Magnificent men, flying machines

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When the world’s best rally driver knows the sport’s most challenging roads like the back of his hand, a white-knuckle ride is guaranteed. co-driver John Davenport had to get a grip

We had an inkling. But, in reality, little did we know. And innocence was, on this occasion, most definitely bliss. The 1970 1000 Lakes Rally was the first time I attempted the event as a co-driver. A couple of Brits had practised their pace note skills in Finland before then but, alongside British drivers, they had merely scratched the surface. For Henry Liddon and I, this would be anew, potentially terrifying experience. He was to partner Timo Makinen in a Ford Escort Twin Cam, I was alongside Simo Larnpinen in a Lancia Fulvia HE

In my role as rally reporter for Motor Sport I had glibly referred to the 1000 Lakes of 1965 as being a ‘rather parochial event’ attended largely by Scandinavian drivers. I had the wit to note the special stages resembled ‘the switchbacks of Battersea Fun Fair’, but had no real experience of what they were like when in flying mode. I was about to find out.

‘Chosen weapons for the duel were a brace of Escort RS1600s’

After a titanic struggle, our cars finished just four seconds apart, the Escort in second place, the Lancia third. Ahead of both, three minutes ahead, was another Escort TC. Driven by Hannu Mikkola.

If you can’t beat them. Four years later I was alongside Mikkola on the same event and our big rivals were Ford team-mates, Makinen and Liddon. The chosen weapons for the duel were a brace of works Escort RS1600s kitted out with the all-new 15-inch wheels and the latest in Dunlop tyre technology. Timo had by now won the 1000 Lakes four times to Hannu’s three. So there was not only the question of who was the quickest Ford driver to be settled, but also which of them was the best Finnish driver and, for all I know, any number of other bones of contention. What I did know was that Henry and I were about to be involved in a needle match of unrivalled intensity.

This first showed up during the reconnaissance period, which Hannu took much more seriously than hitherto. It was normal in those days for drivers to spend most of the summer whistling up and down the stages committing them to memory and honing their pace notes to a state of near perfection. A major inhibition to this was the 60kph (37mph) speed limit imposed on special stages from the moment the route was announced. Dedicated marshals would roam, mainly at night, clutching their radar guns, determined to foil proper practice.

Proper practice was much needed; the nature of the roads meant it was very dodgy to guess how far a car might fly through the air at 170kph when you were trundling along 110kph off the pace. And if you didn’t know how far it would fly, you couldn’t estimate where it was going to land. Tricky.

To solve this problem, a typical Finnish driver would arrive during the hours of darkness and have a run through at legal speeds. Detecting no guntoting denizens of the forest, he would return briskly to the start for a full-blooded attempt At least this is what we did; I assume everyone else did the same judging by some of the tyre marks we found.

One night — and these are short at that latitude in midsummer — we met up with Markku Saaristo’s Skoda 120S at a stage start. His Helsinki apartment was in the same block as Hannu’s and he was keen to have a ride in a works Escort As we had just swept the stage for radar, I was happy enough to swap my seat for some rest alongside Marldm’s co-driver, Timo Alanen, in the stationary Skoda. The Escort roared off and it was a very long time before we saw its lights heading back towards us. As he alighted from the Escort, Saaristo fell to his knees and gasped: “I don’t know what they pay you, but it cannot be enough.” It wasn’t.

Apparently Hannu had tried one right-hand bend in fifth gear where we had previously been in fourth. We had only discussed the possible use of fifth — and it was now clear that fourth gear was correct. Saaristo had been taken on a wild outing through the remains of a cornfield, several ditches and part of a nascent forest before the Escort had regained the road. With this attention to detail on the recce it was clear this rally would be interesting in extremis.

Hannu had an excellent memory for roads. On the 1973 Safari Rally, again in an Escort, we were catching Björn Waldegård’s Porsche heading north through Tanzania. It was clear the dust and the equal performance of the cars was going to make overtaking tricky. Without any warning Hannu announced: “We will take the short cut up ahead.”

What short cut? We hadn’t practised any short cut. I continued to read the pace notes until we ducked up an overgrown forest trail. Tree fronds and lianas smacked the doors and windscreen until, two minutes later, we emerged like a champagne cork across the bows of Bjiiim’s Porsche. He had remembered that track from a previous year. He who dares, wins — and ffies, high and far.

When that 1000 Lakes started, Henry and! were left in no doubt that our drivers were trying 100 percent. Timo took an early lead, which I ascribe to two factors. The first was that Hannu had played in a football match on the day of scrutineering. Being somewhat plumper back then than the healthy chap we have known since his Audi days, his exertions had left him slightly tired, even though he’d played in goal! To compound matters our car’s brakes played up from the first stage and we suffered a soft pedal throughout the event. So I was not surprised to be behind our senior Ford partner.

On the third stage we had the first of many minor excursions and bent the steering arm, losing eight seconds to Makinen in the process. We also ran down a ditch at one point, obliterating someone’s mailbox and a bush before regaining the road.

