When the Safari Rally achieved world recognition and began to attract drivers from all over the globe, the visitors, even the most experienced and battle-hardened professionals found it very difficult indeed to beat the local crews. A special skill was required to do well on this event, and East African residents were so accustomed to local conditions and “reading the signs” that it was not until twenty years after the event began as part of the coronation celebrations in 1953 that the myth of overseas drivers being unable to beat the locals was finally broken. There was great revelry in 1972 when Mikkola and Palm drove their Ford Escort triumphantly into Dar-es-Salaam, a victory celebrated as much by the locals as by the overseas visitors.
The very same mystique has surrounded the 1000 Lakes Rally, and it has always been said that, whilst it is difficult to beat Finnish drivers anywhere in the world, to beat them in Finland is virtually impossible. Swedes have nevertheless done it occasionally, notably Erik Carlsson, Stig Blomqvist and Mikael Ericsson, but no-one else.
Now, even that time-honoured theory has been laid to rest and, just as the East Africans did, the Finns have welcomed it as much as anyone. At the end of August, Spanish pair Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya became the first from outside the Nordic region to win this furiously fast and highly competitive event over the incomparably undulating roads through the forests of central Finland. Some have said that they are the first non-Scandinavians to win, but that is wrong because Finland is not one of the Scandinavian group of countries.
The two Spaniards have demonstrated remarkable talent in the short time that they have been driving for Toyota Team Europe, whilst team director Ove Andersson showed his shrewdness by spotting it before anyone else (just as he did with Kankkunen) and signing Sainz as a contracted driver. That kind of perception is now more than likely to be rewarded, for Sainz has leapt to a commanding lead in the World Rally Championship points table and has elevated his team to a position in the makes’ series well within striking distance of Lancia.
Rallying has been popular in Spain for many years, and there are plenty of good events to attract professionals and amateurs alike, but the country has never produced a driver of the calibre of Sainz. Many have mistaken his quiet, unassuming and not at all demonstrative manner for cold reservation, but this is far from true. He is passionately devoted to mastering whatever endeavour faces him, but is invariably a thorough gentleman. Co-driver Moya is equally dedicated to the sport but is somewhat more ebullient than his partner. Nevertheless, they complement each other perfectly and it is always a pleasure to be in their company.
When Group B cars were ruled out and Peugeot left the fray with its 205 Turbo 16, only Lancia was ready with a Group A car capable of winning. The Italian team made full use of that advantage and immediately took over from Peugeot as rallying’s dominant make. Other manufacturers began the lengthy job of developing Group A cars, but it was Toyota which first began to chip away at Lancia’s domination and to show that, in a straight fight, the Turin cars were not invincible.
Others followed, notably the Japanese teams with competition bases in Europe, and it did not take many stages of the 1000 Lakes Rally (we prefer the original, full title, Rally of the Thousand Lakes) to show that the winner could come from any one of a number of teams, Lancia, Toyota, Subaru, Mitsubishi and Mazda. Ford was also there with new Sierra Cosworth 4x4s, but they suffered problems almost from the start and were never in a potentially winning position. As it happened, Lancia, Subaru and Mazda also had setbacks, and it was left to Toyota and Mitsubishi to provide as thrilling a close finish as the sport has ever seen, Ari Vatanen just 19 seconds behind Sainz when they climbed the final ramp.
The entry list this year was chock-full of talent, representing all the regular teams. In addition, Ford, Subaru and Mazda brought their new machinery to provide a most impressive line-up indeed.
Lancia’s team consisted of three cars for Juha Kankkunen, Didier Auriol and Alessandro Fiorio, the latter being entered by the Jolly Club rather than Martini-Lancia. Other Group A Lancias were driven privately by Per Eklund and Sebastian Lindholm, whilst Group N versions were driven by Jorge Recalde and Ernesto Soto from Argentina and Gustavo Trelles from Uruguay.
Toyota brought two cars, one for Sainz and the other for Mikael Ericsson who last year won the event in a Mitsubishi which he drove on that one occasion during a period of unsatisfactory semi-contract to Lancia. The two drivers who provided Mitsubishi with victories in 1989 (the other was Pentti Airikkala) did so on single event contracts and both are now driving for other teams.
Mitsubishi, represented by UK-based Ralliart, brought two Galant VR-4s for Ari Vatanen and Kenneth Eriksson, whilst the leading Mitsubishi driver in the Group N category was undoubtedly Tommi Mäkinen who finished sixth in New Zealand this year. Experienced co-driver Seppo Harjanne continues to ride beside him. Another Group N Galant, entered by Mitsubishi Finland, was driven by Lasse Lampi who has done much of the test and development driving for Ralliart.
