When Mikko Helander, then manager of Finland's Teboil Team which existed to help promising private drivers, told me after an Arctic Rally many years ago that a little known driver called Ari Vatanen would one day become world champion, I was sceptical. I had been approached by self-considered talent scouts many times before and I was not easily convinced. A few years later, after Vatanen had begun to make his international mark, the same Helander introduced me to another of his "promising youngsters" - Juha Kankkunen.
This year, those very same two drivers held off the entire field on the 1000 Lakes Rally, indulged in a stirring personal duel and finished the event in first and second places, less than a minute apart. They, and others since, have much to thank Helander for.
Much of the steam has been taken out of the World Rally Championship by FISA's dictum that, whilst drivers' points are scored by anyone getting inside the first 10, manufacturers' points can only be gained by the results of those drivers, again in the top 10, who have been nominated by their teams at least a month in advance. It is a grossly unfair rule which creates needless additional administration. If a driver is good enough to get into the first 10 and score points for himself, then his make of car also deserves recognition, whether he is a professional works driver or a rank amateur.
This year, after nine qualifying events, just five makes appear in the list of those who have scored points. Had the stunting, restrictive nomination rule not been introduced, by this time there would have been 11.
Would that not offer greater incentive to manufacturers and encourage them to support the potential points scorers among private entrants?
The field in Finland's 1000 Lakes Rally at the end of August was thinner than it has been for years, although the figure of 113 starters is one which some other organisers would more than welcome. There were only three teams with nominated drivers, for instance, each of them with Japanese cars Toyota, Subaru and Mitsubishi. There were no works Fords as such and no Lancias from the Jolly Club, although the Astra team did take a well supported Lancia Delta integrale for Tommi Makinen/Seppo Harjanne and there was a substantial Ford presence to back one of Malcolm Wilson's Escort Cosworths, which Wilson himself drove with Bryan Thomas. Sebastian Lindholm and Timo Hantunen drove an Escort Cosworth for Ford Finland.
Toyota Team Europe had three Celicas, one of which was driven by Juha Kankkunen who this time had Frenchman Denis Giraudet as partner, his third co-driver this year after regular man Juha Piironen collapsed in Argentina with a brain haemorrhage, from which he is steadily recovering after surgery.
The other two Celicas were driven by Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli and Hannu Mikkola/Arne Hertz. The latter crew has been in the sport for more years than either of them cares to remember. They were asked to drive the car in recognition of the fact that it was Mikkola who gave Toyota Team Europe its first World Championship win, driving a Corolla on the 1000 Lakes Rally in 1975 (Canadians Walter Boyce and Doug Woods were the first to win a WRC round in a Toyota the Press-on-Regardless Rally of 1973).
Mikkola is still competitive and it must be said at the outset that his performance on the event this year was tempered by the fact that his car was being used by the team as a competing test-bed, both for parts and for settings.
Subaru, with McRae's New Zealand win under its belt, finally gave the go-ahead for Prodrive to use the new Impreza in the World Championship, rather than the Legacy, and it was this car which appeared in Finland; two of them, in fact, driven by Ari Vatanen/Bruno Berglund and Markku Alen/Ilkka Kivimaki. The car has several innovations, including a semi-automatic gearbox which can change ratios via buttons on the steering wheel.
Colin McRae was not with the 555 Subaru team in Finland. Having won the New Zealand Rally, he was well placed in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, so he stayed in the Far East to tackle the Malaysian Rally, which he also won.
Mitsubishi Ralliart went with two Lancers for Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander and Armin Schwarz/Nicky Grist, the latter back in his contracted place after having twice been released to partner Kankkunen.
There was a third Mitsubishi, a Galant for Lasse Lampi/Pentti Kuukkala. Although Lampi has been Ralliart's test driver for several years, his entrant on this occasion was Ralliart Finland and he was not one of the UK team's drivers nominated to score manufacturers' championship points. Two other Galants entered by the Finnish team were Group N cars driven by Jarmo Kytolehto/Arto Kapanen and Jouko Puhakka/Keijo Eerola, whilst a third Group N car was entered privately by Juha Hellman/Tapio Jarvi.
