1986 Monte Carlo Rally: How Henri Toivonen won with a Lancia 'shaped like a banana'

Rally News

35 years ago this weekend, Henri Toivonen put in one of the great WRC comeback drives at Monte Carlo to claim his final victory - and did it in a Lancia Delta S4 that wouldn't even drive straight...

MOTORSPORT - WRC 1986 - RALLYE MONTE CARLO - PHOTO: DPPI HENRI TOIVONEN (FIN) / SERGIO CRESTO - LANCIA DELTA S4 - ACTION

Toivonen set an otherworldly pace in his Lancia Delta S4

DPPI

By Stage 13 of the 1986 Monte Carlo Rally, a win that had at one point appeared in the bag for Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto was now in as many pieces as their Lancia Delta S4, which were being piled up on the side of the road.

Grainy YouTube footage shows helpful spectators collecting bits of what was then the world’s fastest rally car. The Group B monster had collided with a passing road car, which predictably didn’t fare much better.

Things went from bad to worse when Toivonen ran out of time to change tyres in between stages, resulting in the Finn seemingly losing his lead for good to rival Timo Salonen…

What followed, 35 years ago this weekend, was perhaps one of the World Rally Championship’s greatest drives, certainly one of its most visceral in an era already bursting with speed, power and machismo, not to mention high risk and reward. It was Toivonen, Lancia and Group B rallying distilled down to their pure essence – for the very final time in the hills around Monte Carlo.

“I think he was the best interpreter of Group B, because he was using nearly 100 per cent of the performance that the car could give,” legendary Lancia Sporting Director Cesare Fiorio said, in conversation with Motor Sport.

“All the other drivers – including the very good ones – were not using 100 per cent like he was using. They were using only just a little bit less, but enough to put him in front of everybody.”

MOTORSPORT - WRC 1986 - RALLYE MONTE CARLO - PHOTO: DPPI HENRI TOIVONEN (FIN) / SERGIO CRESTO - LANCIA DELTA S4 - ACTION

Toivonen and S4 were immediately at one

DPPI

Fiorio had known Henri since he was a child. The Toivonens and Lancia had long been a family affair.

“His father [Pauli] was driving for Lancia, when Henri was very young, 10 or 12 years old,” remembers Fiorio. “[His father] was one of the first Finnish drivers that came into the south of Europe. And he was also very good!

“We followed Henri’s debut and his development from very close, because we had a good relationship with his family and his father. We could see that he was performing very well.”

From the archive

The Italian team boss had watched Henri mature into a world class driver and blossom into the WRC’s hottest prospect. Come 1985, Fiorio decided the time was right to bring him into the Lancia fold.

“When he arrived, he changed everything in a better way – he really was fantastic.”

The younger Toivonen had taken a breakthrough win at the 1980 RAC Rally, but then had to wait almost exactly five years for his next.

The results with Lancia immediately started to come when Toivonen joined the Turin team for a part-time debut season, limited due to the fact that the Finn broke three vertebrae in his neck due to a crash early on in the year. A sixth in Monte Carlo, fourth in Finland and third in San Remo, all at the wheel of a two-wheel-drive Lancia 037, showed a promising upward trend though.

Then came the Lancia Delta S4.

The Italian squad had finished the 1985 championship a distant third to Peugeot and Audi, who fielded 205 T16 E2s and Audi Sport Quattro S1s respectively, each 4WD.

Lancia spent the season developing its first 4WD car, and the resultantly rapid Delta S4 was a match made in heaven with Toivonen. The young Finn also had single-seater racing aspirations at one point, and some of the race track-tested technical features of the astounding S4 meant that car and driver suited each other down to the ground.

“We were doing track racing with the Beta Monte Carlo, LC1 and LC2,” remembers Fiorio. “Circuit racing was giving a lot of better ideas to the technicians that were preparing rally cars. The experience gathered from the track helps you sophisticate a lot of things like fuel consumption, brakes, etc. I think also the drivers [like Toivonen] could use the performance needed on the track, and bring it into rallying.”