Mazda brought two 323 GT-Xs for Timo Salonen and Hannu Mikkola, the latter now reunited with his former co-driver Arne Hertz. Subaru, having taken the 6-speed Legacy to Greece at the beginning of June, was making its second foray of the year from Prodrive in England and brought one car for Markku Alén.
Ford, having spent a long period combining the rwd Sierra Cosworth and the 4wd Sierra into a competitive, ratified rally machine, brought three such cars for Malcolm Wilson, Pentti Airikkala and Franco Cunico, all in Q8 colours, plus a Group N version entered jointly by Ford and Mike Little Preparations for Gwyndaf Evans, the Dinas Mawddwy driver who was actually making his first trip overseas.
Audis continue to be rallied even though the factory ceased its own participation years ago, and there were several in the 1000 Lakes entry list, notably the 200 Quattro of Risto Buri and the 90 Quattros of Esa Saarenpää and Stig-Olof Walfridsson. Paola de Martini brought her 90 Quattro from Italy and finished 32nd, winning the ladies’ trophy after Finland’s Minna Sillankorva, who had been much faster, stopped when a split driveshaft gaiter sent grease over hot engine parts, causing a fire which destroyed wiring, pipework and drive belts.
There was a team of three works Lada Samara 21083s driven by Priit Kasak, Vjatsheslav Shtikov and the lady driver Galina Grohovsaja, whilst a fourth Soviet driver, Nikolai Bolshikh, drove a BMW M3. Skoda Favorits were driven by Pavel Sibera and Kalevi Aho, whilst Wartburg had not abandoned its regular annual pilgrimage to Finland; there were two 1.3-litre cars driven by Klaus-Dieter Krügel and Jens Voigt. There were no Trabants this year, however.
Always based at Jyväskylä in the centre of the country, the 1000 Lakes has mostly been a three day affair from Friday to Sunday. However, FISA’s insistence on long rest periods has meant that the organisers are hard pressed to fit a reasonable number of special stages into the available daylight hours. Last year, the finish was not until Sunday evening, but this encroached upon traditional after-rally activities, so this year the event began on the Thursday with a five hour leg containing just enough stage miles to allow them to restart on the Friday in classification order rather than numerical.
There were three night stops dividing the four legs, all of them at Jyväskylä, where the well-appointed but very expensive Sandpiper Hotel in the suburb of Laajavuori has for many years been the only establishment able to provide all the headquarters facilities and a generous parking area; a far cry from the city centre jeweller’s workshop which served as the rally office in the ‘Sixties. The route formed an overlapping cloverleaf which rendered service planning a straightforward job.
Practice, although now insisted upon by FISA, even for the Lombard RAC Rally, has always been a delicate knife-edge from which some events have toppled. It is one thing to have convoys of cars passing through an area for a day, or even four days, but to have regular visiting traffic for something approaching a month, sometimes at speeds not exactly within the tourist category, can be very daunting indeed for country dwellers and workers or even holidaymakers. The demise of the famed Alpine Rally was brought about as much by the extent of practising as by the inconvenience of road closures during the event itself.
‘Practice makes it safer’ is a remark we’ve heard many times. Arguably, it is true, because the possession of accurate pace notes means that a crew knows what lies around the next bend, or over the next brow, before getting there. On the other hand, ‘Practice makes it faster’ may be a better way of phrasing it, and it cannot be denied that unexpected dislodged boulders, wandering animals or flooded hollows present greater hazards with pace notes than without, simply because the speeds are greater.
Pace notes are at their best value when they have been refined at rally speeds. They are necessarily made at low speed but, during the process of checking and rechecking, speed is gradually increased so that drivers become confident that what they have recorded is correct for high speed travel. Unchecked notes are always risky, although better than no notes at all, especially in Finland where there are so many completely blind crests which cannot be taken at high speed without knowledge of what lies on the other side.
In Finland, as in many other countries, practice can only be carried out within declared speed limits, much lower than required to check notes properly. But unlike some other organisers, the Finns enforce the rule strictly, often in cooperation with the police, and there are several groups of speed-check teams moving around from stage to stage throughout the practice period.
Some drivers are used to this and accept it, simply because any serious mishap during practice would jeopardise the entire rally and put its future at risk. However, other drivers complain bitterly, asking how can they be expected to drive at their best during the rally if they are unable to practise properly. This is quite unfair, of course, for every competitor is subject to the same rules. There are, of course, ways of bending them, and it was not just for company that many drivers practised in pairs, their cars linked by radio!
Late August is not regarded as summertime in Finland. The nights have become longer and darker, the brilliant sunshine is often dulled by cloud, and most summer cottage dwellers have returned to their urban apartments. But at least the swarms of mosquitoes, more than we have ever seen in Africa, have almost vanished and the lakes are still warm enough for invigorating after-sauna swims, both of which are appreciated by service crews and the many thousands of spectators who throng the forests at rally time.
