The Mark Of A Champion?

There was a time when no one thought it possible that a driver from outside the Nordic region could ever win the Rally of the 1000 Lakes, as it was then called. To beat the Finns anywhere was a difficult task indeed; to beat them on their home ground was inconceivable. The rally used well-founded dirt roads which were hard but loose-surfaced, and there were so many blind crests that the slightest slip in the pace notes, whether making them or reading them, would send a car crashing off the road.

Courage was (and still is) as vital as skill and it took a brave man indeed to fly over the top of a brow, perhaps in sixth gear, knowing that the tiniest error of judgment would be enough to send the car tumbling into the trees.

In 1991 Carlos Sainz blew the myth of Nordic supremacy when he won the rally and became the first driver from outside the region to do so. Now it has happened for the second time. After some years of retirement after retirement, many due more to mechanical ill-luck than lack of ability, Didier Auriol has this year shown that he really is one of the world's best. After four outright wins in the World Championship, Auriol has now increased the tally to five by becoming the second southern European to win the 1000 Lakes Rally.

He and co-driver Bernard Occelli drove their Lancia Delta integrale to a slender 40s victory ahead of team-mates Juha Kankkunen / Juha Piironen, the latter crew having started as firm favourites on their home ground. First a Spaniard; now a Frenchman! The legend of unbeatable Finns is now a thing of the past.

However, Auriol's performance did not mean that all the publicity went to him. The name Colin McRae seemed to be on everyone's lips when, after twice rolling his Subaru very substantially, he still got to the finish in eighth place. Short of winning, he did what turned out to be the next best thing and, even though they had a wreck on their hands, the Prodrive people were full of smiles at the end, so plentiful was the newspaper, television and radio interest.

Finland is covered largely by lakes and trees and, whilst some people consider the terrain boring, especially as it is also fairly flat, it certainly lends itself to rallying. The road builders of old must have shunned cuttings and embankments, preferring to go over the hills and into the dips rather than flatten them out. The result is a network of roads, both tarmac and dirt, which have more blind crests than hundreds of Big Dippers placed end to end.

Most of these are so sharp that cars invariably take to the air, losing traction as they do so. But staying on the ground would mean driving too slowly to be competitive, so part of the skill required on the 1000 Lakes is in positioning the car very precisely just before the moment of take-off, in the axes of both pitch and yaw, so that it lands in a manner which will enable the driver to continue unabated without having to struggle to keep it in a straight line. It can be a fearsome event, but do well there and you can do well anywhere.

Finland's weather plays far less a part in deciding fortunes than that of Africa. There is no glutinous mud in which to become completely bogged down, but the forest tracks can become very slippery indeed when they are wet and drivers always have to use their experience to sense the changing adhesion limits and respond accordingly.

During the weeks before the rally, Finland's short but near-tropical summer gave way to a series of long rainstorms. They abated for a few days before the start, but returned in time for the first car leaving the ramp. The first two days were predominantly wet, the third dry and the fourth wet again. It was easy to understand why Finland has so many lakes. They all materialise during the rally, courtesy of the sky!

The route this year followed the pattern of previous years. All three night stops, dividing the rally into four legs, were at Laajavuori, on the outskirts of Jyvaskyla, where rally headquarters were based at the Sandpiper Hotel, which is overlooked by a huge, frightening ski-jump tower.

There was a time when Jyvaskyla had few hotels and most people stayed at the Sandpiper. The city now has a much wider selection and many people, competitors, mechanics and others, chose to stay at places which were less costly.

Others, preferring to be closer to nature, rented log cabins in the nearby forests, and this type of accommodation is what we would recommend to any crew, private or professional, intending to tackle the 1000 Lakes. Such places are invariably at lake edges and usually have kitchens, landing stages, rowing boats and, most importantly, wood-fired saunas. What's more, they are far cheaper than hotels, can often accommodate an entire entourage and have plenty of space for parking and working on cars.

