Salonen and Peugeot Capture World Titles
Should you visit Finland in summertime, your first impression after the bustle of Helsinki will be of a country consisting of nothing but lakes and trees. Look further, and you will see small towns, little hamlets, forest cottages, the crop fields of smallholdings, small boats tied to wooden landing stages, plumes of smoke from lakeside sauna cabins, frighteningly high ski-jump towers and all the evidence of a practicality bred from generations of contact with Mother Nature at her harshest.
Finland is a perfect training ground for rally drivers, even though its blinkered, brainwashed police are unrelenting followers of the rule. book, as incapable of individual thought as programmed robots. Indeed, their unsmiling severity has rubbed off on much of the population, and good, straight, arterial roads are often clotted by convoy after convoy of slow-moving vehicles, every driver in every frustrating queue either afraid to overtake or convinced that to do so would be to commit the ultimate, unpardonable sin.
Main roads have tarmac surfaces, but minor roads, of which there is a plentiful network, remain with dirt surfaces on solid foundations, often with a topspray of sealant. Thus the annual repair cost after the ravages of a severe winter is kept to a minimum, and the public has the benefit of low friction surfaces, both in winter and in summer, on which to learn the skills of maintaining adhesion between tyres and road.
Not every Finn is a rally driver, of course, and for every one to whom that tenuous adhesion becomes second nature there are many thousands whose skills never progress beyond average. Nevertheless, enough have become so highly skilful that, between them, Finland and Sweden have produced more champion-class talent than the rest of the world put together.
For many years, one of Finland’s professional drivers who was never regarded as really top line was Timo Salonen. He scored one World Championship win in 1977, when he drove for Fiat, but in his many subsequent seasons with Datsun he managed only one more. His cars during that period were not exactly the fleetest, and some put his unspectacular career down to this, but others reckoned that Salonen didn’t quite have that vital sparkle which distinguishes a champion from those who only win occasionally.
One of the people who didn’t share that view was former co-driver Jean Todt who had been engaged by Peugeot Talbot to set up a thoroughly professional rally team and to prepare for a World Championship assault with the purpose-built 205 Turbo 16. Having decided on a two-car team, he engaged Ari Vatanen as his number one driver and Timo Salonen as his number two. Vatanen’s brief was to go out and win, whilst Salonen’s was to be a guaranteed finisher, in a high position of course but not necessarily in first place. It transpired that Todt’s choice was a very shrewd one indeed.
Vatanen started the year well, adding two wins to those he achieved in 1984, but then came a spate of accidents leading to retirement, and this is when Salonen really began to show his mettle. Suddenly he was more than just a back-up, he was the man on whom all the team’s winning hopes were pinned, and he went straight in and took over where Vatanen had left off, making it look so easy in the process.
The first year of the International Rally Championship for Makes, before rallying became sufficiently respectable to merit a World title, was 1970– incidentally, the sport was infinitely more enjoyable without that bandwagon of so-called respectability on which all manner of commercial parasites have since climbed — and in that year Bjorn Waldegard enjoyed eminent success by netting three victories for Porsche. The following year Ove Andersson went one better and drove an Alpine A110 to four wins. Since then others have matched that feat, Hannu Mikkola in 1979 for Ford and Walter Rohr! in 1980 for Fiat, but it is not until now that any driver has scored five championship wins in one year. ·
In Finland, at the end of August, Timo Salonen achieved that distinction by winning, for the first time, his country’s premier event, the Rally of the Thousand Lakes. In so doing, he also clinched the world title for himself and the makes championship for Peugeot. It was by no means an easy victory, his winning margin was just 48 seconds, but his unruffled manner throughout the rally, perhaps the most furiously fast in the series, certainly made it look easy and served to emphasise the fact that Salonen is just about the least temperamental driver among the world’s front rankers. Not for him any morose withdrawal, the tantrums of a prima donna, or the rudeness that some consider to be an entitlement. He is relaxed, patient, polite and always ready with a cheerful greeting.
With such a string of victories behind them, Salonen and Seppo Harjanne started the rally firm favourites. Team-mates Vatanen and Terry Harryman were still recovering from their very nasty accident in Argentina, so the back-up car was allocated to Swedish driver Kalle Grundel who has been driving a 205T16 for the Germari importers with Peter Diekmann. Normally, only one crew member may be changed at such short notice, but in this case, at Peugeot’s request, FISA agreed to an exception being made.
Things get moved around quite often among the innards of rally cars these days, such is the unceasing quest for perfection, and when the Peugeots appeared in Finiand they were equipped with a redesigned rear body-frame much lighter than the previous one. Weight saving also extended to changes in material, various cooling components had shifted position and the engine was fitted with a water injection system. Apparently so secret that the Peugeot people were as sensitive about cameras as the management of the old Windmill Theatre!
