Dull indeed would be the World Rally Championship if each event conformed to the standardisation which F1SA seems bent on imposing. Fortunately. Paris may influence procedure and regulations but it has no control over Mother Nature and, after all, the character of any rally is determined largely by geography.
Sweden has its frozen roads and rivers. Kenya its bush tracks, floods and adventure element, and Greece its dust, heat and uncommonly abrasive rock. Finland, too, has a rallying character which no other country can copy, all the result of roadmakers’ techniques in the past, when tracks were made over the hills and into the dips rather than through cuttings and along embankments.
The reason for this was the need to keep frost damage to a minimum, for natural ground withstands the extremes of Summer and Winter temperatures far better than ground made up by man. This, too, is the reason for Finland’s abundance of dirt roads, for they are far more easily maintained and repaired than tarmac roads which, at the coming of each Spring thaw display the eruptions and indentations caused by surface and foundation movement under the influence of forty or so degrees of winter frost.
The dirt roads are well founded and certainly do not break up as readily as the much softer and more hastily made murram roads of East Africa. Indeed, after grading they are often sprayed with a bonding compound and the result is a surface which, when dry, can be as smooth as tarmac and only slightly less so when wet.
One would imagine, then, that cars intended for the Rally of the Thousand Lakes would be built with low suspensions and would more resemble cars for tarmac rallies than those for forest stages. But that isn’t the case at all. Due to those endless steep crests and dips suspensions take an enonnous pounding and must be made to withstand the constant crashing of violent landings after brows and the heavy compressions which occur at the bottom of every dip.
Cars take to the air so often that it has become common practice to refer to their “jumping ability”. If a model has never been rallied before in Finland it will invariably be put through rigorous test sessions to improve its handling through extremes of suspension movement during jumping and landing, and to strengthen parts which are prone to breakage on violent recontact with the ground. This includes nuts and bolts which may loosen, electrical contacts which may come apart, spare wheel stowages which might break and countless other components which could succumb to violence and vibration.
Its actual surfaces may be smooth, but the Rally of the Thousand Lakes is nevertheless an event in which strength and reliability are of paramount importance.
The risk factor usually produces a high retirement rate, partly because mechanical components fail and partly because drivers contantly strive so much to stay on the absolute limit of adhesion that they often exceed it, usually when suspensions are fully extended and cars are “light” on their wheels.
This year things were different. Following a very wet Summer, almost constant rain in August soaked the countryside, raised the level of the lakes and lowered that adhesion limit even further. Surfaces were wet and slimy with a thin layer of mud and predictions were that many would go off the road. Surprisingly, very few did, and one can only put this down to a high degree of caution resulting from the slippery going. Adhesion with the road is tenuous enough at the best of times. On wet, slippery roads it becomes the most slender and flimsy of commodities and most drivers took slighter fewer chances in order not to risk leaving the road. Skill is always a necessary ingredient for success in any event, but in Finland drivers need to have a little extra bravery and determination — call it rashness and hoping for the best, if you will—to succeed in one of the most furiously fast events in the calendar. They don’t actually close their eyes and pray that they’ll stay on the road, but it certainly looks that way on occasions!
Starting cautiously to weigh up the opposition may pay off on some long distance events but it is by no means successful strategy in Finland. The stage distance is comparatively small and winning margins usually reflect this, So the time to begin building up seconds is right from the start. Entries for the Rally of the Thousand Lakes, which took place during the last weekend of August, based at the Central Finland town of Jyvaskyla, were of a very high order indeed, and among the 146 starters there were professional outfits representing no less than fourteen makes — Fiat, Ford, Talbot, Audi, Porsche, Opel, Datsun, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Lada, Moskvich, Polonez, Wartburg and Trabant.
Most drivers had spent the two weeks prior to the rally indulging in intensive practice not at rally speeds, for that was forbidden and strictly policed, but constantly driving over the special stages in order to commit as much to memory as possible, this to supplement their pace notes rather than replace them, of course.
