Rally Review, September 1969

Rally of the Thousand Lakes

Finland is not what you would call a wild country. Had George Borrow gone there instead of to Wales he would very likely have found some other adjective to sum up what he saw. Far less undulating than Wales, and not nearly as craggy as Scotland, this most easterly of the Scandinavian group is almost a fifty-fifty mixture of pine forests and lakes. Certainly from the air all one can see from horizon to horizon is expanse after expanse of water surrounded by trees.

The whole is strikingly beautiful, and one cannot but envy the peaceful lives of the thousands of lakeside dwellers to whom boats are far more useful than motor cars and landing stages a greater necessity than garages. But, just as a strawberry lover would tire of eating the fruit at every meal time for a month, one tends to become bored by the monotony of it all, for the beauty is unchanging and there are few opportunities for comparison.

However, even if the country as a whole has little variety, the same cannot be said of its roads. Most, but not all, of the main, inter-town roads are of tarmac. The others are reasonably smooth, loose-surfaced sand tracks sprayed with a bonding agent which effectively produces a high degree of rut resistance.

The curves, corners, cambers and climbs of British roads are to a certain extent predictable. When negotiating one bend, a driver can, with reasonable accuracy, predict from the lie of the land the nature of the next. This is not so in Finland, where it seems that a different engineer, with his own pet ideas, was responsible for the design of each of the country’s roads.

Curves of changing radii and cambers, that would do justice to a wing-flapping aeroplane are all punctuated by the greatest density of blind brows which any country can surely possess. And there is no means of telling which way the road goes over these brows. If a gap in the trees suggests that it goes slightly to the left, it is very likely that the gap contains no more than a log store and that the road goes hairpinning back to the right leading to another brow, and another, and yet another, each as perplexingly unpredictable as the one before.

It is on roads such as these in Central Finland that the country’s premier motoring event, the Rally of the Thousand Lakes, is held each August. It is said that the blind brows on the route of this event outnumber the lakes ten to one, and it is this very quality, which makes reading the road ahead to any appreciable distance an impossibility, that renders the rally one of the most difficult in the calendar.

Scandinavians in general and Finns in particular have a distinct advantage on the Rally of the Thousand Lakes, the former because they use loose surfaced roads in their everyday motoring and the latter because they have local knowledge and can appreciate, more than Central Europeans, how the road patterns can change, instantly and crazily. This has led to the theory that Finns are unbeatable in Finland, and it is very rare that more than a handful of foreign drivers take part each year.

To combat this, the organisers of the rally took to announcing the route several weeks before the event so that overseas drivers would have the opportunity to practise and make the all-important pace notes. But it also gave the local drivers the chance to practise, and at far less cost than for someone going from, say Britain, for a few weeks of intensive reconnaissance.

So thoroughly do Finnish drivers practise the special stages of the rally nowadays that many of them dispense with pace notes and rely solely on their memories, perhaps using brief reminders before the start of each stage that “this is the one with the saw-mill and the big bump just after the log chute”. Until 1969, British private entrants were not attracted to the Thousand Lakes. Expense may have been one reason, but another was certainly the little hope they had of beating the locals. This year, two army officers went along in an Austin 1800. With such an unsuitable car and with little or no time for practice, their chances were indeed low, but they enjoyed the experience and will more than likely go again. Perhaps others will even join them.

Jyväskylän Suurajot is the name the Finns give to their rally. Roughly translated, it means the great race of Jyväskylä, the town in Central Finland where the event begins and ends. Its 1,000 mile route takes in some 38 special stages varying between 2 and 20 kilometres in length. Between the stages there are 15 time controls at which schedules are set so as to obviate the need for high speed work on roads open to the public, but yet to prevent the possibility of complete roadside rebuilds between stages.

This year, the main contenders were one Ford Escort TC entered by Ford of Britain (and driven by Finns) and two Porsches entered by the distributors in Finland (also driven by Finns). Saab sent three of its sturdy, reliable cars (two driven by Finns and one by Swedes) but their power does not compare with that of Porsches and Escorts. In addition, there were dealer-entered Opels, Renaults and many other makes, all performing as well as their skilful drivers could make them. There were also factory teams from Trabant and Wartburg in East Germany and Moskvitch in Russia, but these were hardly in the running for success.

When both Porsches retired after mechanical breakages and an Alpine-Renault when its clutch filled with sand, the way was open for a Ford victory. Just as they did last year in a single factory car, Hannu Mikkola, a full time member of Ford of Britain’s rally team, and Anssi Järvi collected the premier awards.

The Saabs lost a certain team prize when Tom Trana crashed badly, wrecking the car but not injuring himself or his co-driver. His team-mate, Siam Lampinen, finished second whilst the third car, in the hands of Timo Mäkinen, was fourth. The latter driver, who can handle a bucking powerboat as well as he can a bucking rally car, was driving a works Saab for the first time and was not completely accustomed to its traits. Furthermore, winning the Round-Britain Powerboat Race had occupied so much of his time that his practising had not been as thorough as he would have liked.

It is fascinating to study the entry list for the Thousand Lakes Rally. The names are unpronounceable to the English (which I am not), but that is not the reason. One wonders how they manage to make such unlikely cars, as some of them are, go so incredibly quickly. There is no doubt that these fellows are good. Small wonder that they find their ways into so many factory rally teams throughout Europe, and shame on British legislators that they do not make special stage rallying easier at home so that our own drivers can get the practice needed to compete with the Scandinavians on equal terms. — G. P.