The four legs formed a three-leaf clover pattern, the short first leg overlapping part of the third. The first was held during the Thursday evening, from 18.00 until just after 23.00, and contained five special stages totalling 43 miles. The first began in the city centre and used a mixture of main roads and park tracks. The second leg, to the north-east of Jyvaskyla. ran from 9.00-21.00 on Friday via 13 special stages totalling 91 miles, and included a regrouping halt of 50 minutes.

The third leg went to Tampere, to the south-west of Jyvaskyla, and included 13 special stages totalling 142 miles between 6.30 and 21.10. There was a one-hour regrouping stop at Tampere, and a special stage combining dirt roads and city streets.

The final leg on the Sunday morning went directly southwards and its six special stages, between 7.00 and 13.45, totalled 51 miles.

Originally, Toyota Team Europe had planned to send two cars to Finland for Carlos Sainz and Markku Alen, but after the Argentina Rally this decision was changed. In the drivers' section of the World Championship competitors are now only allowed to take part in 10 of the 14 qualifying events and it was felt that, even though he won the 1000 Lakes last year, Sainz would have a better chance on later events. The Finnish rally was the first of six remaining to be held in the series.

There was just one Celica Turbo entered by Toyota Team Europe. for Markku Alen / Ilkka Kivimäki. However, the team took Finnish crew Marcus Gronholm / lIkka Riipinen under its wing and gave them a works car for the event and full works service.

Another Celica, entered by Toyota Racing Finland, was driven by Antero Laine/Risto Virtanen.

Martini Racing brought three of its Lancia Delta integrales, for Juha Kankkunen / Juha Piironen, Didier Auriol / Bernard Occelli and Philippe Bugalski / Denis Giraudet. The team was intent on strengthening its grip on the world title for makes and, especially in Sainz's absence, to improve Auriol's chances of taking the drivers' title.

Auriol has driven on fewer rounds than Sainz this year but, before the 1000 Lakes, already had four outright wins to his credit. He has had lean times in the past and his run of bad luck when he was sponsored by Fina in a Jolly Club Lancia became a byword, but 1992 has provided him with a complete change of fortune and his skill at the wheel is now more manifest than it has ever been.

Ford's programme this year is by no means a full one, the team awaiting the green light of ratification which will enable the Escort Cosworth 4x4 to make its first World Championship appearance next year. However, two Boreham Sierra Cosworths were taken to Finland for Massimo Biasioni / Tiziano Siviero and Francois Delecour / Daniel Grataloup. Ford Finland entered a similar car for Sebastian Lindholm / Timo Hantunen, whilst another Sierra Cosworth was driven by Esa Sarenpää / Lasse Hirvijarvi.

Although Nissan is winding down its European motorsports operation (there have been wholesale redundancies at Milton Keynes) it remains committed to certain events this year, the 1000 Lakes Rally being one of them. Two Sunny GTI-Rs were entered, for Stig Blomqvist / Benny Mellander and Tommi Makinen / Seppo Harjanne.

A Group N version of the car was entered and driven by Mikael Sundstrom / Jakke Honkanen, whilst world title contender Gregoire de Mevius from Belgium brought another Group N car, co-driven by Willy Lux. It was de Mevius' third crack at the 1000 Lakes, but as he'd retired very early on the two previous occasions he felt just like a first time participant again.

The fifth make to be represented in the list of cars driven by A-seeded drivers was Subaru. Two of the Prodrive-prepared Legacies were driven by Ari Vatanen / Bruno Berglund and Colin McRae / Derek Ringer, the latter crew finishing with a car which consisted of sound mechanical components surrounded by a bodyshell fit only for the scrap heap, so badly was it damaged.

Just a couple of days before the start McRae had ditched his rally car during a pre-event test session, leaving the bodywork badly dented. But some prompt work in a Jyvaskyla body shop restored it to showroom condition in less than 24 hours. Perhaps this was a sign of what was to come.