After the first handful of special stages it was Mikkola in his four-wheel-drive Quattro who emerged the leader, but the margin was very small and both Alen’s Fiat 131 Abarth and Vatanen’s Escort were not far behind. Others keeping close behind were Toivonen in his Talbot Sunbeam Lotus and Salonen in his Datsun Violet. At the end of the fourth special stage there was a tragic accident which resulted in the death of Raul Falin, President of the Finnish Automobile Sports Federation and the man who, some twenty years ago, persuaded the management at Abingdon to provide a works Mini on loan to one Time Makinen,
Mr. Falin and other officials were standing near the “Stop” control when over the crest before it came the Audi Quattro, of Franz Wittmann. The car was unable to stop in time and struck the vehicle which was being used to house the control equipment. After having his times marked on his card. Wittman drove off, somewhat angry that a control should have been so crowded, and it was not until much later that he was told that his car had also struck an official who had since died. The incident was tragic enough in itself, but when accusations began flying around, especially at a press conference which rather turned itself into an impromptu trial, it produced a most distasteful sequel. However, when police had investigated the incident and visited the scene they returned Wittman’s passport and he left for home exonerated. To put the record straight, he was never in custody, nor were there rumours to that effect. When the Audi team learned of Mr. Falin’s death, Wittman’s car was immediately withdrawn from the rally, and there was absolutely no need for the rally jury to announce his exclusion for “dangerous driving”. This was a most presumptuous and unfounded allegation which most certainly ought not to have been made.
Alen lost an amazingly short time in a quick roll which robbed him of his screen and dented the bodywork slightly, whilst the Talbot people began to regret having left their softest tyres back at Jyvaskyla. In those wet conditions, soft rubber provided the best grip, but since firm and abrasive rock was only just beneath the surface, it was only really worth using on the short stages. On the longer ones the wear rate destroyed the effectiveness of the soft rubber and increased the likelihood of punctures.
Mikkola was leading at halfway, but only by 23 seconds and he knew that the second half could change everything. His Quattro had been misfiring badly and although there was no hint whatsoever that anything was amiss, lest the opposition be forewarned, Audi mechanics were preparing for a camshaft change soon after the restart to rectify the problem caused by worn cam followers.
This was done, but at considerable loss of time. Mikkola was 26 minutes late at the next control and, at the road section rate of ten seconds per minute, that amounted to 4 min 20 sec which dropped the leader down the list. Worse, he then had many cars ahead of him, and on chipped surfaces covered by scattered gravel he found it hard to make up the loss.
The Mitsubishi Lancers, tackling their second World Championship event as turbocharged cars, were not really breaking any records. Kullang, a Swede, was putting up better times than his Finnish team-mates but a broken by-pass pipe on the turbocharger cost him dearly and he dropped out of the first ten.
Toyota, too, was not enjoying the best of events. Waldegard was the highest placed at ninth, but Finnish team-mate Rainio came to a very sudden stop when, indulging in the practice of “ditch-hooking”, or taking a tight line on a bend so that the inside wheels would be over the lip of the ditch so as to make use of the additional camber, he had the misfortune to hit a rock. The car was thrown in to the air, across the road and headlong into a tree on he other side.
Toivonen’s performance was important for Talbot since they were, and still are, leading the manufacturers’ category of the World Championship. His team-mate Frequelin is currently the leading driver, but Talbot did not send him to Finland.
Ten stages from the end, whilst in third place. Toivonen crossed a finishing line and promptly stopped with a defunct distributor. Service cars were not allowed there, but a radio call brought a mechanic, clutching tools and a new distributor, sprinting some two kilometres to his aid.
The distributor was changed, but when the cap was fitted one of its two clips was found to be minus a pivot pin. The clip twanged free and vanished, but the engine nevertheless fired and Toivonen drove cautiously those few kilometres to the service point. Alas, instead of having a new clip fitted his distributor cap was just circled by an elastic band.
On the very, next stage that piece of elastic gave way, the cap loosened and the rotor arm was damaged. A whole chunk of time was lost and when Toivonen struggled off the stage, having made a makeshift repair, and fitted a new rotor, his team manager told him that there was no point in carrying on. Talbot honours were then upheld by Stig Blomqvist, who now drives for Talbot — Sweden. He scored eighth place, won the Group Two category and gave Talbot enough points to stay in the championship lead. Vatanen’s win puts him just six points behind Frequelin, and the Rothmans team has decided that he should tackle all three remaining rounds in an effort to become champion.
Datsun is seven points behind Talbot, whilst Ford is another fifteen behind.
Ford has no team this year, but since Vatanen drives an Escort it could well be that the make will benefit from the activities of the private team. All three makes will be tackling the remaining rounds. — GP.