The practice period was predominantly fine and dry, and it was not until a day or two before the start that the cloud thickened and more serious rain began to fall. However, it was mostly fine for the rally itself, although a little rain here and there did make some of the stages very slippery indeed.
Sainz looked a bit lopsided as he walked to his car for the start. He wore racing footwear on his right foot and a plimsole on his left which had been badly wrenched in an accident during practice. However, the attention of the Toyota doctor, firm strapping, and careful repositioning of the clutch pedal soon had the Spanish driver declaring he was ready for the action.
The first stage was just over a mile and a half long, starting and finishing on tarmac roads in the city and using some dirt roads in the central park in the middle. Usually, these short openers are treated with tolerance and caution rather than determination and enthusiasm. Total penalties on most rallies are such that short spectator stages contribute very little indeed to a winner’s advantage. Indeed, where the stage route is marked out artificially, as they often are in such cases, it is possible to throw away everything in an unnecessary quest for a few unimportant seconds. ‘You can win nothing, but lose everything’ is one lucid way of putting it.
But in the 1000 Lakes things are rather different. The total stage distance is only about 330 miles, speeds are higher than in most events and winning penalty totals are around the four or five hours mark rather than the six, seven or eight common in other rounds of the World Championship. When you add to this the number of very closely matched drivers in similarly performing cars, you will see that odd seconds can be far more important than they are elsewhere. Consequently, everyone was trying hard even on that first stage. Even the tyre warmers were out, and drivers were being very thoughtful indeed over their choice of compounds. ‘There can be no tactics in Jyväskylä’, we’ve often heard said. ‘You have to attack right from the start.’
That attack was almost the undoing of Auriol, Sainz’ nearest rival in the championship. He slid off and hit a tree, causing so much body damage on the left side that mechanics later had to rip off panels and replace and patch them as the rally progressed. Later, team-mate Fiorio dented a door and Salonen hit a stone and bent a track control arm.
Alén complained that his brake pedal was far too hard and lacking in all pressure sensitivity, a problem which persisted for much of the event despite constant fettling and the replacement of various components.
For Ford there was a much more serious problem when Airikkala stopped on the fourth stage, his Sierra Cosworth having lost all drive. There was no chance of getting him going again, but when the car was recovered mechanics worked late into the night to find the cause of the fault so that they could take steps to avoid any recurrence on their other cars. It turned out that it was in the Ford’s new 7-speed gearbox which had also given some trouble during testing.
On the opening stage, six different makes of car made the six best times, and even at the end of the first day there was the same number of makes in the top ten. In the lead was Kankkunen, just two seconds ahead of Sainz, and they were followed by Ericsson, Vatanen, Salonen, Alén, Eriksson, Mikkola, Wilson and Auriol, one minute separating the first and the tenth.
Rain was falling when the second leg started, but this did not daunt Kankkunen who was then in stages around his home which he knew like the back of his hand. His short-cutting lines through and across corners were quite amazing, bringing remarks of astonishment from drivers who followed. However, his advantage, and his lead, were soon lost when he had to endure a decidedly uncomfortable ride through the final part of stage ten by travelling outside the car rather than in it. His throttle cable had broken and, rather than rig up the customary length of wire (perhaps he had none) he decided to hand the wheel over to co-driver Piironen whilst he wedged himself under the bonnet, back braced against the windscreen (which cracked!) and feet against the suspension top mounts. He lowered the bonnet to his chest and, with just head and shoulders visible over the top, hand-throttled the car to the end of the stage.
The cable was soon replaced at service, but more than five minutes had been lost on the stage, and with them all chances of victory. Later there was talk that the stewards were considering whether Kankkunen should be disqualified for completing a special stage whilst not wearing his seat belts. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and he was allowed to carry on. This is the sort of thing in which many people have indulged over the years, and stems from determination to keep going, not deliberate flaunting of the rules. Indeed, we recall doing the same some years ago, wedged into the front compartment of a works Imp, directing an extinguisher at a front tyre lest it should catch fire from friction against severely bent bodywork. The driver? Colin Malkin!
Alén continued to complain of insensitive brakes, despite such frequent replacement of components that the whole system must have been replaced several times over during the course of the event. There was talk that the transmission may have been responsible, so this also came in for attention and replacements but still the tall Finn was unhappy and he was certainly not performing as well as he might.
Just before the short mid-day stop, the Ford people discovered that they had their second gearbox failure when Wilson radioed that he had stopped in stage 13 with no drive. This time, however, there was a chance that a new gearbox could be got to him in time, and the stops were pulled out to do this and carry out a roadside replacement. No effort was spared, and when the last bolt was tightened, Wilson roared off to complete the stage and drive on to the rest stop where he arrived in a most urgent fashion, horn blaring, barely a minute short of his maximum permitted lateness.