The UK-based Mitsubishi Ralliart team was not in Finland, but the Finnish importers, under the team name Mitsubishi Ralliart Finland, entered a Galant VR-4 for Lasse Lampi / Pentti Kuukkala. Lampi is the man who has undertaken most of the testing for Mitsubishi, and it was natural that a car should be made available for him in his home event.

Group N versions were also entered for Jouko Puhakka / Keijo Eerola, Jarrno Kytolehto / Arto Kapanen and Kari Kivenne /Juha Oksa. Another Group N Galant was entered by the Blue Rose Team, a name devised by his ex-driver father who is now chairman of the 1000 Lakes organising committee, for UK resident Mika Sohlberg. His co-driver was Risto Mannisenrnaki.

A further Group N Galant was sent by Ralliart Sweden for Stig-Olof Walfridsson / Gunnar Barth. Germany's leading lady driver, lsolde Holderied, drove a Group N Galant with Klaus Wicha, formerly the regular partner of Armin Schwarz. The Skoda team sent two Favorit 136Ls for Czech crews Pavel Sibera / Petr Gross and Vladimir Berger / Miroslav Fanta, whilst two Lada Samaras and a Group N Lancia Delta integrales were entered by the Russian Automobile Sports Federation. One Lada was driven by Russians Sergei Aliasov / Alexander Levitan, the other by Aleksander Artemenko from the Ukraine, and Russian Viktor Timkovsky, whilst the Lancia was in the hands of Eugen Tumaliavichus from Lithuania and Sergei Dadvani from Georgia.

Down the field, there were several Opel Mantas, a Fiat Ritmo Abarth, a Renault Clio, a Hyundai Elantra, two Suzuki Swifts, a Wartburg 353 and even two Mercedes-Benz 190s.

The first 'retirement' came before the rally had even started. Saku Vierimaa had planned to sell some of his integrale's spare parts after the rally and was rather taken aback when the purchaser wanted to buy the whole car. He agreed to do this when the rally was over, but when the buyer came along just two hours before the start with an envelope full of Finnish currency the temptation was too great. The car changed hands immediately and did not start the rally. Vierimaa's co-driver was to have been Duncan McNiven, an Englishman who lives in Finland.

The first stage was in the centre of Jyvaskyld, a 1.7-miler too short for anyone to gain an advantage but having all the risk of losing everything. No-one made any serious errors, but Kankkunen had his left rear halfshaft break and Auriol went straight on at the last corner. The leaders went through in dry weather, but after some 30 cars had passed, it began raining again.

After the somewhat artificial but now traditional first stage, supported and appreciated by the people and city council of Jyvaskyla, the rally moved to the forests for the second which had many pools of water on its surface. Alen's engine stopped for a short while here, whilst Makinen found his gearbox jammed in second. His engine cut out several times when the high rpm activated the electronic governor.

McRae dented his front right wing, whilst Lindholm was considerably slowed when his turbocharger failed just after the start.

Rain was still coming down when cars got to stage three where Alen found that he had very little grip, having chosen tyres of too hard a compound. Laine had both intercom and alternator failures, whilst Puhakka's turbocharger stopped working. This could not be put right in time for the next stage, but after SS4 it was traced to a leaking flexible pipe which was promptly replaced, along with the alternator which was also giving trouble.

After stage three Lindholm had his turbocharger changed for the second time, and then had to carry on without his auxiliary front lights as these had been put into the wrong service vehicle. Sundstrom was experiencing a mysterious electronic problem which reduced his effective engine power considerably.

On the fourth stage Sibera found himself on just three cylinders, whilst Puhakka put his left rear wheel into a ditch, leaving his front right wheel in the air. He was there for some 20 seconds before he was pushed away. Alen spent 10 seconds off the road on the fifth stage, whilst Gronholm came to the finish minus his front left wheel. Later, his entire suspension on that side was changed, and frontal body damage patched up as much as possible. However, when it was discovered that he had dropped to 94th place overall, he withdrew from the rally. Had he continued, it would have stretched Toyota's service plan beyond its limit.

