Champion in all but name

Markku Alen was the Ronnie Peterson of rallying – a true genius who was never rewarded with the championship. That’s a travesty, says John Davenport

There are rally drivers who thrill you when they are driving, and there are rally drivers who thrill you out of the car. Then there is Markku Alen who does both. The most charismatic personality to bless rallying with his presence, he radiated excitement as much in service points as on special stages. Wherever Markku was, he was going for it. To see him getting in a rally car was like watching a Viking hero about to go in quest of a permanent seat in Valhalla. The hairs would rise on the back of your neck and you would rush for the nearest vantage point when he said those magic words, “OK. Now — maximum attack.”

For 16 years, Markku Alen drove for the Fiat empire, wrestling with everything from the early Abarth 124 to the Lancia Delta Integrale. He never won the World Championship for Drivers outright — though he was champion for 11 days in 1986 until Lancia lost their points from the San Remo — but won 20 WRC events and the precursor of the World Championship, the FIA Driver’s Cup in 1978. Most surprising of all was that, among those 20, were two victories on the all-Tarmac Tour of Corsica while at the same time he occupied every place on the Monte Carlo Rally podium except the highest one. Least surprising was that six of them were on Markku’s home event, the 1000 Lakes Rally.

Markku’s father took the Finnish ice racing title in 1966, the same year his son started riding motorbikes and driving karts. When Markku was 18, he purchased and a factory-spec Renault 8 Gordini. He won the Junior Cup with ease, taking the category on five of the seven events.

“My first rally, the Hankirally [Snow Rally], I came in second,” he recalls. “I was leading but somebody was blocking the road and I lost one, two minutes. I became Junior Champion and then I go step by step. I go to Pauli Toivonen’s team and drive a Sunbeam Imp — and that is very good learning for me. Pauli is a tough guy.”

That was 1970 the year in which, as well as winning the ice race championship in the Sunbeam, the young Markku also got to drive an Opel Kadett on the 1000 Lakes. “My speed take a big jump with that car. lam in Group 1 and lam in third position before I have a big accident on stage 13. Perhaps that is the biggest accident of my career. The car is really a banana, only the rear roof is OK.” In fact, Alen’s career is remarkably short on accidents. Look at his record on one rally that has claimed many a famous driver: Portugal. Here Markku competed 15 times and only once retired, when all factory drivers pulled out in ’86. He also won there five times.

The 1000 Lakes accident was in August 1970, but in November, he went to the Helsinki Rally, found he had lost neither his speed nor confidence and left with an outright win. For 71, he signed a three year Volvo contract and started driving a 142 under the direction of Kan Gronberg. Two years running he finished third on the 1000 Lakes; in 1973, he was second behind Timo Makinen’s works Escort, having pushed all the way until “I jump too far on one of those quick stages near Mikkeli, the car land heavily, and something [electrical] come off. After that, I have no chance to beat Timo.” This performance, together with his cautious debut on the RAC Rally of 1972 (he finished 12th in a Volvo 142) with Atso Aho brought him to international attention.

As with so many good things that happened in Ford Escorts, the hand of David Sutton was there. He offered Markku an Escort for the Lindisfarne Rally, accompanied by Henry Liddon. They retired with a broken steering rack but after getting it fixed, rejoined the fray and, had they been classified, would have been second to Roger Clark. Then Ford provided a car for the RAC Rally. Partnered by Ilkka Kivimaki, they left the road in Sutton Park and dropped to 177th overall. The rest of the rally was a game of catch-up that enthralled the whole rally world as they set one fastest time after another on the way to third.

This performance brought offers of contracts from Ford and Fiat. But ’74 was the year of the fuel crisis and the Monte Carlo and Swedish Rallies were among the casualties. Markku did the Arctic Rally for Ford (fourth), the Portuguese Rally for Fiat (third) and the Welsh for Ford (see panel, right). “But Fiat wanted me to do more and more. And Ford, have a half-contract with me. In that team, too few rallies and too many drivers. They had the whole Finnish Mafia there already. So I drive more rallies for Fiat.”

The beneficiaries were Fiat. Markku was the man who gave them instant results, including second place on the Press on Regardless Rally in the USA ahead of deadly rivals Lancia. There was a final appearance for Ford on the 1974 RAC Rally where he retired with a broken water pump. Thereafter his career was Viva Italia all the way.

In 1976, Fiat replaced the 124 with the 131 Abarth — a giant leap forward for rallying — a car engineered for the sport, all adjustable so the driver did not have to drive around inherent problems. Alen worked with Fiat’s Giorgio Pianta to develop the car that broke Lancia’s stranglehold on world rallying and won the Manufacturer’s title three times.

“Ford had the better engine, more power and revs. But Pianta and his boys work maybe one week testing with us before a rally. Two cars all the time; one with rally engine, one with circuit engine. Fiat were the first team to do this. And we had fantastic help from Garibaldi at Pirelli. Always we had the best tyres.” And it showed in the results.

