It’s like asking Imelda Marcos to pick out her favorite shoes. Or telling Jay Leno to select just a handful of the 1600 cars he owns. It’s almost impossible.
But in the name of DirtFish, the top 10 Finns in Finland has to be selected. This list is subjective. Yes, it’s based on performance on Finland’s home round of the World Rally Championship, but it’s also got something to do with having plenty of all-round Finnishness.
10. Arvo Karlsson
The bloke who helped get this thing started in the first place. The Austin Atlantic driver won the inaugural 1951 Jyväskylän Suurajot (Jyväskylä Grand Prix – the event’s first title) which included a 1000-mile route from Jyväskylä up to the Arctic Circle and Rovanmiemi and back.
Run as a regularity, Karlsson landed his win from a particularly sprightly run up a 1400-meter hillclimb in Puijo and an accelerating and braking test on the Harju streets in Jyväskylä.
You might wonder whether Karlsson really deserves his place among the drivers who fly higher in faster cars. But here’s something to ponder on: “We set off at five in the morning and drove the whole route in one go except for a three-hour break in Rovaniemi.”
Another reason Karlsson’s in here? His celebration. Proper Finnish.
“We celebrated our triumph in Jyväskylä for three days,” he said. “On the Wednesday after the rally, the local chief constable came to us saying: ‘We can’t seem to get rid of you!’
“He subsequently assigned a police sergeant to act as our chauffeur. We loaded our gear into the car and the police sergeant drove us to Helsinki in it – we even had a police car escorting us!”
That win packed some serious sisu and was a success worthy of any of the legendary names listed through this featureDavid Evans on #8 in his list
They knew how to celebrate 70 years ago.
9. Kyösti Hämäläinen
Anybody questioning Ari Vatanen’s influence over the Ford team in the late 1970s would do well to remember his friend and then two-time Finnish champion Kyösti Hämäläinen. It was Vatanen who suggested to Boreham that Hämäläinen be given the test car for the 1977 1000 Lakes.
That event would only be the second time he’d driven a Group 4 car, but Vatanen believed he deserved a shot on the biggest event in a Finn’s year. And Hämäläinen delivered the drive his countryman expected.
After a mid-event battle with Markku Alén, the latter’s Fiat 131 Abarth retired after 40 of 46 stages leaving the plain white-liveried Escort to show Timo Salonen’s factory Fiat the way home to the tune of four minutes. Hämäläinen’s more celebrated team-mate Björn Waldegård was third.
But here’s the thing. As if a debut 1000 Lakes win the Ford works team wasn’t enough, the Finnishness really came out when Hämäläinen talked about his co-driver Martti Tiukkanen. He hadn’t read a single pacenote.
“He didn’t need to,” explained Hämäläinen. “And he doesn’t say much anyway…”
8. Jari-Matti Latvala
Toyota’s team principal has won his home round of the championship three times and each of those three rallies is seared into the memory of somebody who understands the true meaning of a Finland win.
It’s the 2014 success that lands Latvala his spot on this list. It’s fair to say nobody has ever doubted his speed or his bravery, but the mental side has perhaps been his undoing. And when a broken brake calliper cost him all but three seconds of a half-minute lead with one day to go in 2014, I feared he would crumble in the face of some fierce Sébastien Ogier competition on the final day. Ogier had done it to him a few times already.
Not this time. Rarely has Latvala looked so determined.
“I’d worked too hard to lose that rally,” he said. “I was determined. I wasn’t going to be beaten. The car had been so hard to drive after that hole [broke the brake] in Jukojärvi, every time you went to the brakes I thought the car was going to spin. We had brakes only on three wheels.”
For three stages, Latvala coped with that problem. He went into the final stage 3.7s ahead of Ogier. Could he keep it cool? Could he keep his head? Could he deliver for an expectant nation?
Oh, yes. He certainly could. That win packed some serious sisu and was a success worthy of any of the legendary names listed through this feature. Latvala at his absolute best.