Other private entrants were Marcus Gronholm/Voitto Silander in a Toyota Celica, Esa Saarenpaa/Lasse Hirvijarvi in an Audi Coupe S2 and Mika Sohlberg/Risto Mannisenmaki in a Mitsubishi Galant. Mikael Sundstrom was to have driven a Mazda 323 but he did not start.
Prominent among the 2wd cars was the Opel Astra GSi driven by Belgians Bruno Thiry/Stephane Prevot, whilst others were the two works Skoda Favorits of Pavel Sibera/Petr Gross and Emil Triner/Iiri Klima.
There were three works Ladas from Russia for Aleksandr Artemenko/Viktor Timkovski, Sergei Aljasov/Aleksandr Levitan and Aleksandr Nikonenko/Sergei Talachev. There were several private drivers from former Soviet states and even some privateers from outside Europe, including the Ivory Coast and Japan. A Taiwanese entry did not materialise. There were no works Trabants or Wartburgs this year, but a private Wartburg 353 did turn up from Germany and this, with a locally entered similar model, provided a familiar, echoing ring-a-ding-ding in the forests. The 1000 Lakes Rally, based at lyvaskyla, in central Finland, has gone back to a three-day format after spanning four days for a few years, and this resulted in three early morning starts and two late evening finishes this year. Each of the three legs started and finished outside rally HQ at the Sandpiper Hotel in Laajavuori, on the outskirts of the city, and they contained 15, 13 and seven special stages respectively. Total distance was 966 miles, of which 315 were devoted to special stages. The first and second legs each included two half-hour regrouping stops, and the whole resembled an extended cloverleaf pattern.
Late August is well into Finland's Autumn and, although it can be so warm and sunny that swimmers and sauna-takers still head for the lakes, it is equally likely to be cold and wet. Indeed, if you have experienced a really wet 1000 Lakes Rally you will be in no doubt as to the origins of all those of lakes. They materialise from the sky each August!
Many of Finland's country roads have dirt surfaces. They are well founded and impacted some are even bonded but the surfaces are kept tarmac-free so that the ravages of seasonal temperature extremes are easier and cheaper to repair in the springtime. Strangely enough, some of them have surfaces which provide more grip when they are damp than when they are bone dry, which was often the case this year, when some stages were really soaked, some just damp and others dry.
On such roads, some public and some owned by forest companies, are the special stages held. They all share a common engineering feature; they have no cuttings or embankments, but go over all the crests and down into all the dips, giving rise to the unique characteristic of this event, the number of jumps equals the number of lakes!
Throughout most of the reconnaissance period it rained quite a lot in central Finland and there were even fears that some roads, particularly those in the northerly part of the route, would become too soft to use. But the sun came up, dried them off to a considerable extent and all was well.
The Friday of the start dawned under heavy cloud and much rain, and drama started even before cars got to the ramp when Mika Sohlberg, having joined the queue, could not restart his Galant's engine. It had to be pushed to the ramp, after which mechanics got it going again, albeit with a 60s penalty for being late at the start and another 30s for not having the engine running.
Disaster struck on the very first stage for Subaru. Alen, a man of immense 1000 Lakes experience, entered a corner slightly too fast, slid off the road, hit a rock and smashed the radiator. Nothing could be done, so the disconsolate pair returned to Laajavuori where Alen admitted, "My fault. I go too fast."
At first it was suggested that Alen had muffed a button gear change, but this was not the case. However, it should be said that both Alen and Vatanen considered themselves too inexperienced with the steering wheel gearchange buttons to use them on special stages in their first rally with that system. Instead, they changed gear conventionally on the stages and used the buttons on road sections to get used to them. Weight saving is so important nowadays that even spare wheels are considered superfluous by works teams, especially those using foam-filled Michelin ATS tyres. But when the route between two stages is declared a no service area, a spare is usually loaded into each car for those two stages. This was the case with stages three and four.
By this time, Sohlberg had bent his right rear wing and suspension arm, whilst Gronholm had to drive in silence for one stage having unknowingly knocked his intercom switch off.
No matter how much testing is done, when a rally starts it begins all over again as drivers strive to get their cars as to handle just as they wish. No amount of testing will equal actual competition, and "harder' , "softer", "higher", "lower" were words frequently shouted by drivers to mechanics as they arrived at service areas, especially on the first day.
