Rally of the Thousand Lakes

Non-rallying people who visit Finland invariably return to their own countries with tales of a countryside which is wild and yet so serene that it is possible to pitch a tent and not see a soul for weeks; tales of a land covered with a random mixture of lakes and trees, of short summer nights, sauna and the lively hunting habits of the Finnish male.

The rally driver will return with all these firmly fixed in his mind, of course, but it is a thing called a jump which will stand foremost in his memory. Finland is a fairly flat country, but the bits of land between the lakes, if not mountainous, are decidedly undulating, and it seems that when the road builders of the past were making their sled tracks they only had tree clearing materials available. If a hillock rose in their path, they simply cleared the trees and went over it without any attempt to dig a cutting through it. Those early road men left a legacy of undulating roads which has created its own legend, the legend of flying Finns and jumping motor cars.

Britain's state forests have roads which are testing enough to any rally driver, but Finnish forest roads, though much straighter, rise and fall over more crests and blind brows than any other network of roads in common use for rallying. If these crests are taken at anything like a reasonable speed, cars will leave the ground, leap high into the air and come down with sickening crashes which find weak spots in any suspension and shake the very bones of competitors who are unprepared.

Although the road surfaces are hard and smooth—generally sand which has been dressed and impacted—the constant violence of jumping makes Finland's rallies some of the hardest on motor cars. Of the country's events, the Rally of the Thousand Lakes is the most tough in this respect, and since it is one of the two Finnish rallies which permit practising, the making of pace notes is a very important undertaking. Coping with the unexpected is second nature to accomplished rally drivers, but one can never be sure what is beyond a blind crest unless one has practised and has an accurate set of notes. Thus to have any chance at all of winning a driver must know, beyond any doubt whatsoever, which brows can be taken at full throttle and which will require slower speeds.

Drivers with the available time will practise for a whole month before the start of the Thousand Lakes, some concentrating for so long on the difficult stages that they frequently claim to know many by heart, including all the jumping lines, cambers, crests, ridges, stones, water holes and bends in several stages of each about thirty miles. But the sensible drivers will never tell their co-drivers to put away the notes, intelligent reading of which will often coax a little extra pace even from a works driver.

This year the Thousand Lakes took place in early August, some two weeks or so sooner than usual in order that it might not clash with Germany's Olympia Rally. Both Sweden and Finland were rejoicing in a heatwave which lasted the whole summer, ending dramatically at the start of the rally when a violent thunderstorm sent lightning forking down into the pines around rally headquarters, tearing down telephone cables, creating miniature lakes on many special stages and replenishing the permanent ones from which the rally takes its name.

But during the rally itself the storm had blown itself out and the event took place in rather cloudy weather, far less hot and uncomfortable than was expected and with the dust problem effectively eliminated. Throughout the rally the major contenders for the lead were Saab, Ford, Volvo and Opel, the latter make being represented by cars of groups one and two and the other three not only by similarly tuned cars but by higher-powered and lighter-bodied versions of the same models.

Saab, for instance, had a completely gutted V4 96 for Stig Blomqvist, whilst Saab of Finland had a nearly identical car for Simo Lampinen. Both were stripped of every single nut and bolt which wasn't vital and had been constructed with as much aluminium, glass fibre, perspex and other light materials as could reasonably be expected to replace heavier components without undue loss of strength. Blomqvist's car was even without its instrument panel, the crew relying on landmarks rather than distances in their route notes not to take wrong turnings.

After losing time in the early stages, mainly due to being caught in a radar trap by the police (who were letting non-competing traffic pass unhindered even though they were going as fast, if not faster) Blomqvist drove astoundingly well to move right up with the leaders and was actually in the process of taking over the lead on a rather long (43 km.) stage when a connecting rod came away from the crankshaft and punched a hole in the sump from the inside. Even though he drove slowly for the last quarter of the stage, he nevertheless beat Lampinen by one second, a remarkable achievement.

Timo Mäkinen, perhaps the best-known Finnish driver who has ever driven in international events, was in a works Ford Escort with Henry Liddon reading the notes. Both had been practising for close on a month. Theirs was also a prototype car, though it hadn't been completely stripped for lightness as the Saabs had been. It's interesting feature was a 2-litre aluminium engine, with 16-valve head, said to produce more than 220 b.h.p. But this unit is still in the development stage and during the event it lost a considerable proportion of its power even though Mäkinen was able to take over the lead at one point.

Cars in the Thousand Lakes are subjected to violent frontal pounding by the hard landings after the jumps, and for this reason suspensions, engine mountings and all other flexible and shock-absorbing parts must have the right strength/resilience ratio. The engine mountings of Mäkinen's Escort would have been fine for a steel engine but the threads in the aluminium block were not strong enough to cope. The bolts loosened and eventually stripped the female threads. With typical ingenuity, mechanics Gordon Spooner (Borcham) and Raimo Haarta (Helsinki) set about cutting blocks of wood and hammering them into place all around the engine block to hold it in place, wrapping each block in a rubber sheet. The primitative bushmanship worked and Mäkinen was able to drive at undiminished speed, as far as his reduced power would allow, to finish second.

Hannu Mikkola is normally associated with Ford and has brought that Company considerable success, but in Finland he has a contract with the local Volvo importers and on the Thousand Lakes he drove a prototype 142. But like the Escort it's engine hadn't been developed to its peak and its engine oil overheated so badly that he was obliged to stop frequently to allow the fluid to regain its lubricating properties. He eventually retired when the prop shaft broke.

Although Blomqvist was the quickest man in the event, credit for the most tactful drive must go to Simo Lampinen. Whilst others were fluctuating, he remained consistent and when Blomqvist's Saab blew up and Mäkinen's Escort couldn't find its proper power output, the Finn who drives Lancias outside Finland emerged the winner by a minute from Mäkinen.

For some years the Thousand Lakes has deserved a status far higher than a mere inclusion in the European Drivers' Championship which is regarded as rather chaotic by most rally people. At last it seems like getting that status, for there were two CSI observers in Finland who were considerably impressed by the toughness of the rally and the smooth efficiency displayed by its organisers. There were no outbursts of last-minute panic which one frequently sees on other events and there must have been very few people indeed, if any, who did not feel that next year the rally should figure in the World Championship — G. P.