Biasion had a slight oil leak from his front differential and the unit was changed before the end of the leg at Laajavuori.

The usual routine replacements were made that evening, although there was no time to replace Delecour's rear differential in order to cure understeer. That job was done the next morning. Auriol's lead of 12s over Kankkunen after the first leg was not unduly surprising to those who had watched the Frenchman's progress on previous events this year, but it really made the Finns wonder, especially as Kankkunen was almost in his own backyard: he lives just outside Jyvaskyld. Alen was next, another three seconds behind, and Vatanen followed after one more.

The rain continued on the Friday, but Vatanen nevertheless collected a puncture on the first stage of the day and lost some 20s.

On the day's second stage McRae had his first roll, crashing through a cluster of trees and flattening several of them. Fortunately, they were not stout, mature pines. Having lost about a minute, he drove on, albeit with severely damaged bodywork and a rear end which looked as though it had been partially through a crusher. From that moment on, his Subaru received body attention at every service point and, gradually, glass was replaced and bent panels beaten out as much as possible or patched with tape. It was not possible to fit a replacement rear screen, so this was later covered with a plastic sheet.

Unfortunately, a bag containing pace notes, maps and other documents flew out of the car as it rolled and McRae and Ringer had to continue without until they could pick up copies. On the same stage, Alen must have gone foraging too, for his Toyota looked like a mobile bush when it came to the finish, all manner of branches and shrubbery lodged at and under the front. Later, the stage had to be stopped for 18 minutes as an ambulance went in to collect Lasse Virtanen, the co-driver of a Lancia which had hit a tree. His injuries were not serious.

Vatanen finished stage eight with his left rear door flapping, having come into contact with a telegraph pole. By this time the Prodrive mechanics were becoming very skilled at roadside panel beating! Makinen's rally came to a premature end on the 10th stage when his gearbox failed completely and he could move no further. One stage later, Delecour put his Sierra into a ditch on a narrow, soft-surfaced section just 300 yards after the start and he too was out. Kankkunen emerged from this stage with a two-foot plank of wood embedded in his radiator grille but no serious damage was done and he was able to continue. Teemu Tehko had a halfshaft break on his VW Golf and left several bearings on the ground at the finish line when he drove away.

After the short stop at Pieksamaki, Auriol's windscreen wipers stopped working and he had to do two stages without them, whilst Sundstrom lost some time after a front left puncture.

Another prominent retirement was that of Blomqvist. On stage 15, considerable smoke began to billow into the car and the Swedish driver had to stop to put out a fire caused by oil leaking on to hot engine parts. He continued, but the smoke trail persisted and he retired soon after. It was thought that one of the Nissan's cylinders had been damaged internally.

Laine stopped due to electrical failure, whilst Biasion complained that his front differential had not been working to his satisfaction throughout the day. The last stage of the leg was at Laajavuori itself, just a few minutes drive from the overnight closed park. Consequently, any end-of-leg service had to be done before that last stage, and it was there that most routine replacements were carried out. Several service planners had misjudged the hour of sunset and a few crews found themselves without their auxiliary front lights for the last stage but one, when the fading light made it necessary to have them.

By the end of the Friday Auriol had increased his lead over Kankkunen to 23s, whilst Alen was another 16s behind. The first two cars were in the same team, but there were no concessions given by their drivers. Each was determined to win and each was putting every possible effort into beating the other.

After the rain of the first two days, the third dawned pleasantly dry and Alen made a mistake when he chose rain tyres for the first stage. Vatanen was careful here as he went off at the same point during last year's rally. Lampi's front right wheel bearing broke, causing the brake caliper to break away, all this having to be replaced after the stage. Puhakka's rally came to an end here when his Mitsubishi landed very heavily after a jump and its gearbox disintegrated.

