Rally of the Thousand Lakes

RALLY REVIEW

Rally of the Thousand Lakes

THERE was once a popular notion among rally organisers that they need only announce an event to bring a flood of entries from eager competitors. Some even felt that their events should be compulsory for the leading teams of the world, whilst others only even issued entry forms to those whom they selected.

That kind of conceit has now gone. The days of regular, full-house entries are in the past and it is very rare indeed for a rally, no matter what its status, to attract a full complement of numbers There are precious few exceptions. and these are undoubtedly the events which enjoy the highest reputations for organisational efficiency. competitive routes well strung together, and pleasant surroundings and atmosphere. It also helps, of course, if a popular event takes place not too expensively distant from Europe. where competitors and teams are most concentrated. Finland's Rally of the Thousand Lakes at the end of August was one of those exceptions and it says much for the high regard in which it is held that it attracted more entries than its published maximum.

There were 154 eventual starters. including the works teams of Audi, Opel, Lancia, Datsun, Mitsubishi, Poloreo, Lada and Wartburg. and professional class non-factory cars representing Ford. Talbot, Porsche, Citroen, Vauxhall and Renault. Despite the absence of the diminutive Trabants from East Germany, a definite break with Thousand Lakes tradition, the line-up must have been the envy of organisers of scores of other rallies.

Finland from the air is hardly anything but lakes and forests, for the population is sparse and scattered and there are no mountains to speak of To some It may appear monotonous. but the serenity of the forests, dotted with occasional lakeside log cabins. some with boats tied up and some with floatplanes, is supremely relaxing. contrasting sharply with the bustling day and night life of the few big towns. Indeed. so tranquil is the countryside that many competitors, the Finns especially, take at least a day's break in solitude between the hectic period of constant practice and the start of the rally itself.

Although main roads have tarmac surfaces, lesser ones have dirt coatings over firm foundations, thus minimising the annual cost of repair when winter snows melt to reveal the damage casued by very low temperatures. Is is on such roads, all closed for the occasion, that the competitive element of the rally takes place. and although the surfaces are invariably smooth, the severely undulating nature of the ground gives cars a pounding which they never encounter elsewhere.

Cuttings and embankments may have been known to Finnish road builders ol 4.. but they certainly chose to ignore them, and the blind crests as roads go over rises and into dips are so severe that jumps and hard landings constantly strain not only suspensions but every seam. joint and connection on every car. The jumps are often in close succession, and the leaping and crashing. give the Rally of the Thousand Lakes its unique character. A car set up for the RAC Rally will he quite unlike another set up for she Safari, whereas a car prepared for the Thousand Lakes will he identical to neither. Engineers and test drivers therefore always have to apply their improvement efforts in conjunction with the principle of horses for

courses.

To make matters more difficult, this is the only rally in Finland which allows arty degree of . practice beforehand, for all others have secret routes. The practice period is about two and a half weeks, during which only standard cars may be used, and within strict speed limits. This rule, coupled with the fact that most Finns can rarely use pace notes and are not accustomed to them, gave rise may years ago to the practice of committing as much road information to memory as possible. Finnish amateurs became so adept at this that professionals grow concerned lest they be made to look foolish and they too now supplement their precise pace notes with as much memorisation as they can manage, relying largely on their memories with the notes as a back-up. During the two weeks before the rally, activity in the forests of Central Finland is intense. Competitors practise by night and day, depending on when the actual stage is to be run, l'or a stage practised by day can appear very. different at night, long crests being particularly difficult to judge. Some use small hotels for their short rest stops, some the summer cottages ot fritmds, whilst others use caravans. as Time Makin. did whets he rallied Minis for BMC. towing his mobile home behind his Mercedes and his Mini practice car on a trailer behind that.

Opel and Audi, the two teams in contention for both manufacturers' and drivers' sections oi the World Championship, were expected to be the math protagonists in Finland. but it turned out that leader Walter ROM did not make an appearance even though he had been allocated a start number. Hots well aware of the compeuttve ferocity ot this event and the almost imperceptible margin between skilful precision and recklessness. and no doubt felt that his lead in the series could withstand an absence. particularly as his own precise driving ability could be overshadowed by a lesser driver exceeding his ability and being fortunate enough not to crash. As it turned out. Michele Mouton. his only' serious rival. retired and scored no ',tarts. so although he gained nothing. he didn't lose either. The only car in the colours of the Rothmans Opel Team — with the sponsor's name blanked out to comply with Finland's ban on tobacco advertising — was that of Henri Toivonen.

