What is the toughest rally in the World Championship? That question, which we’ve heard asked on numerous occasions but have never known to be satisfactorily answered, usually comes from someone who may profess deep knowledge of the sport but does not actually possess it. The absence of an acceptable answer is very simply explained; there isn’t one, despite what self-styled experts may suggest.
The Swedish Rally, for instance, has as much in common with the Safari as cloudberries have with bananas. Both are fruit, but there the comparison ends. It is one of the attractions of rallying that one can enter events anywhere in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Antipodes and never twice encounter the same road conditions, geographical features, weather or even local customs and traditions.
The high speed of the 1000 Lakes Rally has taken its practice procedure a step ahead of just making notes and refining them. The straightforward recording of bends, cambers, surfaces and straights is no longer enough. In the quest for those vital split seconds, off-road information has become as important as that of the road itself, and if you ever follow a professional competitor making notes in Finland you will perhaps be bewildered by the number of times he stops to prod the verges and stick his feet in the ditches.
Ditch-prodding has become a feature of the reconnaissance period, and when one crew has come across another poking around the side of the road and often beyond it, mushroom picking is no longer an acceptable excuse! Boulder spotting is the more likely activity.
The two-week practice period prior to the 1000 Lakes Rally is always a time of frenzied activity in Central Finland, especially this year when, in addition to the usual strict speed limits, recce cars were restricted to production models. Drivers invariably complain bitterly when they are denied the chance to practice at rally speeds, claiming quite rightly that their rally performance will be diminished if they have been unable to refine their notes at something approaching the speeds which they will achieve in the event itself.
When speaking of practice, we must mention a difficulty experienced by Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya. When rallies are held in the same area year after year, crews usually take previous years’ notes, compare them to the current year’s route and refine and modify them rather than make new notes from scratch.
Much of this year’s route was the same as that of 1990, so it was logical that every crew would arrive in Jjväskyla armed with last year’s notes. Alas, the Spanish pair was unable to do this, for after they won last year their notes were stolen from their car.
Whether Moya still had his original 1990 rough notes is not clear, but they nevertheless made it more than obvious that their note-making this year had to be conducted from scratch.
Entries for the 1000 Lakes Rally came from all the current aspirants to World Championship success.
The strongest side was that of Toyota, with two Celica 2000 GT-4s from Cologne for Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya and Armin Schwarz/Arne Hertz, and another from Toyota Sweden for Mats Jonsson/Lars Bäckman. There has been much speculation of late whether the latter crew will gain a place in the actual Cologne side, but it seems that this possibility has been scotched by the surprise switch made by Markku Alén after the 1000 Lakes from Subaru to Toyota.
Two other Celica 2000 GT-4s were entered by Toyota Finland for Antero Laine/Jari Kiviniemi and Marcus Grönholm/Juha Repo.
Lancia’s line-up consisted of just two Delta integrales, a Martini car for Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen and a Fina/Jolly Club car for Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli. The fact that there were just two works Lancias did not signify any diminished World Championship interest by the Italian team. On the contrary, it was putting every possible effort into the event in a determined bid to wrest from Toyota the lead of the makes’ series, not to mention getting Kankkunen his first ever win in his home event and edging him closer to Sainz at the top of the drivers’ series.
With a driver such as Markku Alén, it was unthinkable that Subaru would not make the trip to Finland. But the Prodrive team took just one car for Alén and Ilkka Kivimaki. On the surface, it seemed that all was well, but it emerged later that Alén was treating the event as a test exercise, using it as a measure with which to determine whether he would remain with Subaru.
Mitsubishi has a chequered rallying history. Among mediocre results it has twice pulled off astounding victories, once in Finland in 1989 and once in the RAC Rally of the same year. In Finland, the team’s winning driver two years ago was Mikael Ericsson, but this year he was there in no greater role than that of spectator, and the two Ralliart Galant VR-4s were driven by Timo Salonen/Voitto Silander and Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander.
A third car, actually entered by Ralliart Finland, was driven by Lasse Lampi/Pentti Kuukkala, Lampi having been Ralliart’s test and development driver since the current Galant VR-4 programme began. Yet another Galant, a Group N version, was in the hands of Stig-Olov Walfridsson.
Nissan’s return to rallying, with the Sunny GTI-R, has been fraught with difficulties. The car’s first appearance on the Safari, complete with telemetry sensors, produced results which fell short of expectations, and in Finland, after changes in the team’s senior management, it also seemed to suffer from an adverse power/weight ratio and the results must have been disappointing. Driving the two cars were Stig Blomqvist/Benny Melander and David Llewellin/Peter Diekmann.
There was no official Ford in Finland but, without a car after being dropped by Mitsubishi, Ari Vatanen made an approach to the team which gave him his first break and the result was a refettled Sierra Cosworth 4×4 which he drove with Bruno Berglund.
Not unexpectedly, there were no Trabants and no Wartburgs this year, but there was a team of three works Lada Samaras from the Soviet Union, driven by Alexander Artemenko/Niktor Timkovsky (the pair who became the first Soviet B-seeds after the Cyprus Rally last year), Sergei Aliasov/Alexander Levitan and Viktor Shkolny/Sergei Gogunov. A private Lada was brought from the Soviet Union by Priit and Toomas Kasak, and another from Bulgaria by Nikolai Nikolov/Krassimire Petrov.