Auriol tried several remedies to prevent the rear of his Toyota sliding too much, deciding eventually that a stiffer rear antiroll bar made the car behave as he wanted. Vatanen, on the other hand, went for harder front shock absorbers on his Subaru, and this seemed to do the trick. Saarenpaa's engine was not behaving as it should and when trial and error indicated that the engine control computer was the likely culprit, he settled down to grin and bear it. He simply had no spare. Thiry, understandably, was experiencing considerable wheelspin in his fwd Opel, but this he had expected. Indeed, he was driving carefully for two reasons: he was interested only in the 2wd category, and he had made his notes using an Isuzu Trooper, which meant that they were very much on the cautious side.
Lindholm's misfire throughout the morning was cured in the afternoon, but it took the replacement of several parts (the rack twice) until a new pump restored his steering's hydraulic assistance. Schwarz said that his Mitsubishi was oversteering too much, but Eriksson seemed to be happy with his. Wilson bent a strut, whilst Kivenne lost some seven minutes when he stopped to change a wheel after a puncture and discovered that the tyre had wrapped itself really tightly around the backplate and brake disc. On the same stage, the removal of a red post box by a householder confused several drivers, Vatanen included, who had included the feature in their notes as a landmark. They should have known better.
Red post boxes abound in the Finnish forests and many local dwellers make a practice of taking them down before the rally in order that they might not be knocked down. After a short regrouping stop outside lyvaskyla, the first early evening stage was in the city centre, starting on a tarmac dual carriageway and then entering a park. Indeed, it is one which goes back to the '50s, although the roads are not quite the same any more. Gronholm spun off backwards on this one and hit a kerb which not only punctured his right rear tyre but broke the wheel and a suspension arm. The damage was put right, but the rear wheel alignment was not reset. Later, the brake on that wheel caught fire, whereupon Gronholm stopped at a TTE service point where the mechanics obligingly extinguished it.
Following front differential failure, Schwarz had his front drive uncoupled. He then tackled the final stage of the day before the offending unit was replaced just before the end of the leg at Laajavuori. Auriol, running first on the road, was confronted by an elk on one stage. which is not at all uncommon, but the rumour that a crocodile had been spotted in one of the lakes was a definite spoof!
On the last stage of the day Wilson, who had been up in fifth place, rolled. He hurt his right shoulder but was determined to carry on, especially as an on-the-spot scrutineer at the end of the stage said that the car, although badly damaged, was fit to continue. At service afterwards, there was much hammering and pummelling. All the suspension and transmission was replaced at the left rear, whilst at the front right the oil cooler, strut and turret were all changed. There was no time to change the turbocharger or the front right half-shaft, but this work was done the next morning. The broken windscreen was replaced in the closed park that evening, as the rules allow.
Schwarz finally had his new front differential which cured the bad handling, whilst Eriksson had a new gearbox after he found it jumping out of fifth on the last stage of the day.
Kankkunen had held the lead throughout the day, but finished only seven seconds ahead of Vatanen, a very small margin after charging through some III miles of dirt roads bordered very closely much of the way by stout trees. Auriol was only another three seconds back, whilst Makinen was another 1 m 58s behind, 27s ahead of Eriksson.
Makinen seemed to be the happiest man at the Saturday morning restart. He explained by saying, "I started at number 13 and I have been driving in the ruts of the cars ahead all day. Now I am fourth, and the roads will be cleaner." He changed his tune as the day progressed, for the cornercutting antics of the leading three threw rocks, gravel and even tree branches on to the road. He marvelled at the tyre marks left by Kankkunen, Vatanen and Auriol. "They spend more time going through ditches, cutting across field corners and flattening bushes than they do on the road itself. Anything to save split seconds."
On the first stage of the day, Vatanen was fastest by 2s from Kankkunen, but the latter commented, "The first stage of every day is just to wake you up properly." As if to confirm this, the Toyota man was quickest on the next one, although Vatanen was slowed somewhat by a puncture.
Before the second stage, Wilson had new front struts and rear brake pads, but this was to little avail. On that 19-miler there is a well-known triple-jump and here he rolled again. This time, there was no carrying on. Not only was the car so far off the road that following drivers didn't see it, but Wilson had banged his right shoulder again and he was in even more pain than before.
He was taken to hospital by helicopter and later released, but back in the UK he was found to have a cracked shoulder blade.