although the revived Swedish Opel Team, nth4 managed by former driver Per Tjerneld. sent another for Bjorn Johansson. Alas, after getting up to second place,with Hannu Mikkola's ()name only just ahead of him. Toivonen lost control after a front tyre punctured and smashed through a concrete sand hunker. The extensive frontal damage was patched sufficiently for the Ascona to restart the third and final leg, but a radiator leak soon gave rise to head gasket failure and the young Finn's excellent drive came to an end. The same misfortune, though not caused by an accident, stopped Johansson's car and the outcome was a zero score for the Opel team. There had been some speculation concerning the likely performance of Michele Mouton. for Finns are decidedly hard to heat on home ground and amateurs can become inspired to match even seasoned professionals, let alone those having their first attempt. But the French girl drove impeccably and was well inside the first half-dozen when eventually the rear of her Quattro swung wide on a right-hand bend and a wheel entered the ditch, dragging in the whole car which promptly turned upside-down.

Is could have been that some failure contributed to the accident. although when the car was eventually righted it was driven away quite easily by mechanics and it was a pity that a more determined effort had not been made earlier to have the can pushed back on to its wheels immediately after rolling. But Mouton's performance had not gone unnoticed, and Mikkola was drawn to repeat his remark of many months ago that -Her grandfather must have hem a Finn!".

Meanwhile. although Stig Blomqvist was driving an Ingolstadt Quattrit rather than that which he uses in Sweden. he was sticking to his Michelin tyres even though the actual works drivers were using their contracted Kkbers. The Michelins were better on the loose. slim, surfaces and Mikkola made an effort to acquire some of them. There is no doubt that he did ow them under cover of darkness, but there was not enough to furnish both cars and Blomqvist began making distinct moves towards the lead. He did actually get there, but was thwarted at the end of the second leg whin. following in

Toivonen's wake on the stage where the latter driver demolished a sand bunker, he his a stone which had been dislodged by the errant Ascona and severely damaged the suspension of his own Quattro. He lost his brief lead to Mil.ola, but soon had his car repaired and began making up time again.

It was then, early in the final third of the rally, that Audi management became concerned lest the Finn and the Swede might indulge in a personal duel which might leave them without any finishers at all. At least, that is what they claimed. The order went out to the two drivers to maintain their positions and it says much for Blomqvist's self-control that he obeyed.

Such an order always detracts from an event, and although we would be the last to understate Mikkola's victory, or to say that he was anything but one of the finest drivers in the world, the fact remains that Blomqvist did have the edge. Several times he moved up to within seconds of Mikkola, as though to show he was still capable, only to move back again according to instructions. Perhaps his unique ability with f.vv.d. cars enabled him to make the transition to 4-w.d. far more quickly than drivers experienced only in r.w.d.

There was a red herring put out that Blomqvist had decided to conserve all his unused Michelin tyres for use in Swedish Championship events and was therefore slowed by his use of worn tyres, but this was rubbish. The reverse was actually the case, but had he not been told to slow down he would certainly have used whatever tyres mere needed to win. Another point missed by most observers was the degree of his supremacy. Indeed, he could have won without putting his car at risk, so perhaps Audi people felt that Mikkola's morale needed a boost after his incredible run of bad luck this year.

As all this went on, Lancia's lone mid-engined car had long since stopped with engine failure following fluctuation of oil pressure. Markku Alen and the team mechanics made no secret of this, but they said nothing of the bowing of the car in the middle which suggested that perhaps it would not have survived all the jumps anyway. They agreed that an engine other than one derived from the old 2-litre, long-stroke Fiat unit was needed, but one wonders whether the structure of the car needs strengthening too, especially if it does make an appearance in the Ivory Coast at the end of October.

An Vatanen was going as fast in his old Escort, prepared by Britain's MCD organisation, as he has on previous winning occasions, but was still making no impression on the leaders. Eventually, after a faulty water pump was changed, he noticed changes in oil pressure, loss of power and a general tightening sensation, so he stopped and withdrew rather than risk total enginc destruction.