On the fifth stage, the classic Ouninpohja, Timo took another eight seconds off us. After that Hannu had a not-so-quiet word with the Ford mechanics on the subject of brake hydraulics. Immediately we started to set some fastest times and, as night fell, began to get a grip on the event. Then Hannu’s memory power was demonstrated to me once again.

I knew that he was familiar with most of the roads, especially the one which went past his father’s summer house!

Hannu must have driven it hundreds of times over the years, but! did rather think that my reading of the pace notes was a prime mover in our success. On one short stage, however, I did the unforgivable, momentarily losing my place in the notes when jarred by a heavy landing. It is quite easy to do, only requiring both thumbs to be displaced on the page by an equal amount. So I was hesitant as I read the next bend. “No, it’s a fast K right,” came the unruffled response over the intercom. Speed undiminished, our progress must have appeared seamless from the outside. After the stage, we talked about the moment during which I accused Hannu of knowing everything by heart. He replied: “Of course I know the roads. But I like to hear you telling me that I am right.”

With a 24-second lead at the Saturday restart, we promptly broke the gearshift mechanism on a hairpin, losing nearly all our advantage before it was fixed. But one of the next stages would prove another classic, the 11 miles of Myhinpad. At the start some chap, not an official, came over and was speaking in Finnish to Hannu. I asked if it was anything important. “He says there is a big puddle 2.3 kilometres after the junction in the middle of the stage,” said Hannu. Full marks for geographical accuracy, a big fat zero for comprehension of the English word ‘puddle’. We crested a flat-out brow on a road 12 yards wide, doing everything an Escort RS could do in top, and plunged into the dip, in the bottom of which lay the ‘puddle’, many yards long and goodness knows how deep. The 1001st lake?

I am sure we never touched the bottom as we aquaplaned along on the sump-guard. Whatever the Ford boys had used to waterproof the engine, it must have been good. Bloody good. The engine never missed a beat, though the same cannot be said for the hearts of the crew. We carried on as if nothing had happened (a useful thing, rallying denial) but the stage had a further twist in its tail.

Towards its end there was a sequence of crests where the car would fly, land, take off and land again in quick succession. The last of these saw us land with two wheels (my side, of course) in a ditch. The impact was so heavy, the recline mechanism on my seat broke. My view of the road was instantly replaced by a sweeping vista of Escort roof lining but I carried on reading the pace notes until we crossed the finish line. Hannu was really concerned about my predicament. “Make sure you alter that note to ‘keep-left-at-crest’ for next year,” he said helpfully.

I had just succeeded in wedging the seat upright when limo’s car stopped alongside. At first I thought he was alone. Then I realised Henry’s seat had suffered a similar failure. His frame had punctured the floor and was rubbing against the propshaft! “Just before the end, on that second brow,” said Henry matter of factly. “And did your man lift for the water?” he continued. Of course he hadn’t, but somehow Timo had taken four seconds from us.

To a normal man, trying so hard and finding your rival just a little bit quicker could easily be dispiriting. But not for drivers like these, and particularly not Hannu, whose determination and resolve I had thus far encountered only in moderation. The approaching stages were longer and faster, the meat of the rally. The first of them was the longest of the rally at just under 25 miles, and we were first on the road, Makinen second. IfTimo went five percent quicker than us over this stage he would catch us before its end. Hannu informed me that this was not an option. He lit off as if the GNP of Finland was riding on the result of this one stage.

‘He would occasionally brush trees in order to stay flat in fifth’

The old 1000 Lakes, with 36 stages of undulating, forest-enclosed gravel roads, required drivers to visualise the next variation in direction and altitude, where this required the car to be placed and at what speed, all to ensure a happy landing. An easy oversteerer like the Escort did not require much left-foot braking, but did demand at least some power on at all times to give it balance and stability during takeoff. A high wire act with no safety net, just tees.

We were more reliant on the notes than on memory over these faster roads, and he utilised a simple method for stepping up the pace — probably developed during his night run with Saaristo. If I said “fast right” it was slight; WI said “slight right” it was flat. Commitment, it’s called.

Fortunately, conditions were perfect Being first car normally means you slide around on pebbles left by normal traffic, but the organisers must have used at least half a dozen course cars driven at rally speed because the stage was amazingly clear of marbles. It was only towards the end, where we dived onto a narrower, more dusty forest road, that the hackles on the back of my neck started to lift my crash helmet We had been a little conservative with the notes through this part of the stage — having the trees so close makes one react that way when practising — but those same trees and bushes were now treated as driver aids. Hannu would occasionally brush them with the flared rear wheel-arches in order to stay flat in fifth through sections where there would certainly have been a lift on a less important day. It was an awesome performance.

Our time over that stage — 19 seconds quicker than Mäkinen — and the subsequent four stages re-established our lead at just under a minute. The rest of the rally was all about matching limo’s times rather than beating them. And this we did. This drive established Hannu as the top rally man of the ’70s. He had won before, but seldom in such style and under such pressure. The new benchmark had landed. And taken off. And landed again.

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