The right track?
HENRI TOIVONEN CHARMING, FUN, AND SOARING star of the rally world. Youngest-ever winner of the RAC, unafraid of the brutal Delta S4, he was a future world champion until Lancia’s outlandish Gp B pacesetter claimed his life, and his co-driver’s, in 1986. The loss of this popular, personable man scrapped Gp B overnight. Henri would not have mourned it. For that wasn’t where he had wanted to be. Yes, he wanted to be a world champion but in Formula One.
Forest gravel got under his skin early. His father Pauli won the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally and was the European champion the following year He would take the young Henri on his month-long recces for the 1000 Lakes rally, an iconic event fora Finn, and his lad’s daydreams soon hinged on being a rally hero. He even told the school careers master he was going to be a rally driver.
But by the age of 12, he had been deflected to Fl. He had started karting by 14, and as soon as he’d obtained his driving licence, he went ice-racing in a Simca, becoming Finnish champion.
Though he drove the Simca in the 1975 1000 Lakes, the boyhood dream didn’t stop him switching to Formula Vee. This was where he was really at home. He became Finnish FVee champion in 77 and was offered a drive by a German SuperVee team. By this time, he had a powerful supporter in Keke Rosberg. It was Henri’s career crossroads.
Needing money to continue racing, he went to his father. But he had queered his own pitch by taking a Chrysler Avenger to a remarkable fifth in the 1000 Lakes of 1977. His talent was too obvious. And Pauli had reservations.
Harri, Henri’s rallying/racing brother, recalls the choice: “Keke wanted to take him all the way to Fl, but my father said it was too dangerous. He was MD of a big company in Finland that imported Chryslers, and they had their own rally team, so everything was paid for.”
Henri refused the SuperVee deal and became part of the Finnish Talbot rally team. Interviewed in Motoring News in 1982, he said, “I never liked it so muchi just did one rally every month or so to please my father.” One of those clinched his new career. Given a Gp 2 Talbot Sunbeam for the 1978 RAC, Henri brought it home ninth, and promptly landed an Escort drive. Suddenly he was a professional rally
man. The staircase of success took him via 2WD Talbots, Opels and Porsches to Lancia’s star pilot, while his exuberant style (cause of many a smash in the early days) made him spectacular to watch.
But his circuit leanings would not go away. Harri again: “Rallying was his profession, but he always had racing in the back of his mind. He was always pushing me to try racing, always talking about Fl. I’m sure he wanted to be there.”
And in 1982, thanks to his Rothmans sponsorship, he had a run in a March Fl car. He was quick, and he was hooked. He wanted back on the track. Mike Greasley, who interviewed him, calls him a unique character: “He was feisty… for a Finn. He specifically wanted to be involved in Formula Three for the competitiveness of it.” Tony Fall ran the Rothmans Opel team in 1982: “I always encouraged my rally drivers to go racing if they wanted to. It’s good for them tidies up their lines, makes them neater. And frankly there wasn’t enough for the drivers to do. Henri was only contracted for five or six events, so we didn’t m+
mind them doing other things.”
Toivonen soon found an eager racing patron in Eddie Jordan, even then quick to spot talent, who fielded a Ralt RT3-Toyota for him in the last race of the British championship.
To refresh his track skills, Toivonen entered a Formula Libre race at Silverstone the day before. Not surprisingly, he put the light F3 car on pole, but come the start he was immediately left behind by a silhouette Lotus Esprit. Instead, Toivonen had a tough dice with Will Hoy in a Clubmans Mallock for several laps before opening up a space and going after the Lotus. Its driver, Tony Sugden, recalls: “Before the race, Toivonen and Hoy were arguing about which of them was going to win. They did not reckon with the power of a Cosworth turbo. Going into the hairpin, I’d be braking and Henri would pass me still on the throttle, but I’d get him back coming out again.” Lap by lap the Lotus pushed ahead, until a water hose came off, and Henri swept past to victory.
Hoy reckons Henri was something special: “I’ve driven with several rally drivers, but he was different. They’re usually quickest on the first lap, but he built his speed up on each lap. He had a raw edge which compromised his exit speeds, but he was consistent, too.”
That win must have fired Henri up for the next day at Thruxton. This was the championship final, and while the big news was whether Tommy Byrne would grab the title from Argentinian Enrique Mansilla, Toivonen’s F3 debut rated almost equal headline space.
On his first outing on the fast Hampshire track, he found himself sliding around in the Rah’s cockpit, making it a struggle to set a decent time. By the second session, the Jordan mechanics had managed to wedge him with foam, and things improved. He ended up ninth on the grid. For almost the entire 15 laps, he duelled with
Tony Trevor in a similar Ralt. His determination to pass was spectacular, despite his unsuitable rallystyle helmet misting up. Which, said AN, “explained the occasional odd apex.”
But he wouldn’t give up; while Martin Brundle went from pole to chequered flag at the head of the field, Toivonen was all over Trevor’s gearbox. Though they were only dicing for ninth, Toivonen launched a big attack on the last corner, scraping past but running wide on the exit. Slithering across the grass, he refused to lift off and bounced back onto the track with foot flat, tailing Trevor by only four-tenths.
Impressed, Jordan readied a car for Henri for the last, non-championship, F3 race, again at Thruxton. This time Henri was the experienced one. Teammates David Hunt and Mark Peters were making their F3 debuts, and he outqualified them substantially to start fifth. “At the last race I was lost,” he said, “but now we’ve done more testing I feel happy.”
Hunt remembers him with fondness: “He was flamboyant, engaging, a nice personality. We’d have become friends, I’m sure of that He was a complete natural. Even with no time to limber up in the F3 car, he was on it straight away. Clearly an outstanding talent.”
Peters agrees: “Really, for a top rally driver he was coming down a level to F3, but he fitted right in. And he was annoyingly fast.”
From the start, Toivonen was on it, dicing aggressively with Davy Jones in a tight group all squabbling for second. By outbraking Jones, he collared fourth, and that was how they finished. Toivonen had set the third-fastest lap and would have been the talk of the paddock if the race had not been utterly dominated by a Brazilian rookie called Ayrton Senna…
Afterwards, Henri confirmed he wanted more F3, “but only after my rally commitments are settled”. Through 1983, however, Opel’s new Gp B Manta 400 provided him with a more intense year, and his F3 programme never happened.
He still hadn’t relinquished his track ambitions, however. During 1983, he signed with Richard Lloyd Racing to drive its Porsche 956 in the European Endurance Championship. He practised the car at Imola without racing, but in the following round at Mugello, he got his chance. Sharing with Jonathan Palmer and Derek Bell, he finished third in this sixhour event.
“He did a good job; not outstanding, but good,” says Bell. “But if he had gone as well as us, I’d have said we weren’t doing our job well enough! It’s like me when I did the RAC Rally: I found myself outmatched, as I knew I would be. But Henri was a super guy; I loved the way he approached things no conceit or temperament.”
This was Toivonen’s last race. In the next two seasons, his Lancia commitments were total, right up to that final, fatal stage on Corsica.
Was Formula One a realistic goal? Keke Rosberg thought so. And so did Eddie Jordan.
Says Ham: “After Henri died, EJ said that he had had many good drivers in his team, but that the most talented was Henri Toivonen. “I drove an Fl car for the first time on May 2 this year, the anniversary of Henri’s death. I thought a lot about him that day because Fl was his dream.” m