Rally of the Thousand Lakes
When the Rally of the Thousand Lakes used to take place at the end of August, up to 1972, it had a few things in common with the Welsh Rally; it was short, from Friday to Sunday, and it always rained. No visitor was ever left in doubt where those thousands of lakes came from, for they invariably fell from the sky when the rally was on. Then the event moved to the beginning of August to escape a clash with Germany’s Olympia Rally, and stayed there until now. This year’s rally was put back to its old date and, as expected, just a week before the rally the dark skies started dropping their loads. However, some days before the start the greyness vanished, the sun shone and the rally took place in good weather after all.
The Rally of the Thousand Lakes is by no means a long event, for it is all crammed, scrutiny included, between Friday morning and Sunday morning. Nor, for that matter, does it have a big competitive content, for the 42 special stages total just 180 or so miles, a mere nothing to what constitutes the competition in Morocco or Kenya. But those 180 miles are the fastest, most undulating, most confusing which we have encountered, all going to make up what is one of the wildest, most exciting motor competitions that ever took place outside the artificial confines of a race track.
Just as the Romans did, Finnish road builders went over their obstacles rather than around them, only creating bends and corners when they were absolutely necessary. Fortunately for the sport of rallying, those bends were necessary just often enough, and what is now the network of gravel-surfaced roads through the vast forests of Finland is ideal for use as special stages. Fast, loose-topped roads with swinging curves, tight corners, good and bad cambers and a blind crest every hundred yards; that’s the sort of setting for Finland’s premier motor sporting event. Add to that an average crest severity which guarantees a “flight” even at shopping speeds, an abundance of stout trees lining the roads and the presence of deep ditches or piles of huge boulders and you will understand that it takes a brave man to drive on the limits of adhesion in the Finnish forests.
There’s no shortage of brave men in Finland, and when that attribute is coupled with a high degree of skill it’s not difficult to realise why these strange-tongued northerners have earned such a reputation for themselves as rally drivers.
The Rally of the Thousand Lakes stands apart from nearly all other rallies in Finland for a reason other than its championship status; it allows practice on the special stages whereas the other events do not. This has always been the case, at least in the past decade, and it has revealed how passionately dedicated the Finns are when they are tackling any kind of competitive, sporting activity. Previously, about a month of practice was allowed, the route being announced about that much in advance of the actual start. This year it was announced just a fortnight before, and throughout that time there were competitors spending the whole time in the forests, driving along the special stages for as much as sixteen hours each day.
And this is where we come to another Finnish attribute: memory. Without any practice-type events in which to perfect systems of pace notes, most Finns regard the Thousand Lakes as an event in which they should endeavour to learn the special stages by heart. To most people, one forest looks very much like another but to the Finns every tree, rock, camber, ripple and bush is a unique feature which serves to remind them of some hazard or another. Those Finns who have travelled extensively to rallies in other parts of the world have highly developed pace note systems, but even they commit much of the Thousand Lakes route to memory, using notes merely as reminders. When they are actually making notes, drivers will take their co-drivers with them, but when they are practising to learn the stages by heart, they will either go alone or with the driver of another car. For instance, this year’s winner Hannu Mikkola spent much of the time in the forests with his old friend Markku Saaristo, a Skoda driver of considerable ability. They took turns at driving and they held memory contests between themselves in order to induce speedier learning.
The non-professional Finnish drivers, like most in Britain, do not have the need to develop pace notes as they rarely have the opportunity to use them. Thus they rely almost entirely on their memories. They do, of course, make some form of notes, but it takes considerable experience to he able to react instantly to a “crest keep left — fifty — care jump into long fast right”. To them, the notes represent no more than memory aids and they use them to develop mental pictures of what they have seen in practice rather than unconnected descriptions which can be related to nothing in their memories.
Sitting with a driver who has practised so well that he can remember every little feature of a special stage is an uncanny experience. Some of them can do this after only four trips over the stage, and even racing drivers would find learning a circuit somewhat difficult in only four practice laps. One sits there with the pace notes, watching carefully that what comes up ahead is accurately and concisely explained by the hieroglyphics on the paper. The driver reads out what he expects to find around the next bend and, if he has practised well, he will be completely accurate. In such circumstances, a co-driver is tempted to put his notes away and to, sit back and enjoy the experience of being driven at very high speed and in very close proximity to all manner of natural obstacles which would pale the faces of a complete grid full of Grand Prix performers. But that would be folly; even if the notes are not read, they should always be followed and reminders given of what the Finns call “the big ones”.
The whole business of practice, note-making, memorising and re-practising is a subject of its own, but we hope that we’ve given at least some insight into how it is done in one particular event. In other events, the whole procedure may be entirely different, the only common feature being the tedious driving and re-driving over the special stages.
What about the rally itself? Saab, Ford, Wartburg, Trabant, Lada, Chrysler, Toyota, Datsun, Opel, Skoda and Vauxhall were all represented, either by their factories or by dealers. Favourites were Stig Blomqvist from Sweden in his Saab and Timo Makinen from Finland in his Escort II. Alas, Blomqvist, whilst holding a commanding lead, was disqualified at the halfway stop for a speeding infringement. He passed through a radar trap in a line of traffic; he was later penalised but the others, all non-competitors, were not. Makinen never seemed to set the sparks flying, as he usually does, but he drove sensibly and finished third.
The early leader was a young Finn called Ari Vatanen, driving the second of two works Escorts. A remarkably talented man, his inexperience let him down and a fast corner taken at just too sideways an attitude put a wheel over the edge of the road. The whole car was pulled into the stone-filled ditch which bent the rear axle and broke a driveshaft. With another year and a half or so of concentrated rallying beneath his wheels, Vatanen could be the world’s best. [G.P. co-drove for Vatanen. — C.R.]
With Vatanen and Blomqvist out of the way, the lead went to Markku Alén who had been signed to drive a Datsun after his expected Fiat drive did not materialise. The Italian team had in fact withdrawn their entries rather unexpectedly. But Alén’s lead didn’t last long. Pulling brakes prevented his taking the correct line on a difficult right-hander and he went off the road to the left, crashed into a rock, and destroyed the front of the car.
Next man to move up front was Hannu Mikkola, his Toyota drive also coming up when he found that he had no Fiat to drive after all. The car was a 1.6-litre, 16-valve Corolla Levin, prepared by Swedish mechanics at the Brussels headquarters of the Japanese concern. The outfit is managed by Ove Andersson, himself a fine driver, and he has been able to use his skills as a driver and engineer to build a car which handles remarkably well and which is extremely reliable. His decision to put one car into the rally was a long shot, but it paid handsomely, especially as the car could be taken from the finish and put straight into another rally with no more than a top-up of fluids and perhaps a change of tyres.
Behind Mikkola, Simo Lampinen (Saab), Timo Makinen (Escort) and Per Eklund (Saab) were struggling very hard to make headway, but they finished in that order with just half a minute separating second from fourth.—G.P.