Meanwhile, Mikkola was given a new turbocharger and exhaust manifold, whilst Eriksson and Schwarz also had new turbos. The latter's gearbox gave some trouble after this; he could change up to fourth, but not down into it.
The Mitsubishis didn't seem to be on the pace at all, although Lampi said that today's cars were largely as they were two years ago. "We have found very little that needed changing." Ralliart's engines are still provided by Mitsubishi in Japan, whereas Prodrive's Subaru engines are now made up in the UK.
Auriol was making very respectable progress to hold a good third place, but even so he was trying to find an explanation. "Am I making the wrong tyre choice, or is it just that the two fighting Finns are better? I don't know." As the day progressed and the rally neared the regrouping stop at Valkeakoski, the weather brightened, the roads became drier and some patches of blue sky even became visible. But there were still wet patches of surface here and there and drivers had to be prepared for sudden slippery bits.
On SS20, fifth of the day and the last one before the short Valkeakoski stop, Auriol was fastest, but both Kankkunen and Vatanen had been off the road, the former going wide at a slippery bend instead of cutting it and the latter being very lucky indeed not to find any hidden boulders in the grass which he crossed at very high speed. Sohlberg went no further than this after breaking a gearbox shaft.
Makinen's fuel flow problems had been solved, finally, by the simple remedy of changing the filter, whilst Lindholm needed a new front halfshaft after that on the car broke on the Tampere town stage, causing a spin. Mikkola also spun on this short but tricky mixed stage. Gronholm, his experience on the Jyvaskyla Harju stage the previous day still rankling in his memory, took it easy on this one. He commented afterwards, taking the words from many a driver who has called FISA every name under the sun for introducing so-called 'superspecials' to woo TV companies, "You can gain nothing from these little Mickey Mouse stages, but you can lose everything."
Auriol jumped awkwardly on SS24 and landed very heavily and steeply nose-down. His sump guard was immediately ripped off and both front shock absorbers broke. He struggled to the end of the stage where he left a pool of oil on the ground, later found to be due to a broken gearbox oil cooler. As much work as possible was done on the car after that stage, but some had to be left until after he had tackled the next one, including realignment of the front wheels.
On the next stage, Kankkunen collected two punctures, the first by entering a ditch and the second by going off the road again. But again the Michelin ATS foam filling saved his bacon and his time loss was mimimal. However, Vatanen was by then only seven seconds behind, an astonishingly small margin considering the furious fighting that had been going on.
The two crews and their two cars were certainly well matched although, with no disrespect to Giraudet, Kankkunen did admit that he was relying on his own memory at least as much as he was on the notes being read to him, which is no more than one could expect when a highly experienced Finnish driver, competing on his home ground, is partnered by a relatively inexperienced foreigner. Kankkunen has always used English notes, even with his long-time partner Piironen, because the words are short, almost always monosyllabic, have unique sounds and are unlikely to be confused with other words in the note system.
On stage 26, immediately after the lamsa halt, the situation changed. It was the 13-mile Vaheri stage, known to be one of Vatanen's favourites. He took all of 10s from Kankkunen on this one, moving into a 3s lead.
When they got to the end of the stage, neither Vatanen nor Berglund needed telling of their time. Their own stopwatches told them everything and, as they waited for their card to be marked, they punched the steering wheel, the roof, the seats and the doors with unrestrained glee, not caring about anything at that moment except demonstrating their delight.
The next stage was due to start at 8.24 pm and crews were having their front light clusters fitted at service. Ironically, this proved to have a diminishing rather than beneficial effect on Vatanen's forward visibility. The Impreza has been been put through all manner of tests, including spells in the wind tunnel, both with and without the front light cluster fitted. But it had never undergone wind testing in the rain with the cluster fitted.
Without the cluster, rain is channelled to assist turbocharger cooling, but when the cluster was fitted the airflow was disturbed so much that, on the stage, rain water found its way into the heater system, with the result that the windscreen interior immediately misted up, and continued to do so all the way to the end. Peering through the less than transparent screen, and having to wipe it every few seconds with a glove, distracted Vatanen so much that he lost time and dropped back to second place, two seconds behind his rival.
