The 26-year-old farmer’s boy who tore up the Safari rule book

Up against so many world champions, Juha Kankkunen wasn't supposed to win the 1985 Safari. But he did

Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 04-08 04 1985

It’s hard to know who was more surprised. Was it the staff in Nairobi’s Serena Hotel or was it Juha Kankkunen? The four-time world champion walked into a hotel he’d first visited close to four decades ago and was recognized.

You don’t forget the guy who wins the Safari Rally on his debut. Even more so when he wins the rally, then gets rushed from hotel to hospital to get his head stitched after he was thrown in the pool. Again.

Kankkunen chuckles at the memories. Back in Africa again this week, he’s showcasing Toyota’s ground-breaking hybrid-powered Hilux. He’s having fun. Telling stories. Living memories and making more.


“This is good fun,” he told DirtFish. “I’ve been doing a little bit of development, testing work, press days let’s say and things like that.

“I have been testing a little bit in Rally1 and Rally2 cars. Beautiful. I can’t drive as fast as the young boys now, but I can still enjoy it and still make some good moments.”

Thursday wasn’t quite a Rally1 car. But given the demand for the Hilux in Africa, and the need to make alternative energy work in this part of the world, it was arguably just as important.

“This Hilux,” he said, “is a little different – [the hybrid] helps in Kenya when we are in very high altitude. The electricity means you don’t lose power like a normal petrol engine. At the same time, you don’t need to be at full throttle, so you’re saving energy – that’s good for this country.”

Kankkunen finishes that sentence and raises those famous blue eyes to take in the beautifully big Kenyan backdrop.

He loves this place. With good reason.

Of course I was thinking to win a round of the world championship, but not really this one Juha Kankkunen

“Like I said, this is fun,” he continues. “Driving this car is one of the things I can do, just to drive a short stage and see something about the rally and then afterwards I will join the team and just watch what the boys are doing.”

One Finn has one chance to emulate Kankkunen this week. If Esapekka Lappi wins, he’d equal a feat Juha still finds astonishing to this day.

In early 1985, Juha spent two months testing Toyota’s Celica Twincam Turbo in Africa. He wasn’t new to the team, he’d been under the watchful eye of Ove Andersson for a couple of years, but that Safari was only his 11th start in the world championship.

He was the third of three factory Celicas (Björn Waldegård and local David Horsey were in the other cars) on an event which totalled 3200 miles and very much a man chasing experience.

“Of course I was thinking to win a round of the world championship, but not really this one,” Kankkunen said.

Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 04-08 04 1985

“I was the last of the Group B drivers to start and I started quite slowly. I wanted to make the finish.”

Predictably, he wasn’t content with the middle of the road. Especially when the locals started to come past. When five-time Safari winner Shekhar Mehta tore past, Kankkunen had had enough. He dropped a gear and stuck with the Nissan 240 RS.

“It had started to rain,” recalled Kankkunen. “The road was like ice. It was so tricky, but I thought: ‘If anybody knows how to drive in these conditions, it’s Mehta…'”

Mehta then promptly went off the road.

“I decided to stick with my original plan after that,” he smiled.

Even that original plan looked optimistic when the Toyota slid into a ditch.

“It was so slippery,” Kankkunen said. “We went to the ditch at 20kph. [The] ditch was full of water. It came into the car and came to our knees, but there was no damage. I was asking to the fans to help us and they came. We got the car back to the road, we could continue.”

Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 04-08 04 1985

Continuing was not an option for some of the bigger Group B names. The works Audis had fallen foul of new six-speed gearboxes which refused to play ball, while the limitations of the Peugeot 205 T16’s suspension had been brutally exposed.

Opel came close with fellow newcomer Erwin Weber leading until his Manta 400 sucked a nut into the engine, the enforced cylinder head change dropped him to fifth.

“When I came by Weber’s car, the bonnet was up,” said Kankkunen, “I thought: ‘Bloody hell…’”

From then on, it was all eyes on the finish.

Fortunately, he had the perfect wingman in the shape of the second-placed Waldegård. Typically, Björn was delighted to see a driver he’d mentored succeeding on the world’s greatest stage.

“It took a long time for it to sink in that I’d won,” Kankkunen said. “We went to the hotel. It was like a dream. I was thrown to the pool, everybody was – but me it was many times. And then the water was not so deep and I hit my head.”

A visit to hospital and nine stitches in his forehead later, the party re-started.

“I remember coming home on the plane to Helsinki,” he said. “There were many, many people waiting. I thought, maybe the president of Finland is on the same plane…”

They were there for him.

“Of all the memories from Kenya and Safari, I think that first win is the one I always remember. Nobody accepted the 26-year-old farmer’s boy from Jyväskylä can come to Safari and win from all the other world champions and experienced guys.”

Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 04-08 04 1985

He’s not wrong. At the time, Kenyan bookies had Kankkunen at 200:1.

“They were all looking at me,” he smiled, “they were thinking; ‘Who the hell is this young boy? How can he stay on the road and win the rally?’

“But I did.”

He certainly did and, 38 years on, it’s still talked about poolside in the Serena.

Words:David Evans