An Interview with Henri Toivonen
“METEORIC” is the best way to describe Henri Toivonen’s rally career. The 26-year-old Finn only started rallying seriously four years ago, and yet in that short space ol time has won one of the sport’s premier events, the RAC Rally, and has finished runner-up on both the Portuguese and Sanremo World Championship qualifiers. Yet Henri, son of 1966 Monte Carlo winner and 1967 European Champion Pauli Toivonen, wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a professional rally driver. He had his eyes firmly net on a Grand Prix drive, and even today admits that driving around a race circuit comes far more naturally to him than sliding over a Ioose surface special stage.
His racing ambitions are not idle speculation. Henri has the racing results to back up his comments. At the age of 14 he was already racing karts, not only in his native Finland but internationally, then when he was 18 he started ice racing, and a year later in 1975 became Finnish Champion driving a 1,300 c.c. Simca. Then came the lure of racing single-seaters, and after odd outings in saloon cars and a Porsche, he took up Formula Vee. The 1977 season saw him finish third in the Scandinavian Championship and as a result he was offered a car to drive in Germany the following year.
At this point his father decided enough was enough. Henri’s request for finanical assistance was turned down with the assurance that his father wished when he was 60 years of age to still have his son living. To lessen the blow there came an alternative offer of a rally programme from father Pauli who was Manager of the Chrysler importers for Finland. “I had been rallying at the same time as my Formula Vee racing”, explains Henri. “My father had the cars to do rallies, and he hoped that I would go for rallying. But I never liked it so much. When the money ran out for racing I had to go back to rallying for the sponsors. I didn’t do the Finnish Championship, just one rally evety month or so to please my father.”
The turning point therefore came in 1979. Henri now had little option but to compete in the Finnish Championship, but it was obvious to his father that his son was still missing racing. As an incentive it was suggested that Henri tried his hand at the RAC Rally. Even then he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to go but sense prevailed, and despite four gearbox changes on his Gp. 2 Sunbeam he finished ninth overall.
Toivonen’s impact was immediate, and an offer from Peter Clarke to drive an Escort RS1800 in the British Open Championship was accepted. “That was the actual change for my whole motorsport because I realised there was now no way I could get a contract to go motor racing. I now had to go rallying.” Knuckling down to the task he tried to change his driving style, throwing off racing habits such as very late braking and racing lines — “I got some nice accidents” — but all the time he was learning. Apart from his commitment to the British Open series, Henri was also contesting the Finnish Championship. It was a very busy time, and one which saw him give up his studies at Commercial College and turn Professional. His father paid his living expenses in Finland, and in the UK he didn’t receive a fee but all his costs were covered.
His first drive in the Ford-supported Peter Clarke team came on a snowy Mintex International. He’d only driven the Escort for 10 miles prior to the event, but managed third overall. At the time our sister publication Motoring News described Toivonen’s performance as “reminiscent of Art Vatanen, but without the rough edges”.
This opening drive gave the young man a rather false impression of his ability, or more appropriately that of those around him. “After the Mintex I thought that with my experience and that result then these are the same people as myself, they don’t have a special thing. I thought that on the Welsh I will show to them how I am, but no way, I was so far away from the top. I noticed like in everyday life you need experience. I thought at the time I was quick enough, but I didn’t have the mentality.” Nevertheless he still finished fifth on the Welsh. As for the rest of this opening UK season, he retired with gearbox problems on the Circuit of Ireland, was leading the Scottish when the clutch failed, retired after three stages of the Manx international, and had a “disastrous” RAC.
Although Henri was a little disheanened, several team managers had spotted his obvious talent. He received offers from both Leyland and Talbot, deciding on the latter team. Did his father persuade him to take the Talbot drive in view of his links with the importer? “It’s always been my own decision,” he answers. “Of course, I have discussed with my father, but I talk to him like another driver because he has the experience. I must say he was a big, big help at that time.”
For Henri, it soon became apparent that the decision to join Talbot was the right one. Under Des O’Dell the team knew that their relatively inexperienced find would crash, but all the time he would be learning from those mistakes.
The relationship couldn’t have got off to a better start when Henri won the Arctic Rally, thus giving Talbot its first international victory with the new Lotus-engined Sunbeam. His programme included four World Championship outings, as well as appearances on the Mintex, Circuit of Ireland, Welsh and Scottish rallies. The records show that he retired in Portugal with axle failure, had a huge roll on the 1000 Lakes whilst fourth, finished fifth under team orders on Sanremo, and won the RAC. He crashed on both the Mintex and Circuit of Ireland, was fourth on the Welsh, and as for Scotland dismissed the event by saying “the car was bad”.