There were body changes too, to minimise airborne time over those hundreds of jumps, and every day we wonder when the increasing use made of aeronautical technology will go the whole hog and extend to the adoption of full, three-axis control! On reflection, that may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. It could cut out both airborne rolling and nose-down landings, but what a work load for the, er, pilot!
Audi’s challenge came from two of the highly modified S1 versions of the Sport Quattro, far more manageable on the move than its predecessors, but heavier. A hefty water tank supplying a brake cooling system contributed to this weight increase, but it was unable to function for more than some eight miles, after which the water ran out, the discs heated up and the brakes faded.
Aerodynamic development was, if anything, more apparent on the Audis than on the Peugeots, but it all served a purpose and produced better handling and adhesion. Trouble was, when one of those important but fragile appendages broke off in the rough and tumble through the trees, the cars became suddenly more difficult to drive at high speed.
Driving the two Audis were Stig Blomqvist and Hannu Mikkola, whilst a third car, albeit one of the older, bigger-bodied Quattros, had been fettled up for Lasse Lampi, who may have felt let down when its head gasket blew early in the event. A similar old Quattro was driven privately by Per Eklund.
Having opted not to indulge in the expense of visiting New Zealand and Argentina, Lancia was thought to have the unwrapping of the new Delta in mind for Finland, but instead they brought two of the familiar rear-wheel-drive cars for Markku Alen and Henri Toivonen. Alen was clearly disappointed not to be giving the Delta its debut before his home crowd, but Toivonen may have been relieved to have a familiar car for his first appearance since his accident in Sardinia in April.
Toyota, the slick, always cheerful, cosmopolitan team from Cologne, brought two turbocharged Celicas for Bjorn Waldegard and Juha Kankkunen, whilst prominent among the Group A contingent was the pair of factory Volkswagen Golf GTis for Jochi Kleint and Franz Wittmann. There were also the Thousand Lakes regulars, Moskviches from the Soviet Union and Wartburgs and Trabants from East Germany.
Shorter than the majority of World Championship events, just 41 hours between start and finish, the rally used 50 stages which made up just under a third of the total 880 mile distance. Start and finish were at Jyvaskyia’s very comfortable, ideally appointed but shockingly expensive Sandpiper Hotel, tucked just inside the tree belt on the edge of the town. From here, the event struck out in three loops, two short and one long, the latter divided by another stop so that there were four legs in all.
Spectators are welcome both inside and outside the hotel, which becomes such a Mecca for enthusiasts that its profits during rally week must more than justify its total involvement with the event and its provision of a small but permanent rally office for the whole year. Coffee shop, bars and restaurant all have video screens showing up-to-date rally news and films, whilst the same is provided in the guest rooms.
Finland’s summer has been as tropical as Britain’s has been arctic, but anything can happen in autumn. Early in the week of the start there were hot days, but these gave way to clouds and rain before the action started. Indeed, there was a steady downpour at the start itself, and still the crowds turned out in thousands, packing the start area, filling the stages, and producing endless, slow-moving traffic streams all over the route, all aggravated by the clinically intolerant police who seemed more keen on punishment than sensible maintenance of traffic flow.
Although Finland’s blind crests are as violent as they are numerous, the road surfaces themselves are smooth, and when all that rain made them very slippery indeed it was a safe bet that there would be a few incidents on the first stage, which started a hundred yards or so from the ramp, rounded the Laajavuori ski-jump tower and finished at a pony track around a small watersports lake called Killerjarvi.
True enough, Mikkola visited a ditch, Alen and Toivonen each put his Lancia off, and Grundel slammed his Peugeot into a telegraph pole. Mikkola didn’t lose much time, but Toivonen had to be pushed back by spectators, later losing more time having water and oil radiators changed and the front frame straightened. Grundel’s damage was even worse, and his dejection at the prospect of such an early retirement on his first outing for the full works team just couldn’t be hidden. Everything at the front right corner had been bent and twisted, including the chassis, and it was touch and go wheiher he could continue. However, the French mechanics did manage to get him on his way, although the car handled peculiarly for the rest of that leg. Later, a deliberately misshapen wishbone was fitted to compensate for the chassis distortion and, behold, both front wheels were pointing in their proper directions again.
Everyone expected four-wheel-drive cars to fill the leading places, but Alen was driving with his customary verve and staying firmly in second place. Salonen, on the other hand, was a very cool leader and was quite prepared to slow a little and not take chances when he noticed a handling deterioration. His front left shock absorber had stuck, and by the time this could be changed Alen had got ahead into the lead.