That afternoon, Wilson had terrible trouble clawing his way through much slower back-markers, so a request was put in that, at the restart on the third leg the next morning, he should be allowed to start at the end of the seeded drivers. He was hopelessly down in the field, last-but-one of the 143 still running, but there is no testing like competition itself, and both Wilson and his team wanted to go on, if only for that very reason. But this would be a productive exercise only if he could be repositioned in the running order and be able to drive at competitive speed without the hindrance of slower cars ahead of him. The request was refused, so Wilson withdrew from the rally and did not restart the following morning.
Ford’s misfortune didn’t stop there. On the very first stage of the third leg, the remaining Group A Sierra Cosworth was lost when Cunico rolled. He was unable to continue, losing some five minutes, but the frame and roll-cage damage discovered at service was so great that it was considered unsafe to carry on. This left Ford with just the Group N car of Evans, second in the category to Mäkinen whose knowledge of the stages was superior. But, two stages later, he also rolled, although he was able to continue, albeit well out of the running. Mäkinen, certainly the star of Group N, is no relation of the famous Timo who was also in Jyväskylä with a replica works Mini-Cooper S with which he won the 1000 Lakes Veteran Rally a few days before the start of the main event.
The first few stages of Saturday were damp, the others dry, and on the way down to Tampere Sainz and Vatanen were playing a very tense cat and mouse. Both spun on stage 23, the fourth of the day, but Sainz gained the advantage because his engine did not stall whilst Vatanen’s did.
Ericsson had been making good times in third place, staying about a minute behind his leading team-mate, but on stage 22 he collected a puncture, went off, hit a stone and rolled. He was unable to continue, and thus handed third place to his near-namesake Eriksson. The latter had earlier hit a bridge in his Mitsubishi, but nevertheless stayed ahead of Alén who broke a drive shaft and lost all his brakes when the hydraulic pipe also broke.
In the Mazda camp there was consternation when Salonen needed two transmission changes in quick succession. It seems that the violent strain of standing starts from the line were stripping teeth in the centre differential, so the only solution thereafter was to make more prudent departures when the start flag was raised.
Team-mate Mikkola had no such transmission problem, but he left the fray on the second stage of the day when the low oil pressure warning light came on and the engine very quickly died. Attempts to restart it failed, so the car was out. Meanwhile, Auriol had ditched his Lancia, causing such severe damage that he, too, went no further than his next service point. This allowed Fiorio up to sixth place, but this was shortlived because a few stages later his gearbox jammed and he was out. That evening back at Jyväskylä, Kankkunen’s gearbox was changed as a precaution.
Eklund’s private Lancia also had its gearbox fail, but the Swede survived this and managed to crawl out of the stage in second gear, only to be stopped by turbocharger failure soon after.
By the end of the leg, Sainz, by inching gradually but relentlessly forward, had extended his lead over Vatanen to 48 seconds, but this was still not enough for real comfort and there was no doubt that the final leg would produce a renewed duel between them. Well behind, Eriksson had a 50 second lead over Alén, who was followed by Kankkunen and Salonen.
The final day, again dry, began by Vatanen taking nine seconds from Sainz. Was this a sign that Finnish determination was at the end of its fuse and about to explode into a rocketing sprint to the finish line? When the margin fell by six more seconds, then by another ten, it certainly seemed like it. Or had Sainz eased off imperceptibly, caring more about staying ahead and taking no risks than the extent of his lead?
The two duellists held position for a while, making equal times on three stages, so that before the final stage the difference was 25 seconds. The tension was incredible, although there was hardly any outward sign of nervousness. Perhaps it was the silence that gave the game away. Normally there is considerable chatter at service points, but before that last stage there was very little talking going on at the Toyota and Mitsubishi camps.
Whether one had already slowed down or the other speeded up will never really be clear, but on the final stage Sainz was content to give away another six seconds, thus finishing 19 seconds ahead of his rival. It had been one of the most exciting, edgy fights that we can recall. Sainz and Moya received tumultuous applause at the finish ramp, their many Spanish supporters erupting into almost uncontrollable emotion when the pair climbed on the bonnet of their Toyota. The Finnish crowd were just as delighted, responding enthusiastically to this first win in Finland by a pair from outside the Nordic region. Vatanen’s reception was equally animated, everyone recognising that his drive had been just as remarkable. What an end to a superb contest!
There is no doubt that the 1000 Lakes is the fastest, most fiercely competitive dirt road rally in the world, and it says much for the slickness of the organisers that they are able to run it safely and without a single hitch. GP
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