Rally Review, October 1979

Rally of the Thousand Lakes

FISA’s World Championship bombshell

The biggest bombshell of Finland’s Rally of the Thousand Lakes at the end of August came not during the rally itself but the day after it was over, and it was dropped not by its organisers or by any of its competitors but by members of the FISA meeting in Amsterdam.

In their minute stupidity, and motivated by considerations far removed from fair play or honest comparison, they followed their declared intention of reducing the number of World Championship qualifiers from twelve to ten by cutting out this classic event in Finland, the Swedish Rally which happens to be the only snow rally in the series, and Canada’s Criterium du Quebec.

Having thus dropped three, they made up the number to ten for the 1980 series by including whichever event the clubs of Brazil and the Argentine decide to run between them, a vague, indecisive choice which belies the FISA’s supposed policy of precision choosing strictly according to the reports of FISA officials who inspect the candidate rallies.

That the Brazilian Rally should be considered better than the Rally of the Thousand Lakes is beyond comprehension, and one can only conclude that the self-styled “experts” of the FISA are influenced more by political lobbying and personal ambition than by desire to put the best possible series of events into the World Championship. Whatever democracy there was in the selection of these rallies exists no longer, and it is high time that the farce of pretending to make honest inspections of rallies was ended. The FISA panel of inspectors is a closed shop guarding unto itself the privilege of travelling around the world at the expense of financially hard-pressed rally organisers. Some inspectors do a good job, but collectively the system is open to abuse, which has now been proved beyond doubt.

The Finns run a superb contest, tough, fast, fiercely competitive and impeccably organised. In contrast, the Brazilians ran their first international only a few months ago and, as reported in Motor Sport, it was no more World Championship material than the Little-Pudding-in-the-Marsh Angling Society Treasure Hunt.

We have no wish to criticise a rally being held for the first time, for novice organisers have to learn by then inevitable mistakes, but to have such an event elevated immediately to World Championship status is a disgraceful example of connivance. Such a mockery of the world’s top series of events is downright criminal.

We can only assume that Fiat may have had a hand in this, for theirs was the only works team which went to Brazil this year, the event being sponsored both by Oliofiat and by Pirelli. Furthermore, it was also supported by Fiat’s Brazilian factory which is currently striving to oust some of the South American Market from Volkswagen. Fiat’s two professional crews drove in Brazil because they were so instructed, but privately they thought the event was quite laughable.

Having snubbed the two countries which have produced more of history’s finest rally drivers than the rest of the world put together, the FISA threw them what they no doubt felt were crumbs by declaring that the three excluded events would, in 1980, qualify for the drivers’ section of the World Championship, a series which they consider to be inferior to the section for manufacturers.

Our opinion of the two sections is the reverse, and in 1980 we shall give the World Rally Championship for Drivers, including the qualifiers in Sweden, Finland and Canada, the prominence it deserves. The manufacturers’ series, having excluded top quality rallies known and respected the world over, will deserve no such prominence.

The Rally of the Thousand Lakes attracted no less than twelve visiting teams from manufacturers or dealer networks, including Fiat, Datsun, Toyota, Ford, Leyland, Vauxhall, Opel, Audi, Polski-Fiat, Wartburg, Trabant and Avtoexport, the Soviet government concern which uses both Lada and Moskvich. It was a fine array of well-prepared competition machinery which other rallies would be hard-pressed indeed to amass.

This excellent field was just what was needed to complement Finland’s unique network of forest roads, all hard and well-founded, nearly always adequately cambered and with a loose top dressing of very fine gravel which creates the need to get as close as possible to the limit of adhesion without actually overstepping it. Coupled with all this is the most prominent feature of all, an abundance of blind crests such as no roller-coaster exponent could ever envisage.

Finnish roadbuilders of old obviously went over rising ground and down into the dips rather than make use of cuttings and embankments, and the brows are often so fierce that Thousand Jumps could well be more appropriate than Thousand Lakes. Hard landings are common, and seat padding is vital if competitors are to avoid the discomfort and possible serious consequences of spinal compression.

Suspensions, too, take a tremendous pounding, and it is commonplace tor cars rallying in Finland to have suspensions as beefed up as they are for a renowned rough event such as the Safari. Indeed, Datsuns have been known to go through an entire Safari on the same front struts with which they started, but in Finland this year both Datsun 160s needed to have these components replaced.

Another danger associated with becoming airborne over the jumps is that of over-revving. As ground resistance diminishes very quickly to nil, so competitors have to be equally quick to lift off, otherwise the revs go way up beyond safety level. Engine failures for this reason are not at all uncommon, and several stoppages this year were due to this.

In the early stages of the rally it was Finnish driver Hannu Mikkola who took his Escort into the lead, but as the rally progressed he stopped with a completely blown cylinder head gasket. This has happened several times to finely-tuned Escort engines and Ford engineers are considering that perhaps too much precision goes into the careful fitting of these gaskets. “Perhaps we should go back to the days of slapping on the gunge” was the comment of one Ford expert.

Without Mikkola ahead of him, Markku Alen moved his Fiat 131 Abarth into the lead and stayed there until the finish. Ari Vatanen made valiant efforts to get ahead, but just couldn’t make it after a few small excursions off the road, including one which demanded a push-start by spectators after the engine stopped. He also collected a puncture after a chunk of tyre sidewall had been torn off, probably by contact with a sharp stone whilst travelling sideways.

The other Ford driver, Bjorn Waldegard, had a difficult task inasmuch as he is not a Finn. and it is inordinately difficult to beat Finns in their own country. He was quite undeterred by this and, since he had World Championship points at stake, was equally determined to finish well into the points range. After a fine, tactical drive, showing the competitive intelligence of the man, he took third place which earned him twelve championship points. Before the event he and team-mate Mikkola had shared the lead, but now the Swedish driver is ahead.

Significant was the fact that BL chose this event for the first competitive try-out of Pierberg electronic fuel injection, which they fitted to one of their two Triumph TR7 V8s. Alas the arrangement gave constant trouble and Per Eklund suffered misfires and sometimes complete starvation throughout the event. Despite all this he scored a praiseworthy eighth place.

There were many more mechanical failures, of course, far too numerous to record in this small space, and the usual crop of somersaults as cars landed awkwardly after jumps and gyrated off into the trees or open ground. It is indeed a strong man’s rally, demanding as much bravery as skill.

The Finns are so amazingly fast over the tortuous special stages that they provide an instant yardstick by which visitors can measure their own competence. Indeed, experienced rally drivers from outside Finland can consider their education incomplete until they have sampled the amazing roads in the forest areas around the Central Finland city of Jyvaskyla. We have no doubt that the Rally of the Thousand Lakes will remain one of the most prominent of the world’s classics despite what some of the FISA administrators may think. — G.P.