On the second stage of the Saturday, at Ouninpohja. Lindholm rolled his Sierra but lost only a minute or so, plus his front and rear screens. Sarenpaa was not exactly pleased with Vatanen after this stage, because the latter, who had been parked in front of the former before the start of the stage, spun his wheels when moving off for the start line and sprayed the Sierra with gravel, stopping one of the two radiator fans and causing a short circuit which deadened the instrument panel. Afterwards, Sarenpaa commented, "I had works tyres for that stage and the grip was fantastic. Too good for me!"

At Tampere Alen's front differential was changed, curing a handling problem. On the town stage, no one had any serious mishaps with kerbs, bollards or traffic signs, incidents which have been common in the past. De Mevius had to use forest tyres because his slicks proved to be elsewhere, which seems rather strange.

After SS26, where there was time for preventative servicing, the Lancias of both Auriol and Kankkunen were given new shock absorbers and springs all around and new rear halfshafts.

Walfridsson went out when his engine died completely, whilst Sundstrom completed SS28 with only fourth gear. No service was allowed after that stage, so he went into SS29 with the thought that his gearbox could pack up completely. Oddly enough, he lost that remaining gear but immediately found second and managed to get to the end. Later, his gearbox was changed but the time lost was so great that he exceeded his maximum lateness and was out of the rally.

Stage 29 was the scene of McRae's second inversion. The plastic sheet over his rear window was vibrating noisily at high speed and he was finding it difficult to hear the notes properly. He misheard one, took a crest much to fast and ended up rolling through the trees again. Miraculously, there was no serious mechanical damage and, with a car that was now even more battered, he got to the finish on three wheels having lost some three or four minutes. An observer at the finish line said: "It just looked like a pile of scrap coming towards us."

At the end of the leg. Auriol's lead over Kankkunen was 39s and it seemed that the Finn was completely unable to get ahead of the Frenchman. Many people spoke of the possibility of team orders having being issued, but both drivers and other senior team members said that this had not been done.

The greatest activity at service before Laajavuori, and the loudest cheers, were at the Subaru camp, and McRae certainly endeared himself to the Finnish public as a driver who would carry on when his car was no more than a wreck. But it was still sound mechanically, and the wind and water leaks didn't seem to worry the Scottish pair. Those with Michelin ATS foam-filled tyres were able to indulge in corner clipping without fear of deflation, but at the high speeds of the 1000 Lakes these tyres had an inherent disadvantage they lost balance at high rotational speeds, causing considerable vibration.

At this stage, the Group N category was being led by Kytolehto in his Mitsubishi, comfortably ahead of Juha Hellman in his similar car. De Mevius was close behind the latter, and the two Finns decided to combine service from then on in order to have a better chance of keeping the Belgian title contender at bay.

No heroics were expected on the final day, but Auriol and Kankkunen were still very close and anything could happen. However, after stage 34, with just three more to go, the Martini team manager issued instructions that the two Lancia drivers were to keep their positions. Kankkunen seemed none to happy about this, for even after four days of trying he was still of the mind that he may be able to pass Auriol.

However, he followed orders, and the pair finished in that order, Auriol ahead of Kankkunen by 40s.

At breakfast that Sunday morning, McRae promised his team management that he would take it easy that day. but he promptly beat Bugalski on the first stage and moved up from ninth to eighth.

Before the team orders were given to the Martini drivers, Kankkunen was having his car washed thoroughly whenever possible. This was not just a fad. On the Safari, for instance, a car can be lightened considerably when mud is washed off the underside and wheels, and the same can be said of the 1000 Lakes to a somewhat lesser degree. Kankkunen was will aware of this and took every opportunity to bring the weight down as often as possible, even by just the odd pound.

That was about it. Auriol had not only scored his fifth World Championship victory of the year, but had beaten the Finns on their home ground, and that is something really worth celebrating. The Frenchman's chance of taking the world title from Sainz is now considerable. He leads the Spaniard by only eight points but has the advantage of having competed, and scored, fewer times. Among the makes. Lancia leads Toyota by all of 39 points. Next round, counting for both series, is the Australia Rally at the end of September, which will have taken place by the time this issue of MOTOR SPORT is printed. G P