The Rally of the 1000 Lakes

WHENEVER we hear racing circuits being called dangerous our immediate reaction is to say that cars should always be driven according to prevailing conditions, and that danger is something which is created, not a phenomenon which is there in the first place.

After all, a district nurse (and no offence meant to that honourable profession) driving a solitary saloon car around Silverstone could put herself into greater peril than the World F1 Champion driving a Grand Prix car at racing speeds around the very same circuit. 

Danger comes about from a combination of circumstances, and it’s a common fallacy to pick out one of them and call it dangerous; a particular bend, for instance, or a complete circuit, or, in the context of this article, a rally special stage.

Silverstone itself can hardly be called dangerous. Nor, for that matter, can other racing circuits, rally stages, rugby fields, boxing rings or any other arena in which people meet in contest and match their skills to the utmost extreme.

Just as it is the players who make or mar a theatrical production, not the scenery, so it is the contestants in a motor competition, not the road or circuit, who create danger situations. A boxing match can often become dangerous, but one would hardly blame the ring itself.

But we must admit that circuits, roads or stages can quite often catalyse the creation of danger . 

Some are better catalysts than others, or perhaps we should have said worse, and danger is more likely to be present at some places than others. No doubt it is this which has given rise to the common but erroneous practice of referring to bends or other road situations as “dangerous”.

If we had to choose from all the world’s rallies the event which is most likely to produce the greatest number of danger situations, we would unhesitatingly pick the Rally of the Thousand Lakes. But in so doing we would not be levelling any criticism whatsoever at the organisers. They produce a fine competition, and it is up to each competitor how he behaves on it. It so happens that leading drivers on that event have become so determined to squeeze the utmost performance from themselves and their cars that they very often overstep the infinitesimally thin line which separates success from disaster, and there are sometimes fearsome accidents in which cars are catapulted end-over-end off the road and into the trees.

Although Finland’s main roads have tarmac surfaces, most lesser roads have not, for seasonal temperatures are so extreme that tarmac roads invariably need considerable repair work after each spring thaw. If all roads were of tarmac the annual repair bill would be gigantic, so much of the road network is left with smooth, almost sandy surfaces, well founded and often with a bonding compound sprayed over the top dressing.

Public and private roads get this treatment, and the result is a choice of extremely durable roads for the organisers of the Rally of the Thousand Lakes.

Furthermore – and this is where our comments on danger become appropriate – Finnish road makers of the past tended to go over hills, down into dips and around obstructions, saving themselves the cost and trouble of making cuttings and embankments. The product of their labour-saving is a cross-hatching of the most undulating roads imaginable. There are no mountains as we know them, but those undulations have created blind crest after blind crest which, coupled with twists which are often cambered the wrong way, lend themselves to what have become known as so-called “dangerous” special stages.

Over the years, cars have acquired more power and strength, whilst competitors have become more skilful, not only at driving but at accurately describing roads in pace notes and even committing them to memory, for this is the only rally in Finland which allows any form of practice and few Finns are well versed in the science of making and using pace notes.

The evolution of good rally cars has not always been at the same rate as the increase in drivers’ skills, and whilst some complain that their cars do not have enough power, others have a little more underfoot than they can manage and sometimes overstep themselves with abrupt and expensive consequences.

Others, certainly the professionals, know their limits, but are nevertheless tempted on occasions to take chances, knowing that rivals will be doing likewise. On the Thousand Lakes, with its brows, twists, jumps, bad cambers and loose surfaces, such chances are not taken lightly and certainly not too often.

The special stage distance is comparatively low, and the aggregate time taken by this year’s winner on the competitive sections was less than four and a half hours. The pace, accordingly, is extremely fast, for no-one can afford the luxury of playing himself in. Ten-tenths must be achieved right from the start, for every single second can count, unlike such events as the Safari in which hours can often separate the runners.

Markku Alen, Fiat’s Finnish driver, set out in just that frame of mind, determined that he was going to take no more than the first hundred yards to play himself in. He knew that every second would be important in this series of 47 sprints, and he started well by making best time on the first stage. 

Escort driver Ari Vatanen, on the other hand, did seem to start with a fraction in reserve and lost the initial advantage to Alen, though it should be mentioned that he did have a spot of fuel starvation for a while, cured by keeping the fuel at a higher level in the tank than before, thus preventing the air-sucking which probably caused the trouble.

Throughout the first part of the rally Alen slowly built up his lead over Vatanen to just over a minute, then in the second leg they stayed fairly well matched until Alen’s final winning margin was 56 seconds. Both were driving as they had never driven before, bettering their 1979 times and providing the thousands of spectators with an incredible display of car control as the Fiat and the Ford were leaping into the air from the tops of crests, coming down to earth and staying there just long enough for the driver to resume control and apply steering to point the car in the right direction for the next bend or jump. 

Adhesion was a most intermittent thing, and all controlling actions had to be taken during the brief moments that cars were squarely on the ground, neither in the air nor resting very lightly with suspensions at the bottom of their travel.

These two drivers were very much in a class of their own, challenged only by each other, and the tussles behind them were for third place and downwards. Prominent among those behind the leaders were Hannu Mikkola in a Toyota Celica and Anders Kullang in an Opel Ascona 400, but the former had a halfshaft break as he let out the clutch on the start line of a special stage, whilst the latter landed very heavily and awkwardly after an enormous jump and broke two wheels.

Pentti Airikkala was expected to be up among the leaders but he never got the chance at all, for on the very first special stage his Vauxhall Chevette holed one of its pistons. He hid his disappointment very well, as did the staff from Britain’s Dealer Team Vauxhall, but after two concentrated weeks of intense practising to learn as many of the stages by heart as well as to commit them to paper as pace notes, it was a bitter blow.

Another retirement was that of Henri Toivonen, whose father Pauli Toivonen won the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally in a Citroen after Makinen’s Mini was disqualified due to that famous lighting infringement. Toivonen Jnr. drives for the Coventry-based Talbot team, and in the early stages he showed that he could very well be among the leaders at the finish. Alas, he rolled his Sunbeam-Lotus so badly that it appeared to be no more than a twisted, battered hunk of metal afterwards.

After rather dismal weather for most of the rally, the skies cleared on the final night and there was more than a little frost in the air. For the finish on Sunday the sun shone, matched by the enthusiasm of the massed crowds of spectators. The atmosphere of this event really has to be experienced to be appreciated. There is a certain amount of commercialism, of course, but the Finns seem to have a way of promoting things without setting up a complete circus as F1 people do. They work hard, play hard, enjoy boisterous celebrations, but indulge equally in quieter activities which match the tranquil serenity of their silent forests and calm lakes.

No event in the world could copy the character of the Rally of the Thousand Lakes. It is a unique contest, and the sooner the FISA declares that it will be back in the manufacturers’ section of the World Championship (in 1980 it is only in the Drivers’ Championship), the better.

Fiat now has a very strong grip on the Championship, for not only is the make leading the manufacturers’ section, but its two drivers hold first and second places in the drivers’ section, Walter Rohrl in the lead and Markku Alen second. As this is written, the next round is the Motogard Rally in New Zealand in mid-September. – G.P.