On the previous stage he had found peak form and was in good mental shape to keep it to the end. But the misting incident floored him completely and, as Berglund said the next day, "We just couldn't get into the groove after that." One stage later, it was Auriol's turn to drive in similar conditions. His earlier gearbox oil cooler change had left considerable oil in various recesses around the engine and, when heavy rain began falling, the whipped up oil emerged from beneath the bonnet as a fine spray, frothed with the rain and turned his screen into a milky mess which the wipers and washers couldn't dispose of properly. Vatanen also spent much of the stage with just one hand on the wheel, the other wiping mist from inside his screen.
Back at Laajavuori, Kankkunen's lead over Vatanen was 17s, whilst Auriol was another 61 seconds behind. The everpresent Makinen was another 2m 45s behind, 75s ahead of Eriksson.
Before entering the closed park there was another service session where everyone indulged in routine replacements and general tightening-up sessions. In addition, both Auriol and Kankkunen had new front and rear differentials, Kankkunen also a new gearbox. Mikkola's car was given new struts and halfshafts, but the differentials were not changed.
Vatanen was given a new gearbox and rear differential, whilst Eriksson's car was given a new turbo and gearbox. Schwarz had halfshafts and suspension parts replaced, whilst Lindholm seemed content just to have his exhaust pipe welded. The final day, with seven special stages between 7.20 and 14.25, might have appeared to some as a mere epilogue, but those stages totalled 53 miles, and the longest of them, fourth from the end, was 17.6 miles long, so there was a definite sting in this tail and the situation was by no means resolved after just two days.
Whether Vatanen had also accepted Kankkunen's maxim that the first stage of a day is just to wake the drivers up will probably not be known, but neither was fastest on the first stage of day three. That honour went to Makinen who himself had taken to charging across corners, both to straighten them and to lessen the effective distance. Alas, on the second one he lost what he had gained by spinning twice. Vatanen said afterwards, "There was a corner which was tight in my notes but I followed Juha's tracks and it was then a lot less tight. We went right through some berry bushes in a farmyard. I hope the farmer isn't upset."
After the second stage of the day there was a 'no service' road section leading to the third. It was deserted, save for one of the information team crews leapfrogging around to send news back to headquarters. Ahead of time, the leading runners stopped, exchanged pleasantries and were generally relaxed. There was none of the tension one would associate with the final stages of a closely fought rally yet to be decided. But during that time-killing 10-minute stop tyres cooled to less than their optimum temperatures, so zig-zagging down the dirt road was a common indulgence for all crews as they departed. The most ebullient was Vatanen, drawing a remark from Mikkola, "These youngsters obviously can't get enough on the special stages!"
On the next stage, Vatanen lost 10s to Kankkunen and on the next another 10.
That settled it. There was no point in fighting any longer and both knew than nothing was going to change. Vatanen said, "That's that. When I got ahead yesterday I felt on peak form, but the screen misting really put me off and I couldn't get the same feeling back. Juha deserves his win every bit, but he's a lucky guy."
In the final stages, Gronholm drove more than four miles on a flat front right tyre after a puncture, whilst Saarenpaa finished a stage without his front right tyre, his halfshaft broken and the disc, caliper and suspension arm all damaged. They were changed after the stage and he was in no danger of failing to finish.
As if to make 'a point, Vatanen pulled out some stops on the final stage, but spun and did not get anywhere near the fastest driver, who happened to be Tommi Makinen, a man who really must very soon be snapped up by a full works team. He certainly has a talent which any astute team manager should have noticed by now.
At the finish, it was good to see Juha Piironen up on the ramp to greet Kankkunen, his partner and friend of many years. It was equally good to hear his typically humorous remark that he now has a competition with his toddler son as to who will learn to walk first . . .
In the Group N category, three Mitsubishis finished ahead of the pack, forma Kytolehto taking 11th place overall and winning the category by less than a minute from Juha Hellman. But he's far from taking the series as a whole, an object which is not in his sights anyway. Kankkunen has extended his lead over Auriol in the drivers' category of the World Championship to 20 points, whilst Delecour is just a single point behind Auriol. But drivers' laurels are nothing new to Toyota. What the team has its eye on this year is the makes' series, which it has never won. It is now 20 points ahead of Ford and 58 ahead of Subaru, certainly in a good position to take the crown with just four events to go. Even Kankkunen says, "I have already been champion but my team has not. That is my main objective the year; to get that crown for Toyota." Next round is the Australia Rally, which was taking place as this issue was being printed. G P