07 Toivonen Henri (fin), Cresto Sergio (usa), Lancia Martini, Lancia Delta S4, ambiance during the 1986 Rallye Automobile de Monte-Carlo 1986, 1st round of the 1986 World Rally Championship, from January 18 to 24, 1986 between Aix -les-Bains and Monaco - Photo DPPI

Toivonen takes a break as mechanics get to work on his “deranged” S4

DPPI

Lancia had put as much resource as possible into this car. The budget of their rally and race team was rumoured to be 10billion lire a year by 1986.

This carried-over technology from Lancia’s sportscar prototypes efforts helped accelerate the S4’s development – literally: 550bhp channeled through 4WD certainly gave it some shift.

“The level to which we had developed the S4 was something absolutely incredible. It took 2.8 seconds to go from zero to 100 kilometers an hour, which was the performance of an F1 car,” says Fiorio. “Toivonen was the only driver that could use all the potential of this car.”

He proved this point by winning in it first time out at the RAC Rally, the closing round of the 1985 WRC. The victory was emphatic, Toivonen coming home almost a minute ahead of team-mate Markku Alén. Next closest was Tony Pond in the MG Metro, two and a half minutes down the road.

The 1986 WRC was looking promising for Lancia.

As Fiorio puts it: “We knew we had a very good weapon to compete.”

Monte Carlo was as per the opening round of the season. Toivonen had finished each of his previous Montes, but never higher than 5th, achieved behind the wheel a Talbot Sunbeam five years previous.

Slightly more expansive than its modern-day iteration, the 1986 Monte Carlo Rally was a fearsome, 36-stage, six-day beast of an event. 900km of competitive stages were linked by 3000km of road sections. Vertigo-inducing mountain roads linked by dizzying hairpins would feature dry tarmac one moment then ice and snow the next.

There was also the small matter of the competition. Audi was fielding 1983 title-winner Hannu Mikkola and two-time champ Walter Röhrl, while Peugeot had reigning World Champion Timo Salonen, Juha Kankkunen and Michelle Mouton. Toivonen also had Markku Alén plus up-and-coming Mikki Biason for company at Lancia. There were also works efforts from Citroen, Mazda and Austin Rover.

Not that any of this seemed to bother Toivonen.

Stablemate Biasion took the lead on the rally’s brief opening gambit, the 2.6km Aillon le Jeune stage, but from then on the Finn asserted his superiority. He would maintain his lead for the next twenty stages, setting a Pirelli-blistering pace.

From the archive

BBC Grandstand coverage of that year’s event (with Murray Walker commentating, naturally) shows numerous Group B competitors taking fairly sensible lines into one particular corner on SS1.

Then comes Toivonen, the Finn announcing himself by half-taking out a snowbank with his S4’s rear end as he appears to enter a right hander at an almost 90 degree angle, seemingly 20mph faster than anyone else.

In analysing such speed, Toivonen’s brother Harri backed up Fiorio’s opinion on Toivonen’s confidence and ‘at-oneness’ with the S4, in an interview for WRC.com.

“I spoke with Markku Alén and Miki Biasion, they said that Henri was the only person that could extract everything from the S4,” said Harri.

“I love to say he was the best. But he was also the bravest.”

So Toivonen was proving in his supercharged and turbocharged S4, pulling out an advantage of 1min 40sec over Audi’s Röhrl – until it all came to a sudden halt on the public roads between SS12 and 13.

As the Finn made his way from one stage to the next, a spectator’s car lost control and smashed head on into the Lancia. The damage was not insignificant, the S4 losing a wheel and having a badly bent chassis, as well as considerable amount of destroyed bodywork. Lancia mechanics feverishly managed to do just enough, including holding the front end together with octopus ties, so that the Finn could hobble off to the next time control.

“We didn’t have time to fix it completely,” remembers Fiorio. “We only had a few minutes at every service park – 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there. The car was still working and he was able to continue, but the S4 was not able to give the maximum performance.

“At every service park, we were repairing little by little.”

Described by Walker as “severely deranged”, the S4’s chassis was so badly twisted that its left-hand side wheelbase was shorter than the other.

The firebrand Finn detailed it in his own inimitable fashion: “It’s not easy to drive at all. We are coming in like on gravel roads: all right corners sideways, left corners with understeer. It’s hard running. I don’t think everyone has a banana car!”