7. Timo Mäkinen
One of rallying’s absolute characters, Timo Mäkinen learned some of his early skills at the wheel of his father’s delivery van, distributing newspapers to all corners of Finland. He started to make headlines with the BMC works team, winning the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally and that year’s 1000 Lakes.
His home success at the wheel of a Mini Cooper S was the first of four wins – but it was his antics in 1967 that won him the rally, the hearts of rally fans around the world, the headlines in the newspapers he once delivered and a place on this list.
Concerned that the Mini was running too hot in an intense battle with Simo Lampinen, Mäkinen had opened the hood slightly and wedged a sponge in there to allow more airflow to keep the engine bay cooler. And on into Ouninpohja.
Just before the Mutanen junction, where the road turns north towards Jämsä, the leather retaining straps gave up and the hood flew open with half of the five-miler test remaining.
“The drag from driving with the bonnet up was enormous,” said Mäkinen, raising the impact on performance ahead of the effect on visibility. And anyway, he’d got the visibility side covered.
“I threw the car sideways this way and the other to get a view through the side windows,” he said. “And then I tried to stick my head through the window, but the Mini had sliding windows and with my helmet on, my head just wouldn’t go through.
“But still, we were third fastest. And we won the rally.”
Of course he did. See? Legend. Finnish legend.
6. Tommi Mäkinen
Marcus Grönholm and Markku Alén might have more Rally Finland wins, but no Finn has ever managed to maintain such a stranglehold on the world’s fastest event like Tommi Mäkinen did between 1994 and ’98.
For five years, nobody else got a look in. Admittedly, 1995 wasn’t a full round of the WRC, but it was still a rally called the 1000 Lakes and it was still won by Tommi Mäkinen.
Mäkinen’s 1994 success came seven years after his maiden WRC appearance and, by his own admission, he was beginning to wonder if it would ever come good for him. His first full factory contract came with Nissan to drive the Sunny GTI-R, but when that project was binned he was left high and dry.
As one final shot, he was going to hire a RAS Sport-run Ford Escort RS Cosworth for the 1994 event. In the end, he was upgraded to a full factory car when Boreham elected not to run the departing Miki Biasion in the works car.
Mäkinen didn’t look back. Neither did he go back to Ford. He signed for Mitsubishi and the farmer from Puuppola cleaned up with Ralliart for the next four years.
5. Juha Kankkunen
My admiration for the three-time Finland winner is enormous. But Nicky Grist is far, far better placed to talk about what makes a proper Finn like KKK tick.
Grist takes up the story ahead of the 1994 1000 Lakes, his first Finnish outing with Kankkunen, when they started the event with the number one on the doors of a factory Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD, courtesy of the Finn’s win on the previous year’s event.
“I wasn’t sure about Finland,” Grist remembers. “The speed is so high there, everything is quite extreme… I thought: ‘S***, if I’ve been terrified with other drivers in Finland, what am I going to be like in Finland with Juha Kankkunen?’
“He’d won it the previous year and there was a certain doubt in my mind about what I was going to be facing. I knew it would be OK, but I didn’t really know what was coming.
“Anyway, we went away and did the recce. We went out with Tommi [Mäkinen] and all the Finns together. I’d got the previous year’s notes and I’d re-written them into English. We did every stage once in a couple of days.
“After that, Juha said: ‘Right Nick, you’re finished now. You and Seppo [Harjanne, Mäkinen’s co-driver] will go back to Helsinki now for some golf. It’s time for you to relax.’
“’What about the recce, Juha? I’ve only done the stages once!’
“’Don’t worry, the notes are good. You can go.’
“’OK, fair enough.’
He looked really aggressive and I thought: 'Christ, he’s going to punch Juha!Nicky Grist
“What they did was the Finnish drivers all went around the recce together. They drove together and worked together. They were really clever and they knew all the places where they could take time.
“They knew, for example, on some of the small roads that the bushes at the side of the road were just shrubbery. They knew they could take a big cut and make some time. But they wouldn’t drive the recce car through the shrubs and show everybody what they were doing. They would get out and one of them would just walk through it to make sure…
“Come the rally, we started from Jyväskylä and there was a short stage up near the airport. In this stage there was a section which read something like: ‘150, tight medium-right into 90-left, 90-right.’ So, we’re blasting down the road and I’ve called the notes, but he’s hardly braking at all. I’m thinking: ‘S***! What’s going on?’
