They say that Finns know how to perform on home soil. And even the humblest of rally fans can tell you that when they don’t win Rally Finland, something is up.
Since 1960 the event has been won by a driver not from Finland only 12 times, with the ‘70s and ‘80s producing a remarkable period of dominance on the frighteningly fast gravel roads of Scandinavia.
When Swedish driver Mikael Ericsson and co-driver Claes Billstam bagged victory for the unfancied Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 as the big home favourites by and large fell by the wayside, it was a surprise. The 1989 season had been dominated by defending champion Miki Biasion, who held a 30-point lead over Lancia team-mate Didier Auriol following four wins to Auriol’s one.
Auriol’s charge on the 43-stage, 315.5-mile event barely got going after a suspension failure on the fourth stage, Aijälä.
The early lead was split between Markku Alén and Juha Kankkunen in his Toyota Celica GT4, as heavy rain lashed the forest stages throughout the opening day.
Kankkunen, who had yet to win on his home event (but later did it three times, in 1991, 1993 and 1999), was another to have his hopes dashed after his car caught fire on stage 20, just one stage after Alén’s Lancia was forced out with a blown head gasket.
The then double World Rally Champion Kankkunen had built a mammoth lead and before his demise, very few crews stood a chance of beating him.
Ari Vatanen inherited the lead but he too fell foul on the very same stage as Kankkunen, an engine failure sidelining the 1981 champion.
Three Finns out in two stages.
The beneficiary of this double Finnish misfortune was a young Carlos Sainz, who alongside long-term co-driver Luis Moya hit the front, albeit for two stages only.
Step up Ericsson. Fresh from victory in Argentina driving a works Lancia, while Biasion skipped the South American rally, Ericsson and Billstam no doubt had the speed and the experience on the 1000 Lakes but suffered their own troubles early on.
A brake problem would normally have dropped the pair out of victory contention on the opening day, but a clean run without mechanical drama or mistakes brought the pair onto the back of Sainz/Moya.
It wasn’t the ‘risk it all’ approach that won Ericsson the rally. Indeed, in what was his first outing in the 4WD Gallant, Ericsson gradually extended and maintained his margin over the field once in front, taking a first non-Finnish win on the event since fellow Swede Stig Blomqvist some 18 years previously.
Although it signalled something of a disaster for the local drivers, the rally wasn’t a complete wash-out. Timo Salonen put in arguably one of his best drives in an underpowered Mazda 323 Turbo, winning two stages and finishing a superb second place to Ericsson.
Sainz might well have finished second himself had it not been for a roll on stage 27 (Juupajoki) while chasing Ericsson. The Spaniard would go on to beat Kankkunen to record his first Rally Finland victory the following year, en route to his maiden WRC title.
1 Mikael Ericsson/Claes Billstam (Mitsubishi Gallant VR-4) 4h42m03s
2 Timo Salonen/Voitto Silander (Mazda 323 Turbo) +1m41s
3 Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya (Toyota Celica GT4) +2m35s
4 Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander (Toyota Celica GT4) +5m46s
5 Thornbjörn Edling/Kent Nilsson (Mazda 323 Turbo) +7m58s
6 Miki Biasion/Tiziano Siviero (Lancia Delta HF Integrale) +10m58s
7 Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha (Audi 200 Quattro) +11m54s
8 Stig-Olov Walfridsson/Anders Davidsson (Audi 80 Quattro) +18m07s
9 Risto Buri/Jyrki Stenroos (Audi 200 Quattro) +20m24s
10 Esa Saarenpää/Olli Mannisto (Audi 90 Quattro) +21m54s