Summers have been meagre all over Europe this year, and Finland has been no exception, However, the middle of August turned out warm and sunny, and it was quite a surprise when, just four or five days before the start, the skies darkened and violent thunderstorms closed in, soaking the roads and raising lake levels.
Happily, they vanished as quickly as they came, and the weather for the rally itself was probably the warmest for almost two decades. Indeed, temperatures during what, after all, is autumn in Finland were so high that tyre engineers were completely taken aback by the unexpectedly high wear rate on dry, abrasive roads. The rally has often taken place in constant rain, making it quite clear where Finland got her thousands of lakes, but this year the sunshine was near tropical. Fortunately, all the mosquitoes, more numerous in a Finnish summer than anywhere in Africa, had by now vanished.
One of the facets of rallying which used to be of prime importance but which has recently lost its significance is reliability. The sport used to have an inherent need for solid dependability, and a car had to be bred not just to go fast and withstand the pounding, but to last the distance. If a rally spanned five days, it was no good if the thing clattered to a standstill after four.
But times have changed and nowadays reliability is invariably weighed against the time available for servicing. If there is time for a car to be given a new gearbox after every special stage, why should valuable development effort be spent on making gearboxes reliable enough to survive several days? Better that they should be made as efficient as possible, without any concern about how long they will last. The “last lap” syndrome has penetrated to rallying, and the sport has become more like a series of short dashes than a test of endurance. Night stops and lengthy rest periods have reduced, if not eliminated, the personal stamina requirement, and the abundance of service time has turned distance machines into sprinters.
Helicopter servicing has aggravated the situation, and even minor work such as a fan belt change is now often accomplished by mechanics who descend immediately from the sky upon the first radio plea for assistance.
The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of FISA, whose changing regulations brought about the almost free-for-all servicing which works teams now enjoy.
One remedy stands out, a change which would not only restore credence to advertising boasts but which would reduce servicing costs tremendously. There should be a return to the rules whereby certain vital components cannot be changed under any circumstances, those components to include not only engine blocks but gearboxes, differentials and even engine management computers. If factory teams can’t get it right first time, then they have no business partaking in a sport in which reliability should be a vital factor.
Apart from minor changes here and there, much of the route this year was the same as that of 1990, the base being at Laajavuori and the four legs looping out from there.
The first stage, early on the Thursday evening, began in the main street of Jyväskyla city centre then dived off into the dirt roads of a park. Kerb-hitting is always a hazard here, and at least one competitor retired as a result of this. Lampi hit a tree and Alén collected a puncture. On the first of the forest stages, Vatanen ironically hit an old milk churn stand (he is sponsored by Finland’s milk marketing board); later, a car backed by the Post Office mowed down a post box!
Later in the evening, Mikkola’s power steering drivebelt came off and Lampi needed a new gearbox, whilst diminishing brakes on Vatanen’s Sierra were restored when a slave cylinder lead was fixed. Sainz indulged in a very high speed spin, and those accustomed to seeing him perform with the aid of perfected notes could readily see the effect of notes which had not been refined at rally speeds.
Both Salonen and Eriksson felt that their Mitsubishi’s gear ratios were too wide, whilst Vatanen said that he was having trouble getting used to the fact that he had seven gears available. Lindholm had a broken front left half-shaft replaced and Sundström needed a new gasket to restore full turbocharger pressure. Grönholm went off backwards, stalled and was so disorientated that he could not readily find the starter button.
The second day began with Alén’s Subaru in the lead, but this lasted no more than one stage. On the second, Sainz took over and established himself in front, although his lead never amounted to more than just seconds. Mikkola, having sensed that his Mazda’s steering had suddenly gone wrong, rolled, but he was helped back by spectators and later needed no more than a new windscreen and a replacement front differential. It seems that power steering pump failure was to blame. Later, he lost the drive belt yet again. Salonen was not happy with his car’s handling and even had his steering wheel changed, commenting “I have to try everything.”
The fifth stage of the day had been graded and was consequently covered in loose, slippery dirt. Some people discovered this in time to make the correct tyre choice; others did not, including Alén who was not at all happy at the end. Schwarz had intercom failure and Hertz needed to quench overheating vocal chords when he got to the finish.
Vatanen lost half a minute when he spun at very high speed, and those who later saw his wheel marks suggested that it must have been a hair-raising incident. Both Kankkunen and Auriol were given routine changes of driveshaft, whilst Kankkunen also had his front differential replaced. Jonsson needed a new turbocharger and Salonen four fresh suspension struts.
Mikkola’s steering problems persisted and he was given a new rack whilst Vatanen collected a puncture by hitting a rock. As a result, he later needed suspension replacement. Lindholm, who needed a damaged brake disc replaced, experienced an odd problem when his wheels seemed to be out of balance. But they appeared to become normal again, only to begin vibrating once more after a heavy landing. It seemed that caked mud clinging to the wheels restored the balance, and it was this mud being knocked off by the jarring which caused them to become out of balance again.