Blomqvist got fractionally ahead of Salonen as well, but dropped back to third after long stages on which the important, brake-cooling water was used up, allowing heat build-up to produce fade. That situation remained until the end of the first leg, and when the rally got back to the Sandpiper at 1 am that night, after ten stages, Alen was ahead of Salonen by seven seconds, whilst Blomqvist was another 12 seconds behind.
But it certainly didn’t stay that way for long. The first stage of the Saturday morning put Salonen back in the lead, and gradually he added second after second to extend it, only stopping his slow but relentless advance for a short time until new plugs could be fitted to cure a small but important reduction in rpm.
At lunchtime that day the rally was back at Jyvaskyia, and by then Salonen had eked out a lead of 47 seconds. Blomqvist, even without his important second gear, had moved ahead of Alen. Waldegard, who earlier had an unbalanced propshaft replaced, was without third gear, but had the gearbox changed soon after the start of the third leg, at the cost of a few road penalties. Team-mate Kankkunen had already gone out when his rear axle failed soon after the car ditched and a wheel hit a rock.
On the Saturday afternoon there were a few spins here and there on the town centre stage, which began as a sprint-hairpin-sprint along both sides of a dual carriageway then turned on to the dirt roads of the city park. Mikkola had been experiencing various little problems, and collected a chunk of road penalties when he clouted something firm and bent the right rear suspension. An alternator change really went wrong for Mikkola when the mechanics discovered that they had no replacement bracket. Some strong words were. exchanged, and eventually Mikkola drove off carrying the new alternator in the car, ready to have it changed at the next place where a bracket would be available. But all this was fruitless, because it wasn’t long after that he joined the retirement list.
A minor oil loss had been noticed early in the first leg, but it didn’t seem all that serious at the time. Now, on the 30th stage, a pipe actually broke, spraying oil everywhere. They got to the end of the stage, where a temporary repair got them going into the next, after which there would be time for a permanent replacement. Alas, that makeshift repair hadn’t been good enough, and when the oil sprayed out again, this time igniting on contact with the hot turbocharger, there wasn’t much chance of going on, even though the fire was quickly put out.
Meanwhile, things had been happening to the Group A people. Mikael Sundstrom had been leading the category until his Fiat Ritmo (Strada to the British) broke its clutch. Lars-Erik Torph moved ahead in his Golf, beating the two works cars, only to drop back when he had to stop for an axle change, letting Mikael Ericsson into the lead in his Audi 80 Quattro. Ericsson came very close indeed to losing that category lead, and through no fault of his own .. When he pulled out to drive slowly past a long line of cars stuck in a traffic jam he was immediately stopped by the police and threatened with exclusion unless he rejoined the queue and waited his turn like all the other road users. Such an imposition was totally unnecessary, and the police seemed bent on hindrance rather than help. Their attitude towards Ericsson was needlessly abrupt, but he had no choice but to sit there watching the minutes tick by. Fortunately, he didn’t lose too many, and he collected the Group A award at the end, little over half a minute ahead of Torph.
Blomqvist, still having trouble whenever he ran out of brake cooling water, also experienced a drop in turbocharger pressure, whilst Alen lost a little time being pushed back by spectators after going off the road, though without losing his third place.
Behind, fourth place was being contested very hotly indeed. On the very first stage of the rally both Grundel and Toivonen had lost much time going off the road and having subsequent repairs. Both had fought back spiritedly, and their penalties became so close that Peugeot management feared that they might lose their back-up car in a duel which was of no concern to them. Sixth place was all they required should Salonen fail to finish, and here was Grundel putting that in jeopardy by indulging in a tussle which could produce no significant reward.
Grundel moved ahead when Toivonen stopped to replace a gearbox which had lost all its ratios except fourth and fifth, but during the final leg back to Jyvaskyla, after a stop at Milntta, that order was reversed and Toivonen finished fourth, just two seconds ahead of Grundel.
The weather had been changing considerably during the rally, but the start had been wet and presumably there had to be rain at the finish as well. There was, but it didn’t dampen any spirits as Salonen drove up to the ramp, his title assured, and the crowds delighted that it had come to Finland for the third time since it was created in 1979.
Salonen and Harjanne, an able, affable pair, have throughout the year shown that they are fast, safe, reliable and consistent, and that is a rare combination indeed. But their year is by no means over. They are very keen to win the RAC Rally. What is more, they are in a good position to become the first crew to achieve a championship Grand Slam with the maximum of 140 points. Three events remain and, with only the seven best to count at the end of the year, they need two more wins to do this.
Peugeot Talbot Sport is in an even better position to score a maximum points tally. With seven wins so far (the other two were gained by Vatanen) and the eight best to be counted, only one more is needed to produce the maximum of 144 points. For a team in its first proper season, that is quite an amazing achievement. GP.
Miscellany, December 1997
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