Rally review - The rally of the Thousand Lakes

Different racing circuits must, I suppose, have character differences, but nowadays they seem all to be lost in ferro-concrete, advertising and protective barriers, a far cry from the days of not all that long ago when Silverstone was to the Sicilian mountains as a Chipmunk was to a Hastings—both useful and efficient but totally different in character.

Happily, the same cannot yet be said about rallying, for whilst it has been relatively easy to reshape racing circuits to fit a common mould it is just about impossible to make Morocco look like Mynydd Epynt or Finland like the French Alps. Of course, there are those within the Rally Working Group of the CSI who are attempting to bring about a standardisation of the world's major rallies, but we trust that these modern day Canutes will eventually realise that those who know best what is good for a particular country are those who live, work and play there.

Many years ago, when Finnish woodsmen were clearing tracks through their forests, they had no inclination to Make their task more difficult by digging cuttings through rising ground and by filling dips with bankings The result is a network of main roads which are almost as straight as some motorway systems, but which rise and fall over the undulations like gigantic switchbacks. Finland has no mountains to speak of— which is why Finns go Cross-country skiing at home and travel abroad for their downhill sport—but the undulating countryside has produced blind crest after blind crest, all of which make motoring interesting to say the least, even with the stunting speed limits.

In the forests which cover most of the country the brows are far more noticeable and certainly much more fierce, and it is this feature more than any other which has given the Rally of the Thousand Lakes, Finland's premier motor sporting event, the characteristic which has made it famous and which is far more demanding on suspensions than any amount of desert crossings in North Africa. The Morocco Rally, for instance, is an endurance affair in which it is far more important to preserve one's car than to strive for seconds, but in the Thousand Lakes Rally the special stages are relatively short and when every tick of the clock can mean the difference between winning and losing it is vital that every tiny scrap of power be used to the full.

At such high speeds, those crests become as launching ramps and cars spend much of their time in the air, leaping off one brow and being immediately put into the right attitude for the next. Under such circumstances it takes a very special kind of skill to control a car properly at high speed, an equally special degree of will-power to avoid damagingly high engine revs when the driven wheels are off the ground, and pretty beefy suspensions to withstand the tremendous pounding of landing after hard landing.

A car might handle almost perfectly in a British forest, but when it takes to the air in Finland all manner of idiosyncrasies may come to light, and unless it has a properly balanced front/rear weight distribution it will jump in the most frightening manner and perhaps perform all manner of unwanted acrobatics.

Finnish forest roads are by no means rough. They are loose-surfaced but almost asphalt-smooth in comparison with British forest roads. Like most B-roads in Finland, they are left without tarmac for a very good reason; the seasonal extremes of temperature are such that road foundations tend to be disturbed, with consequent deformation of surfaces. It would be tremendously expensive to resurface a nationwide network of tarmac roads each springtime, so the Finns, a highly practical nation in nearly every respect, leave most of their roads without tarmac so that they can easily be repaired, regraded and resprayed with a fluid which seals the top surface.

All of this adds up to ideal terrain for a fast, highly exciting, furiously competitive and mechanically gruelling event, which is precisely what the Rally of the Thousand Lakes is. Practice is allowed, for a fixed period, in Group I cars only and with a rigidly enforced speed limit, but it is the only event in the country which does allow it. Consequently Finnish drivers, especially those without experience outside Finland, spend the minimum possible time making their pace notes and the rest of the three week period driving and redriving along the stages to commit as many of their features to memory as possible. Many of them take their own food to cut down on time wastage, some tow caravans from forest to forest so that they have no need to cover unproductive distances to find hotels, and some carry books of pre-signed slips and stickers so that as little time as possible is wasted in keeping happy the hundreds of autograph hunters.

The 1976 version of the Thousand Lakes was interesting inasmuch as it brought together in a World Championship event for the first time several new cars. For instance, Saab Sweden had two of their 16-valve 99s for Blomqvist and Eklund, but although the car had been rallied for some time it had never encountered those violent Finnish jumps. The balance seemed to be wrong, and after only a handful of stages both cars were out, Blomqvist's with a smashed distributor and a cracked gearbox and Eklund's with a broken oil pipe. Both sumpguards were deformed and it does seem that the front end needs to he stiffened up and the weight distribution improved.

Of the two works Ford Escort RS1800s, Vatanen's rolled and Makinen's had various small problems (including contaminated petrol) which slowed it to fourth place. Several Gp. 1 RS2000s were taking part, one of which finished in a most creditable ninth place in the hands of Markku Saaristo who normally drives a Skoda. A lone 2-litre Toyota Celica driven by 1975 winner Hannu Mikkola finished third, whilst all three of the 96 V4s of Saab Finland finished in the first ten, highest placed being that of Simo Lampinen.

Outright victory went to a team which entered just one car in deference to the fact that one of its contracted drivers is Finnish. The Fiat 131 Abarth (otherwise the Micafori) was backed by the minimum of service support, nothing at all like the scale of Fiat's vast operation in Morocco for instance, and was even entered by the Finnish Fiat importer, Autonovo. Driven by Markku Alen and Ilkka Kivimaki, the car proved to be fast, a good handler and totally reliable save for a spark plug which dropped its entire centre electrode, complete with porcelain, into a cylinder and caused a valve to fail.

For almost the whole of the second half of the rally the car ran on virtually three cylinders, but Alen was nevertheless able to stave off the opposition. As a rally machine, the 131 is a most impressive car and rival teams are already viewing it with a great deal of concern. Its British debut will be on the Lombard-RAC Rally in November, when it will certainly be an interesting car to watch.

Mention must be made of the second placed car, a Ford Escort RS1800, prepared in Britain by David Sutton Cars, entered and shod by Avon Tyres and driven by Pentti Airikkala, a Finn who has relinquished his Finnish competitions licence in favour of a British one in order to contest the British Rally Championship for Sutton/Avon. Apart from replacing one oil pump mounting bolt and one brake pad, the mechanics had little to do other than replenish fluids and change tyres. Just as the winning Fiat ran on the same kind of Pirellis throughout, so Airikkala's car used the same kind of standard Avon's albeit with a few extra tread cuts here and there. In contrast, the works Escorts used both Dunlop and Nokia (makers of Hakkapeliitta tyres) in various patterns, sizes and even diameters, causing no small problem for those who had to transport them and make sure that adequate stocks of all kinds were available at service points.

Finland has produced, and is still produc ing, drivers who are hard to beat anywhere in the world. On their own ground they are even harder to match, let alone beat, which may account for the low degree of foreign participation in this year's rally. The Russians were there with their Ladas and a new Moskvich, the East Germans with Wartburgs and Trabants, Western teams of Ford, Saab and Fiat, but precious few outside privateers. This is a great pity, for the event is impeccably organised in beautiful, unspoilt countryside and it must be a challenge for any driver to pit himself against the Finns in Finland. But prices are high there, and perhaps it would be no had thing if the organisers were to aim at some kind of costcutting to attract more overseas privateers in the future.—G.P.