On the Friday evening Sainz held a 12-second lead over Kankkunen, who was in turn 35 seconds ahead of Alén. Auriol followed 28 seconds later, ahead of Salonen, Jonsson, Lindholm and Mäkinen, the latter greatly enjoying his first major experience of a Group A car. With the finish of the first of Saturday’s stages in sight, Vatanen went off the road, into a ditch and performed a spectacular cartwheel without actually going upside-down. Spectators pushed the car back to the road, but it was so narrow that reverse had to be selected several times before he was able to get away. It was this stage, to the east of Jämsä, which caused serious difficulties for Alén, whose first remark at the end was that his notes did not tie up. “Somebody changed the road”, he said. Later, it was said that some five kilometres of his notes were missing, although a more likely explanation is that they had practised the 1990 route, the first five kilometres of which were not the same as those of this year even though the overall distance was about the same.
On the next stage Alén had to stop to change the front right wheel after a puncture but was saved the need to use the jack when spectators lifted the car bodily. Some two and a half minutes were lost.
Lindholm retired when his steering was wrecked in a heavy landing, whilst Sundström was delayed after hitting a rock and knocking the right rear wheel under the car. Schwarz had been struggling all day without power steering and eventually had the faulty hydraulic pump changed, whilst Grönholm, after earlier driving over some rocks, missed a gear and promptly rolled.
Mikkola spent two stages with a clutch which could not be disengaged, only to discover on the next stage that it had freed itself on its own.
Alén kept complaining that his engine management computer was reducing power output whenever it sensed over-heating, which was pretty well most of the time, although those who watched and listened to the car as it jumped could have no illusions about the cause. Whilst it was airborne, the engine note rose to a scream and it was obvious that Alén rarely lifted off when his wheels were not on the ground. During the day, the car was given a precautionary change of all suspension and transmission gear, plus a new fuel pump. Kankkunen needed a new rear differential whilst Sillankorva needed some steering attention after rolling.
Mikkola, after being plagued by steering problems, finally stopped when his engine seized, whilst both Kankkunen and Auriol needed new front differentials. Sundström rolled, whilst Alén was delayed by a left rear puncture, inadvertently holding up Auriol in his dust. Later, whilst his springs and dampers were being changed, Alén walked over to the Lancia service camp and apologised to the French driver.
Kankkunen was driving as he had never driven before, yet he was making no impression on Sainz who stayed resolutely a handful of seconds ahead. He said that he would continue at 100 per cent for the rest of the day and decide in the morning how he would play the final day. However, as it turned out the decision became one which Kankkunen hadn’t expected to make.
On the last stage of the day, everything changed when Sainz jumped further than he expected and landed not on the road but beyond it; nose-first in the ditch, in fact. The car spun so that its rear also went into the ditch, but it was the frontal impact which did the damage. He managed to get going, and arrived at the finish in a cloud of steam and dust, continuing to service only by grace of donated water.
Frantic servicing then took place, jacks and hefty tow-rope tugs being needed before the wrecked radiator and fan could be removed and replacements held in position by plastic tie-straps. Having lost some three minutes, Sainz had dropped to fifth place and lost all hope of repeating his 1990 win. He is utterly meticulous with his pace notes, but unless they can be practised at rally speeds they cannot really be refined to perfection, and Sainz could not have known how far the car would jump from that particular crest until he came to try it flat out for the first time.
Alén’s engine finally gave up on the second of Sunday’s eight stages, whilst Salonen, trying to keep his third place ahead of Eriksson, spun and stalled. Mäkinen lost his power steering pump drive belt, but there seemed to be a more serious problem concerning the engine. The oil was changed and the Finn was told to keep the rpm below 7000. He did this and finished in a comfortable sixth place.
Once again very close fighting had characterised the 1000 Lakes Rally, and once again the competition came down to a duel between two men, one in a Toyota and one in a Lancia. That this should have been resolved by default is a pity, but it’s all part of the game. — GP
Results (top five), 1000 Lakes rally (Finland), 22-25 August, 1991
1. Juha Kankkunen (SF) / Juha Piironen (SF) — Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A, 4h 36m 52s
2. Didier Auriol (F) / Bernard Occelli (F) — Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A, 4h 37m 48s
3. Timo Salonen (SF) / Voitto Silander (SF) — Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, Gp A, 4h 38m 59s
4. Kenneth Eriksson (S) / Staffan Parmander (SF) — Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, Gp A, 4h 39m 16s
5. Carlos Sainz (E) / Luis Moya (E) — Toyota Celica 2000 GT-4, Gp A, 4h 39m 47s
148 starters, 69 finishers
World Championship Situation:
Drivers (top five) after 9 of 14 rounds: Carlos Sainz (E) 123 pts, Juha Kankkunen (SF) 103 pts, Didier Auriol (F) 81 pts, Massimo Biasson (I) 54 pts, Kenneth Eriksson (S) 34 pts. 51 drivers have scored points.
Makes (top five) after 7 of 10 rounds: Lancia 128 pts, Toyota 124 pts, Ford 32 pts, Mazda 28 pts, Mitsubishi 28 pts.