geoff Mabbs, a driver in his own right who had won the Tulip Rally the previous year in a Triumph Herald.
With Monte Carlo almost in sight, Rauno and Geoff lay second overall, hard on the heels of Erik Carlsson who was heading for the first of his two victories in the winter classic. Then on the road down to Luceron from the Col de Turini, they crashed, the Mini landing on its roof and bursting into flames. Mabbs got free and though already quite badly burned, he got back into the car to drag an unconscious Rauno to safety. It was a perilous start to a distinguished career with BMC.
The next call-up from Abingdon was to drive an MGA in the Tulip Rally on which he was accompanied by Gunnar Palm. Pat Moss won the rally outright in a Mini Cooper, but the task of the MGA was to stuff it up the works Triumphs. “It was a time when everyone was still obsessed with what went in the Daily Express advertisement on a Monday morning,” admits Turner. “The TRs were dominant. So we shoved an MGA in to see what happened and, Graham Robson will tell you, as he was managing the TR4s, it was Rauno’s canniness not the performance of the MGA that enabled them to win the class”.
It would be fair to say that, despite his earlier results, it was only in 1963 that the rally world started taking Rauno Aaltonen seriously. He started by finishing third on the Monte Carlo Rally, swapped immediately into a Chrysler Valiant to win his class on the Swedish Rally and was then entrusted with BMC’s first 1071 Mini Cooper S with which he promptly won the Coupe des Alpes outright. On the 1000 Lakes he finished third in a Saab and promptly got into an’Austin Healey 3000 to lead the Liege-Sofia-Liege from the start as far as the Vivione, the last Col but two, before crashing when the hard part of the rally was over. He rounded off his year with a finish on the Tour de France in a Mini Cooper S and a retirement on the RAC Rally with a Healey 3000.
The Liege accident on the Vivione had seen him and Tony Ambrose teetering over a sheer drop with just a bent iron railing preventing their fall. `The steering arm under the steering box had snapped off,’ relates Rauno. `The Healey went like a toboggan between the very thin guard rail and the rock face. Finally, it dived under the rail and stopped, balanced on the edge. The doors were bent and I tried opening mine by hitting it with my elbow but the car inched forward with the movement. Tony got his door open and climbed out. With his weight gone, the car started rocking so he sat on the rear wing until I was out. It was late evening and dark. We threw a stone off the edge to guess the depth but we never heard it land!’
The 1964 Liege-Sofia-Liege was a classic in every respect. It had a fabulous entry with full participation from BMC, Ford (Europe and USA), Saab, Mercedes, Triumph, Citroen, Rover, Volkswagen, Tatra, and Volvo plus supported private entrants in Porsches, Sunbeams, Hondas and DAFs and the rest to a total of 98 and the list of competitors read like a Who’s Who of rallying.
The Royal Motor Union, under the guidance of the De Gaulle-like Maurice Garot, had made the event a real cracker with all the best bits of Italy, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria pieced together to give a colossal route of 5,600km and create a very tough 90 hours of rallying tackled virtually non-stop. There was just a sole hour’s rest halt in Sofia but all other recuperation had to be done in the car while the other person drove.
The event was destined to be the last open road Liege thanks to its uncompromising attitude towards non-stop motoring and high average speeds. The Yugoslav authorities had pointed out to Monsieur Garot that the maximum speed allowed on their single-carriageway autoput between Zagreb and Belgrade was 100kph. He replied that this was perfectly in order since the average speed set for the rally was only 99kph. The event started in the evening from Spa and ran down through the dawn across Germany and Austria to a hot and dusty afternoon in the Italian Dolomites and on into the Slovenian mountains behind Trieste. The worst problem of this second night of the rally was dust combined with mist which made the chances of tangling with the scenery very high.
For Rauno and Tony, their progress was well planned with proper pace notes from a recce and it was thus no surprise that they were one of the crews who went penalty free over the notorious Moistrocca Pass and then excelled themselves between Col and Ogulin to lose only 12 minutes on the two-hour section and a further four minutes to the town of Novi on the Adriatic Sea.
From the Adriatic, the route lay back inland to Zagreb and then down the autoput to Belgrade before diving off onto country roads again before reaching Sofia for the “rest halt’. Time for the number one driver to sleep and for his co-driver to drive.
As the cars were leaving the Novi control, they were handed a tiny piece of paper which told of a deviation to the route thanks to a blocked road. At first, the pair thought that it would be no problem, but conditions in the dawn light were not a lot better than they had been earlier. After some time, the thought began to form in Tony’s mind, provoked no doubt by the fact that a works Citroen driven by Lucien Bianchi had just come past him, that more talent was needed behind the wheel and they swapped over, forsaking all thought of rest.
The remainder of the section was taken at maximum attack and they eventually got into the Zagreb control 13 minutes late. Four crews had done the section in time despite the fact that the deviation had added 55km to a section of some 175km with no adjustment to the time allowed. But Rauno still led the rally, albeit by just eight minutes. From that point on, calm was restored in the Healey and, despite one worrying moment when, just before entering Bulgaria, they thought that an armed man gesticulating at them was a bandit only to discover the hard way that he was a guard warning them of dynamiting in progress on the road ahead, they came through without any major problems and always in the lead. Even the Vivione did not present them with any horrors though they both took a wistful look at the bent rail that had saved them the previous year.
Their winning margin over Carlsson was 28 minutes and they were the only crew to have less than one hour’s total penalty. A truly remarkable performance and a rally won as much by careful preparation and intelligence as by skill and endurance.
In 1965, BMC made an all out attack on the European Rally Championship. Rauno’s year started badly when he retired on the Monte Carlo concentration run with faulty ignition on his 1275 Mini Cooper S. It was not until his win on the Geneva Rally in June that his year started to go right and then it really took off finishing with a marvellous victory in a Mini Cooper on the RAC Rally, a win which gave him the championship. In 1966, he would have finished second on the Monte Carlo Rally if it had not been for a couple of iodine bulbs and some French-speaking scrutineers, so perhaps it was justice that, when BMC returned to that event in 1967, it was Rauno who won outright and made their point in the clearest possible way.
BMC’s participation in rallies was nearing the end hut, For Rauno there was another 20 years to go. And that’s a story which, sadly, will have to be told at another time.