Toivonen may have got his left and right mixed up in his comments to BBC Grandstand – he even motions to the left-hand side of the car to indicate the problem.

“It took us at least four or five service places to fix it completely,” says Fiorio. “At that point, he was in front of everybody. But after all these services, and the slow car he was using, he had lost a lot of time.”

Crucially though, Toivonen had still somehow managed to utilise all his off-road acumen to stay ahead.

What helped was tyre choice. With the aforementioned changeable conditions, choosing the right tyres at the right time couldn’t have been more crucial – and Lancia knew all the tricks.

The Turin squad would ship in its own helicopters via a chartered Boeing 747, which were then employed to fly out Toivonen and others into stages ahead to inspect evolving road surfaces during the rally.

This was in addition to having ‘ice-crews’, using local drivers and experts who would make pace notes specialised for these conditions. Keeping things in the family, Henri employed faithful brother Harri to do his.

Throw in the fact that works rally outfits often conducted mid-stage tyre changes too, and you had a Lancia team that knew just when to change from studs to slicks. In Motor Sport’s report of that rally, Gerry Phillips quotes Toivonen estimating that he made only two incorrect tyre choices throughout the entire 36-stage event.

07 Toivonen Henri (fin), Cresto Sergio (usa), Lancia Martini, Lancia Delta S4, celebrating their win during the 1986 Rallye Automobile de Monte-Carlo 1986, 1st round of the 1986 World Rally Championship, from January 18 to 24, 1986 between Aix-les-Bains and Monaco - Photo DPPI

Cresto and Toivonen celebrate the hard-earned win

DPPI

It did all start to go a bit awry on SS22 though – Fiorio recalls that having to make continuous repairs coming back to bite Lancia:

“A tyre change would take 40-50sec. He arrived late and we had to repair his car, which gave us no time to change the tyres,” says the Italian. “He said, ‘Let me go, I want to do the stage with these tyres’, which were not the ones that were the best for that stage. He didn’t get any penalty at the Time Control, but it was not a winning performance on the stage.”

What ultimately resulted from using studded tyres on dry tarmac was a puncture, allowing Peugeot’s Timo Salonen, who was gradually making hay up the rankings in his usual relaxed manner, to overhaul Toivonen. His laidback compatriot had managed to turn a 1min 47sec deficit into a 22sec lead.

From the archive

Salonen enjoyed the lead for five stages, but come the closing leg of the rally, held at night, Toivonen was ready, having mastered the nuances of a car which Lancia were still repairing stage by stage.

50,000 rabid rally fans lined the famous Col de Turini pass to see the climax of a thrilling rally – a demonstration of all that was sublime, beautiful and terrifying in Group B rallying. As it turned out, Toivonen mauled his fellow Finn.

Neck and neck for the first two stages, a poor tyre choice on SS30 left Salonen 48sec adrift. Combined with Toivonen’s searing pace, there was nothing Peugeot’s man could do.

“He really made the last night of Monte Carlo at the maximum speed,” says Fiorio, “And to get back into first was incredible, if we think how much time is lost because of this accident.”

Toivonen was ruthless, emerging from the final stage to win the 1986 Monte Carlo Rally with an advantage of over 4 minutes. There was no doubt who was the fastest man in rallying.

The Finn’s father, Pauli, wasn’t just proud of his son’s win, he was also relieved. Pauli had reluctantly taken the Monte Carlo win himself twenty years earlier when the four cars ahead of him were dubiously disqualified for a headlight infringement. As the elder T put it, “the name of Toivonen had finally been cleared”.

The rest of ‘86 WRC season promised much for Lancia and its Flying Finn.

“The performance Henri did was absolutely fantastic. Therefore, we thought that he could become World Champion,” says Fiorio. “And also Lancia could become again World Champion, as [had] happened many times already.”

Sadly, it would not be with Toivonen who, as is well documented, lost his life at the age of 29 in a fiery crash suffered whilst hustling the S4 Delta round Corsica at the San Remo Rally later that year.

What position was he in at the time? First, of course – by 3 minutes.