How Toivonen made his mark


“Sensational on the flat and incredible uphill, he was in another league going downhill.

“I remember it as clear as daylight: Hafren, 23.5 miles. We were quickest – 36 seconds faster than our Team Total Gold team-mate Malcolm Wilson.

“I didn’t know it at the time but Hannu Mikkola had been coaching him. Apparently, when he saw that time he said, ‘No more coaching! Henri’s on his own from now on.’”

Philip Boland has seen all sides of motorsport since 1968. He’s rallied – from both seats – and raced, and prepared and run racing and rally cars. Currently he’s technical co-ordinator for MSVR’s national GT Cup Championship.

But Henri Toivonen in a Group 4 Ford Escort took the biscuit.

Boland was working for Peter Clarke’s Skipton-based rally team, overseeing an Escort for Jean-Pierre Nicolas on the 1978 RAC Rally, when he spotted a gauche young man working wonders in a Group 2 Talbot Sunbeam.

“I was in the management car with Peter when I told him about this lad doing the event without a proper service car; just a few mates in a Jeep with some tools and a couple of spare wheels.

“Then we met Henri himself in a service area in Wales. He had a problem – with the back brakes, I think – and I said that we would help him after we’d serviced our car.

“Tony Fall was also sniffing around and I remember him looking under the bonnet of this Talbot and shouting, ‘Bloody hell, it’s a only pushrod!’ It was a ‘Brazilian block’ 2-litre and Henri drove its wheels off.”

And finished an incredible ninth overall.

“We kept in touch and I said that we would be interested in talking to him for the following year.

“When we brought Henri to the UK in 1979, my wife Annette thought he looked lost and so we took him in – we were living in a detached house between Shipton and Ilkley – rather than let him stew in a Travelodge.

“He was a complex character. A fun guy, he was well educated – he spoke good English – and very sporting; he loved going to Fred Trueman’s sports shop in Skipton.

“But he could become very stressed, wound up like a guitar string by his father, Pauli.

“I shared hotel rooms with Henri and he ground his teeth like a horse when he was asleep; it woke me up. And he’d have violent headaches when he woke.

“Eventually, Peter banned Pauli from the rallies.

“That helped. But Peter did a silly thing, too: pairing Henri with Bryan Harris. A very experienced and extremely competent co-driver, Brian wasn’t an arm-around-the-shoulder type. And it was Henri’s first professional drive and everything was new to him.

“There was a kerfuffle on the Scottish Rally when they were excluded for pushing the car – there was a problem with its starter motor – across a stage start before its designated time. Ford blew up over it and Jenny Evans, PR manager for Total, asked if I would co-drive Henri on the Ulster and RAC rallies.”

A tree ‘intervened’ early in Ulster.

And a head gasket blew on the Castrol Rally, a mid-Wales event that the big names used as practice for the RAC.

Boland: “We were out of the rally, but I told Henri that we had a New Zealand mechanic at service who could change a head gasket on a BDA really quickly and then we could tackle the afternoon stages.”

The first of them was Hafren, 23.5 miles.

“We approached the first hairpin with him still hard on the throttle at the 50-yard board and I grabbed the bottom of my seat. Left-foot braking in a rear-wheel-drive car was new to me; his feet were like a ballet dancer’s across the pedals. He flung the car one way and then the other, dragged all the speed off, changed from fifth to second gear and… unbelievable.

Click here to vote for Toivonen to join Colin McRae in the Hall of Fame

“I thought to myself, ‘I’d better get my sleeves rolled up otherwise this is going to end in a mess.’

“He knew no fear. It was frightening because you thought that he couldn’t possibly get every corner exactly right.

“But he did.”

With a stonking, Brian Hart-developed 260bhp BDA fitted – ‘We can really go to war in this thing!’ – Toivonen, seeded at 20, was gunning for victory on the RAC.

Boland insists that they were fastest through SS6 Bramham Park – “‘Pondy’ knew we’d been quicker than him” – before trouble struck on the second forest stage.

Boland: “Regulations insisted on a cable-operated handbrake, even though we all used hydraulic handbrakes on those Escorts. Ours didn’t get taken off after scrutineering. A mistake.

“Over a massive jump in Langdale the rear suspension went into full droop and pulled the handbrake on; it was adjusted too tightly. As soon as we landed, the car turned through 180 degrees, in fifth gear, in the dark. There was lots of crashing and bashing but, fortunately, no rolling as we slid backwards for 300 metres before shooting up a firebreak.”

Bumped back onto the road by spectators, and their suspected seized back axle replaced – and its handbrake cables left off – at service, they reached the Carlisle rest halt just 59 seconds inside the maximum permitted penalty-free lateness.

Only for the gearbox to break in Grizedale in the Lake District: “All the mainshaft’s nuts were loose and the gears shook themselves off.”

The disappointment, however, was leavened by the promise of a glittering future together.

“I was the perpetrator of Henri’s defection to Talbot,” says Boland.” I knew that the Total deal was coming to an end, and I arranged everything bar Henri’s financial side, which was a private matter.

“We came as a package. I had a salary arranged and a company car. But when I rang him in Finland to ask about the Monte Carlo recce – time was running short – he said that he didn’t know what was going on.

They would never rally together again.

“Despite this, we remained friends and I remember asking Henri about his Lancia before the start of the 1985 RAC. He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘It’s so fast that somebody is going to get hurt in one of these things.’

“I watched him accelerate off the line and could have sworn that that thing popped a wheelie.

“In 1991, I was running a Sierra Cosworth at Silverstone in a support race for the World Sportscar Championship. Henri’s brother Harri was driving a Porsche 962 for the Kremer team and I wandered behind the pits to take a look.

“There, at the front of Kremer garage, was Pauli. When he spotted me he burst into tears. It brought it all back.”

Click here to vote for Toivonen to join Colin McRae in the Hall of Fame

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