The Mitsubishi main called a temporary halt to their competition appearances after their disappointments of last year to go quietly away to Japan and Austria for more testing and development. Their much improved Lancer Turbo was reappearing for the first time and both Anders Kullang and Pentti Airikkala acquitted themselves well, the latter driving the car for the first time. Kullang, however was slowed in the early stages by a slipping clutch which eventually had to be changed, along with the gearbox, and later by a puncture, so he never got up to the leading group. Eventually his engine made noises and

stopped, the possibility being that a broken spark plug had caused piston damage.

Airiklcala, on the other hand, went on to finish third, and it was a pleasant change sorer so many smiling Japanese faces when it was all over, rather than the glum ones of last year.

Datsun faces, although not particularly glowing at having been beaten by a rival manufacturer from Japan, were nevertheless wreathed in smiles at Salonen's fourth place in a turbocharged Silvia, ahead of Antero Laine's well driven Sunbeam Talbot Lotus. But the biggest grin of all was that of Russell Brookes, whose Vauxhall Chevette had needed far less attention than his service car. His sixth place, even at his first attempt, was the highest ever achieved on this event by a driver who is neither a Finn nor a Swede, and his satisfaction was entirely justified.

It was strange that two private Porsches should both have retired early for similar reasons. Per Eklund damaged a suspension when the can landed heavily, and stopped when a wheel flew off, whilst studs sheared on Leo Kinnunen's can and he too lost a wheel.

Whilst the competition was going on, events on the sidelines were creating as much interest, largely connected with the movements of distinguished visitors. It is said that old rally drivers all go to Finland and emerge from the trees each August; it certainly appears that way, for we saw several of them trudging through the forests, including former Porsche driver Ake Andersson, his co-driver Sven-Olof Svedberg, a veritable champion at changing half-shafts, the original Abingdon Finns Timo Miikinen and Rauno Aaltonen, and that burly, amiable character from Sweden, Bengt Soderstrom. The lady driver Marketta Oksala, once a member of the Teboil Team when one of its young, hopeful newcomers was a lad called Ari Vatanen, was also there in the role of spectator.

Bjorn Waldegard drove a practice Quattro just ahead of the field as a camera car for a film maker, Achim Warmbold drove a superbly turned out Mazda RX7 as one of the course cars, and Christian GeistdOrfer was there to help Opel plan its service arrangements.

But no visitor was quite the match of King Karl-Gustav of Sweden, an enthusiastic rally supporter who often goes out to watch events in his own country. On those occasions he moves around with little or no fuss, but when he came to Finland the authorities there insisted on taking various security precautions.

A luxury Bell 206L Longranger helicopter was provided for his transport, and a Hughes 500D for the security men, but he was not content to watch from a distance. He wished drivers well at the start, walked around a few stages and was even driven through one of them in a Sunbeam by former driver Kari Sohlberg, now president of Finland's Automobile Sport Federation. His itinerary was not made public, but he was not kept on cotton wool and hr even dined in the public restaurant of the Rantasipi Hotel at Laajavuori when all about him was the hustle of rally headquarters and the bustle of boisterous Finns at their evening play. Spectators on the Thousand Lakes may not be as numerous as they are on the RAC Rally, but the country has a much smaller population than Britain and there can be no doubt that Finland has a much greater percentage stage attendance. But Finns behave far bettor than some Britons when they visit stages; they all stay behind the rope barriers and the heavy drinking sessions among the trees seem to have been left in the past. On the road, too, the going between stages is

relatively easy, although everyone sticks t,, the speed limits except some of the professional drivers who employ others to drive ahead of them fast enough to winkle hidden radar traps into the open so that the competitors can be warned by radio.

World Championship points from the Rally of the Thousand Lakes were allocated in the normal way, but at the same time changes in the previous event's totals, at least as far as makes were concerned, had to be taken into account. FISA discovered that there had been insufficient Group 4 cars in Brazil for group points to be awarded in that category, so both Audi and Opel had their total reduced. These teams must now be regretting even more their expensive trips to South America, especially as the outcome was a change of just one point. In the drivers category only overall points are awarded, so the totals there are unchanged.

The current situation is that Walter Rohrl still leads with 99 points to Michele Mouton's 72, but the German's total comes from seven scores, which is the maximum, whilst the French girl has only scored five times. If Rohrl scores in any of the three remaining rounds, two in October and one in November, he will have to drop his lowest score each time, whereas Mouton can score twice more without dropping any.

Among the makes, Opel still leads with 97 points, but Audi has moved nearer, having now amassed 86. The former has scored seven times, the latter six, and only two events remain in this series — G.P.