Eventually, Fiat and Lancia’s competition activities merged and towards the end of 1978, with Markku leading the race for the FIA Cup for Drivers, Cesare Fiorio gave him three rallies in a Stratos — San Remo, Giro d’Italia and RAC. Markku won in San Remo and sealed the title but it gave him an insight into what he had been missing. “I fight so many times in 124 and 131 with Stratos, and then when I drive that car, I realise how easy it is, especially in Tarmac. So much power. Like night and day. My problem was I was so tall, I hit my head all the time. And in fog and rain you don’t see so well.”

In truth, the Stratos was four years older than the 131, and not so sophisticated in the suspension department. But the next car in his life was the first new product of the combined Lancia/Fiat operation, the Lancia Rallye 037. In 1982, Markku’s best result with the 037 was fourth on the RAC. However, for the next three years this supercharged sportscar was to provide him with some of the most stirring drives of his career as he fought to defeat first the Audi Quattros and then the Peugeot 205 T16s. “This was fantastic car. Only thing missing is four-wheel-drive, a handicap on gravel. But fantastic car on Tarmac. Those two times I win Corsica were my best and hardest rallies: 14 hours of stages and no power steering!” And an amazing record on the Safari with the 037 of a fourth place in 1984 and third in 1986.

That last result was after Lancia had finally come with their four-wheel drive monster, the turbocharged and supercharged Delta S4. Markku finished second on the RAC Rally of 1985 on the S4’s debut but then ’86 turned out to be a year to forget. On the Monte Carlo he broke a camshaft, in Sweden he was second, in Portugal there was the driver’s revolt, in Corsica, his teammate Henri Toivonen was killed and his car withdrawn, and in Acropolis, the engine failed again. With half the year gone, it didn’t look like a championship year. But, by virtue of doing all the events — 11 rallies with the S4, the Safari with the 037— Markku had a shot at the title. The 10th event was San Remo, a rally that many people would like to forget.

At the start, Juha Kankkunen was on 81 points and Markku 79. “In first stage, I have puncture and lose two and half minutes. After, I am coming back, and am just a minute behind Miki [Biasion]. So he stops at the end of the last stage to let me win, all in front of the TV. The feeling for me is so bad. I am not going to prize-giving. I just go straight home.”

Part of the bad feeling stemmed from the organisers chucking out the Peugeots, and it was this action that eventually got the San Remo results scrubbed. “I still don’t know, even today, why someone make that protest or whatever it was. For me it was a big mistake. If Peugeot had stayed in, I could still have been second and perhaps world champion.”

Certainly 1986 was a nadir in Alen’s career. He went on to drive Lancia’s Delta HF 4WD and Integrale, collecting more wins and two top three places in the championship. When Lancia wound down their rally programme, he drove two seasons with Subaru and one with Toyota before ceasing his mainstream rally career. Group A cars were not so much to his liking.

“In S4, you have a lot of power and control the car with the accelerator. More sideways, more driver feeling. If you have wheelspin today, it’s because something is broken, maybe half-shaft or differential. Nice cars, but rally cars need more power and bit more noise.”

Ask about his favourite rally cars, Markku immediately nominates the 037. “The S4 was fantastic, but you know, our high-tech was not so high in those days. It was OK but more of a brute than the 037.” That unique Alen smile appears as does a brighter illumination of the eyes. You can almost hear the cries of the warriors from far off Valhalla.

A star is born

At the start of 1974, I had a contract with Ford to co-drive with Hannu Mikkola but, thanks to the fuel crisis, there were not many events being held. The first home event to be run was the Welsh International, and Ford asked if I would like to do it with Markku Alen; 25 per cent of the rally stages would be on the Eppynt Ranges and it might help if he knew where he was going.

We had an Escort Mexico from Boreham and did a couple of gentle runs over stages to be used for the rally. No question of pace notes as Markku would remember where the road went. But we needed a quicker run at night. Heading off to Dixie’s Corner at a fair old clip, suddenly descending clusters of parachute flares illuminated the black night. A body of camouflaged men rose up from nowhere to block the road. A heavily armed sergeant major approached. ‘Just speak Finnish’ I whispered. The terrifying apparition had almost reached the driver’s door when his eye saw something on the car. He halted at Markku’s open window, drew himself to attention and saluted. ‘Sorry to have bothered you, sir. Allow me to get these men out of the way.’ He saluted again, barked orders, the ranks parted and we drove on to complete our survey. In the morning, we looked more closely at the car we had been lent. It was the Mexico with which Prince Michael and Tony Mason had done some rallying. The front wing bore the Prince’s name, regimental crest and rank

On the rally, lack of Tarmac experience appeared to be no hindrance for Markku. On the first Eppynt stage, we caught and passed Per-Inge Walfridsson in the Volvo 142S while on the second, John Bloxham who was starting ahead of us in his Dolomite Sprint, asked the marshal to give us a two minute gap. We took three and were still nose to tail with him on the finish line.

The only times we went sideways was to recover from slight optimism about entry speed on a comer. Markku loved to have the inside front wheel as far to the inside of the corner as the trees or banks would allow. On the fast sweeps of Radnor Forest, there were several occasions when our cornering speed was such that he would have both inside wheels in the fresh air with no weight on them at all.

That Welsh Rally was Markku’s first international win outside Finland and his only win man Escort before he started full time with Fiat.

John Davenport