It had been a learning year for Henri Toivonen. Another one.
His abundant promise had been there for all to see since his fifth place on the 1977 Rally of the 1000 Lakes in a Chrysler Avenger.
But only in 1979 had he somewhat grudgingly given up – for the time being – his single-seater racing dream to concentrate on rallying.
Ninth on the 1978 RAC Rally – seeded 44 in a Chrysler Sunbeam that munched through several gearboxes – persuaded Skipton-based team boss Peter Clarke to offer the young Finn – no wage but free board-and-lodging! – a Ford Escort for the 1979 British Open series.
Toivonen finished third on the Mintex Rally – having driven the Group 4 RS1800 for just 10 miles beforehand – and look set to star, only for the campaign to fade to frustration, as typified by the clutch trouble that curtailed his lead of the Scottish.
Ford’s works involvement was put on hold for 1980 while it readied the Escort’s replacement – an impossible task, as it turned out – and unquestionably Toivonen had not done enough to usurp either Hannu Mikkola or Ari Vatanen in David Sutton’s factory-backed Escorts in the UK and on the world stage.
Opportunity lay elsewhere, however.
Fourth in Wales and fifth in Portugal, Toivonen was beginning to see the bigger picture and not just the next bend.
Chrysler Europe was now in the hands of PSA Peugeot Citroën under the revived Talbot brand. Its maverick competitions manager Des O’Dell, a Rootes man to his roots, had used this as a ‘smokescreen’ to create a potent new rally car almost entirely off his own bat – and reportedly at some personal financial cost – by slotting Lotus’s ‘907’ slant-four – “Look at what we found under a bench!” – into the three-door Sunbeam lukewarm hatch and mating it to a ZF gearbox.
Having wowed one of the company bigwigs with an energetic demo in a Lotus-engined Avenger, O’Dell’s long-held ambition to topple the Escort was given the green light.
His team remained small and underfunded even so and thus he took a punt on Toivonen. The 23-year-old was to undertake campaigns in Finland and the UK, as well as tackle selected world championship rounds.
Things again began well – Toivonen’s victory in January’s Arctic Rally was the first international success for the Group 2 Talbot Sunbeam Lotus – but once more frustration descended as co-drivers came, went and returned.
Circuit-honed late braking and shallow lines made Toivonen fast but left little room for error, while the mental demands of a multi-day rally were very different from a 20-lap cut-and-thrust sprint.
Fourth place on the Welsh, co-driven by Bristolian Paul White, and a fifth in Portugal, obeying orders in deference to team-mate Guy Fréquelin, were important steps.
Toivonen was beginning to see the bigger picture and not just the next bend. He arrived at the 36th RAC Rally in a good frame of mind: confident in his burgeoning talent but doubtful of victory.
For despite newly crowned world champion Fiat’s late withdrawal, denying the rally both Walter Röhrl and Markku Alén, the entry was blessed by official representation from Ford, Toyota, Datsun, Opel, Saab, Vauxhall and British Leyland, as well as Talbot.
“We had looked at how strong the entry was and would have been happy with a top-three position,” says White. “We had got on well [on the Welsh] – we had the same interests – but it was still a bit of a surprise when I was asked to do the RAC with him. I was up to my eyeballs doing all the team’s service schedules and was knackered even before we started our own preparation.”
Mikkola, chasing a hat-trick, was most people’s favourite – despite being surrounded by more modern machinery – and so it came as a huge shock when he put his Escort on its side and lost almost three minutes on SS5 Blidworth.
He had gone further without incident on Sunday’s spectator stages than Vatanen even so, the new Open champion having lost two-and-a-half minutes because of an off on SS1 Longleat.
Swedes, therefore, were to the fore as the event plunged into the night and the forests of Notts, North Yorks and ‘Killer’ Kielder, with the Opel Ascona 400 of Anders Kulläng setting the pace ahead of the Björn Waldegård’s Toyota Celica GT – only his second event in the car – and Per Eklund’s TR7 V8.
Toivonen was the best of the Finns in fourth, having set his first fastest time on SS16 Wykeham. All was going to plan after an early scare.
“The ignition pack went just as we left the motorway in Nottinghamshire,” says White. “It wasn’t in the forests, as reported; I don’t think we had any problems in the forest. The car just cut out. We carried a spare and one of David Sutton’s chase cars stopped and helped Henri change it.”
Fastest times through SS28 Castle O’er, SS31 Redesdale 1 – where fourth became third when Eklund’s TR lunched its V8 – SS32 Redesdale 2, SS35 Chirdonhead and SS37 Wark 2 saw Toivonen arrive at the Windermere halt 1min 34sec behind Kulläng, who in turn was 13sec in front of Waldegård.
The event would turn on its head in the Lake District first thing the following morning.
“We thought, ‘Bloody hell, there’s Kullang!’” says White. “He was sat on his bonnet. There didn’t seem that much activity. He waved as we went past.
“Then, approaching the end of the stage we noticed clouds of blue smoke and, sure enough, there was Björn parked up just beyond the stage finish.
“‘Bloody hell, we’re in the lead!’”
Kulläng had suffered a puncture at the end of the first Grizedale stage and thus entered the second without a spare. Two more flats, rears both, cost him 17min.
Waldegard’s filter bowl had become unscrewed, dumping the oil and wrecking the engine.
“I think the next service was at Coniston,” says White. “We had a cup of tea, settled down and got on with the job.”
There were 31 stages remaining – and the hunter had become the prey.
White: “Henri had a lot of respect for Hannu, so I kept asking him ‘What would Hannu do in a situation like this?’ This got him thinking. But he was well into the swing of things by then and driving like a man possessed.
“No, possessed is the wrong word. It didn’t seem like he was driving flat out, everything was so perfect. His sheer ability was out of this world. It was the most striking talent I had seen.
“He was magical.”
Toivonen and White celebrating their victory
Don Morley/Getty Images
Mikkola had been testing Audi’s Quattro prior to the RAC and admitted to being tired and overworked, and was perhaps a little rusty in Escort terms.
And maybe his Dunlops weren’t as good as Toivonen’s Michelins in the conditions.
But he was quick to point out that “Henri was too fast.”
“I can’t really say if [the Michelins] were better,” says White. “I can remember that we had just two types of forest tyre: a soft one and a puncture-resistant one with stiffened sidewalls. We just wanted to keep it simple and had decided which we wanted for which stage before the rally. How times have changed.”
Though Mikkola chased hard down the length of Wales, and through a night of rain and fog, Toivonen generally increased his lead, a sequence of six fastest stage times widening the gap beyond four minutes.
He spun at an icy junction – but so, too, did Mikkola moments later.
“We did have one big moment,” says White. “I think it was in [SS65 of 70] Glasfynydd. Henri said, ‘I don’t think we’ll do that any more.’ He was very businesslike. A terrific character, once in the car and the door was shut, it was down to business. He matured a lot during the rally.
“You just had to admire Des O’Dell, too; he showed tremendous foresight. It was such a brilliant car: so simple, strong and reliable. And the team was very small. Amazing really.
“Driving up Great Pulteney Street [in Bath] – this was my home patch – with all the fanfare and standing on the bonnet with Henri at the finish are things I will never forget.”