It was a year of learning, and although Henri thought that his driving was near the top level he still could not grasp how someone could beat him by 15 seconds on one stage whilst he had only been five seconds behind on the previous stage. “I was driving every stage like a rally, I never thought about the whole rally and that maybe victory will come by driving 99 per cent throughout.” He feels his change in attitude finally came about in Sanremo when he was asked to keep station behind team-mate Guy Frequelin who was in with a chance of taking the World Championship title. By the time he reached the RAC, Toivonen was in the right frame of mind. He’d spent three weeks planning exactly how he would drive the event, and drove accordingly throughout. “I never thought I’d win, I was hoping to be third. That grew me up,” he says with relish.
Talbot was naturally delighted, and as the youngest ever driver to have won the event it was only natural that the Coventry team wished to keep Toivonen’s services for the coming season. The 1981 programme was to include World Championship appearances in Monte Carlo, Portugual, the Acropolis, 1000 Lakes, Sanremo and RAC. There was, however, a problem. Although rapidly improving, Henri’s English was still literally losing something in translation, a difficulty he and his new co-driver, Ulsterman Fred Gallagher, had to overcome pretty quickly.
It was also their first Monte Carlo Rally. They met at Nice Airport, had dinner, and tried to decide how best to overcome the language difficulties. Initially they tried Tony Pond’s pace notes tor the famed Turini stage. Henri didn’t understand a word. They then tried Finnish notes, and although Fred’s Finnish was passable his driver was conscious of the fact that there would always be the temptation to blame his co-driver if there was a mistake. “It is better that he will blame me because I am the driver. If I will hear something wrong maybe I can do something, but if he says to me flat in Finnish and the corner is bad then it’s always a big accident,” he explains. The new pairing came to the conclusion that it was best to use English pace notes, but as simple as possible. They came up with just three instructions: “Bad. Fast. Flat.” They finished fifth overall, throwing away ice notes along the way as Henri was unable to understand such words as “patchy” and “exit.”
In Portugal they were second, they retired on the Acropolis and the 1000 Lakes, were second on Sanremo, and retired with engine failure on the RAC. It was a good season, the major disappointment for Henri being his retirement from the 1000 Lakes with distributor failure whilst in third place just four stages from home.
Indeed home is Jyvaskyla, the town on which the 1000 Lakes Rally bases itself. “I was seven when I did my first recce for the 1000 Lakes. I went with my father for two months. At that time I decided I would see myself on the city stage (the event always has a special stage within the town itself), and I told my friends that they would watch me one day.”
At the end of 1981, Henri was naturally on the “wanted list” of a number of team managers, but after a number of offers he decided to sign for Opel.
It was, he feels, the right choice, as in the Opel Ascona 400 the team has the “best normal car”. Certainly the Rothmans-backed conventional front engined rear-wheel drive Ascona has shown it can match the four-wheel drive Audi Quattros, particularly on tarmac. At the time of writing Henri led the British Open Championship by a single point from the Audi Quattro of Hannu Mikkola, the only remaining event being the tarmac, pace note Manx Rally. For this crucial rally Henri has the use of the lightweight Ancona 400 which Walter Rohrl used to win the Monte Carlo Rally in January.
Open Champion or not Henri sees his goal as being World Champion within the next two years. That is in his plan. In much the way that he meticulously plans each rally, Henri has also mapped out his rallying career. He has already given himself ten years to the sport, and at the end of this period will consider his future. “I’ve noticed that there is no age to be good in rallying, but maybe after ten years I will be fed up. There again if I still feel interested and am fast enough maybe I will continue.”
But what of the immediate future? “My paper says that next year I should have a full contract, but it seems in this rally sport there are still some rules that the old experienced drivers will have the first chance. But I think I have now done quite a good job, and I really want to see the long rallies. It was 1980 when I made my first big win, and I thought it would take four years from then if everything goes right. My paper says I will be World Champion in 1983 or 1984, and also I will be in a good team, not aa a first driver but also not a second driver.”
Past experience has shown that Henri Toivonen has the intelligence and the ability to get exactly what he wants. Many would suggest that he had a head start due to his father, but Henri has shown that help or not his natural ability would have shone through sooner or later. Racing’s loss is rallying’s gain, but for Henri there will always be that nagging doubt as to how far he could have progressed in single-seaters. He sampled a Formula 1 March 821 recently, and despite the test being carried out at a rainy Silverstone the young Finn was undaunted and returned a respectable lap time. Now he would like to race a current Formula 3 car. It is an ambition which he may well achieve, but it is a desire not only born out of his self confessed Iove of speed.
“I found with karting the enjoyment was that you were on your own. It was good for me to make my own decisions out on the track. There’s no one to disturb you, no one to read pace notes! You can change something on a single seater, and can find an immediate improvement. In rallying you might spend half a day without finding such an advantage. Yes, I’d still like to do some more racing, for sure.” — M.R.G.