It has often been said, by ourselves as much as by anyone, that experienced, professional rally crews who have had the opportunity to practise and to make notes will be more than a match for those relying only on local knowledge, provided that the professionals concerned have enough car-sympathy to hold themselves in check on long, rough events so that the cars will not succumb to prolonged pounding.
This question of notes versus local knowledge has come up in more conversations than we care to remember. We don’t propose to enlarge upon it here, but the recent Rally of the Thousand Lakes in Finland has given it such a different twist that we cannot avoid the subject.
Amazingly enough, the winner of the rally was able to beat a fine array of well-practised professional drivers without a single pace note in his car. He relied on memory alone; a risky thing to do but he managed it.
We had better explain that the Rally of the Thousand Lakes is the only event in Finland which allows competitors to practise beforehand on the special stages. In national championship events, routes remain secret until they are given to competitors at the start ramps, and the result is that Finnish drivers who do not regularly compete outside Finland are really not accustomed to, the use of pace notes. Made properly and perfected, these notes are of tremendous value—they enable a driver to be safer as well as faster—but it takes considerable experience to be able to make them properly and to have the mental ability to rely on them absolutely during an event.
So when Finnish drivers find themselves matched against experienced users of pace notes in the one event in their country which allows practice, they are at something of a disadvantage. For a number of years their answer has been to go out into the forest stages before the rally and drive over them time and time again until they become so familiar that their features become implanted in their memories. Very often, drivers leave their co-drivers behind and practise alone; others will team up in pairs and give each other memory tests as they go along. It may be hard to believe that a rally driver can practise as a racing driver does (but committing hundreds of kilometres of varying forest tracks to memory, not just a short tarmac circuit) but that is exactly what happens.
Finnish professionals who are used to pace notes realise that their memory-only opponents are not to be sneezed at, and they too use the same method. Of course, since they are accustomed to pace notes they put all the stages down on paper as well, and their co-drivers are always ready to begin note-reading at the instant their drivers shout a demand for it in places where their memories may not be as good.
People like Makinen, Mikkola, Airikkala and even comparative newcomers, like Vatanen, will always have notes ready in the laps of their co-drivers, but they too will have “made notes in the head” and will use memories rather than notes wherever they are able. It’s a kind of belt-and-braces job or, mote appropriately, taut-spring-and-stretched-elastic.
One man who has never been to to get used to pace notes is 32-year-old Kyösti Hämälainen, for years an exponent of Group 1 Avengers but a recent addition to Ford’s team in Finland. After a spell of driving Group 1 Escort RS 2000s, he was put into a 16-valve Group 4 car for a Finnish Championship event in the first week of August and he promptly won it. Ford’s choice of a driver for their third car in the Thousand Lakes Rally was at once made for them, the idea being that he should be a back-up driver with a good chance of finishing in the first ten and scoring at least some World Championship points should the established fast men, Vatanen and Waldegård, fail in their attempts to win. A man acustomed to preserving comparatively less strong Group 1 cars and to scoring good results into the bargain would, it was felt, have no trouble staying not too far behind the leaders.
To Ford, Hämälainen was an unknown quantity. He speaks no English, could not converse with the mechanics and could only he given instructions through his Englishs-peaking co-driver Martti Tiukkanen. When he took the lead in the second half of the rally, it caused some disturbance in the Ford team simply because the situation was new to them; here was a newcomer, in the team really as a prop, actually leading the event.
Hämälainen practised alone, but he relied just on his memory and made no pace notes at all, leaving his co-driver to do no more than twiddle his thumbs on the stages, wondering as they jumped over every crest whether the road did really go straight ahead on the other side, as Hämälainen’s memory told him it did. It must have been an unnerving experience for Tiukkanen, although he didn’t show it. He is an experienced man and outwardly he stayed cool and unruffled throughout the rally. He said afterwards that if he didn’t trust his partner, he wouldn’t have sat alongside him.
When Ford won the Acropolis Rally and moved into the lead of the World Championship for Makes, Fiat was spurred on to greater efforts, for the Italian team had almost laid claim to the title from the beginning of the year, and it wasn’t until results put Ford on top that the Boreham team got the go-ahead to tackle all the remaining rounds. Fiat had four 131 Abarths in the field, driven by Finns Alen, Makinen, Salonen and Valtaharju, whilst Ford had two Finns and a Swede. There were other good drivers too, notably Airikkala in a Chevette, Mikkola and Saaristo in Toyotas, and Blomqvist, Eklund, Rainio and Lampinen in Saab 99s. Regrettably, the Chevette and all four Saabs failed to finish, Mikkola went out early and Saaristo hovered around the middle of the leading ten. These retirements took away the buffer between Fiat and Ford and the contest took on the nature of a straight fight between these two makes.
The situation was made more acute when both Vatanen and Makinen retired, and when the second half started there was an amazing duel between two pretty evenly matched drivers. Alert and Hämälainen. Very slowly, only a second or two at a time, Hämälainen shortened Alen’s lead and eventually took it over. Soon after that, Alèn landed his Fiat heavily on a stone, which he said had been placed in the road by a spectator, and did so much suspension and steering damage that he lost a great deal of time. His r.p.m. limiter was then taken off so that he could squeeze a little more urge from the car, but the inevitable happened—the engine gave up, and with it Fiat’s hopes for an outright win. Hämälainen went on virtually unchallenged to win, followed by Salonen in a works Fiat.
Such close competition is exciting to watch on any rally, but in Finland, where the gravel roads through the forests are so fast and undulating, it is positively blood-curdling. The blind crests are so fierce that cars are leaping in the air as often as they are on the ground, and a lot depends on their strength and resistance to the violent shocks of hard landings. An enormous premium is also put on driver skill. Road adhesion is little enough on flat gravel roads, but on so many ups and downs cars become continually lighter and heavier on their wheels and staying within the limit of adhesion is very difficult indeed. It’s very easy to play safe, of course, but others will be braver and put up better times. A comparatively short event, lasting only from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning with one stop ot Saturday morning, its ‘furiously fast pace more than makes up for its short time span. Between stages, there are very strict controls on speed and those who exceed the limits are not spared the rod. Some were even disqualified from the rally for exceeding 60 k.p.h. on a stage whilst practising during the fortnight before the event. The organisers and police set up traps for this purpose, and used ex-military field telephones in order not to be detected by competitors who had equipped themselves with police frequency radio receivers and radar detectors.
World Championship points are now tallied by adding those scored by general classification positions to those scored within groups, and the result of Ford’s first place and Fiat’s second, both with Group 4 cars, is an increase of Ford’s lead by two points. The totals now are 100 for Ford and 94 for Fiat, and both teams plan to tackle all the remaining rounds in Canada, Italy, Corsica and Britain. Should they remain as closely matched, it could easily be that Britain’s Lombard RAC Rally will become the decider and not, as in past years, a left-over event standing on its own very prestigeous feet but taking place after the championship has been settled.—G.P.