“He went flat out through this bush and basically leapt through the left and right and back onto the road [on] the other side. I couldn’t believe it and there I was desperately trying to catch up on the notes – but he hadn’t said a word. At the end of the stage, I said: ‘Juha are there any more of those?’
“’No boyo,” he said. ‘That’s the worst one!’
“After that we went into the next stage which was the one that went passed Juha’s farm. Anyway, we got a little bit off line, hit a boulder and that spun the car around. When we landed there was this bloke [who] came marching up to Juha’s window.
“He looked really aggressive and I thought: ‘Christ, he’s going to punch Juha!’ This bloke was really mad. Juha eventually gets the car going and we get to the end of the stage.
“I said, to him: ‘I thought that boy was going to hit you!’ Calm as you like, Juha said: ‘That was my eldest brother. You’ve not met my eldest brother yet!’”
4. Marcus Grönholm
Fourth? Is that right? I know. I share your concerns. In a nation of rallying heroes, no driver came close to the dominance of his home WRC round like Marcus Grönholm did. In eight years, he won seven times.
It would be easy to look to the domestic competition in those seven years and point out that, save for an ever-quickening Mikko Hirvonen, the Finns weren’t quite as rampant as they once were. Kankkunen and Mäkinen were both approaching the end of their careers and, it would have appeared, there was an opening for a new national hero. Grönholm fitted the bill perfectly.
Internationally, Grönholm’s home rule was deeply impressive. Richard Burns was a thorn in his side through the early years of the new millennium, but then Sébastien Loeb was omnipresent thereafter. And not once did the nine-time world champion get the better of him. That’s impressive.
By the time he took win number one, Grönholm had already started Rally Finland 10 times. But in 2000, his first time in a Peugeot 206 WRC he would make his own, he just knew he had a car to win.
“We had used the 206 for the first time in Finland in 1999,” Grönholm told DirtFish. “The following year we went back to the same road and drove again. [The] car was one second per kilometer faster. One second! Incredible.
“The car was so good. But Richard [Burns] was really close and really fighting with us. Richard crashed, but in this year it could have been either of us. [The] pace was so high.”
With that win done, six from the next seven would follow. And all the time, ‘Bosse’ looked like a man in control. When his beloved 206 was replaced by the awkward 307, he was still able to guide that one to victory in 2004 and 2005.
Even when his co-driver Timo Rautiainen was lost for words, winded over a Vellipohja landing in 2005, he could still nurse the car and his brother-in-law to the podium’s top step.
Grönholm had the much needed Finnish facet, he had confidence and self-belief. But best of all, he had – and still has – both without even a trace of arrogance or conceitedness.
3. Hannu Mikkola
Two stories stand out to define Hannu Mikkola and the absolute adoration shared by Finnish fans when the seven-time 1000 Lakes winner arrives in conversation.
The first demonstrates Hannu’s quieter, more generous side – even if that generosity was rather taken liberty of. It’s 1968 and he’s just won the 1000 Lakes for the first time in a Ford Escort Twin-Cam. Delighted to have found the edge over countryman Simo Lampinen, Mikkola stuck his head around the bar at the Hotel Jyväshovi.
“There were some mechanics in there,” said Mikkola. “They called me in and so I shared one beer with them. But then I wanted to go. I was tired. When I was leaving, they asked me, quite innocently, what my hotel room number was. I told them.
“When I came down the next morning, I had a very big bar bill! I was paid £300 by Ford for winning that rally – I think that was about the price of the bill.”
Mikkola smiled at the memory. Never one to spend the night partying, he was aware that he’d helped the team enjoy his maiden win.
Story two comes from a very different car and a very different time. We’ve moved 17 years down the road and a 1600cc Mk1 Escort has stepped aside for one of the most intimidating and fearsome rally cars ever to start the 1000 Lakes.
The Audi quattro S1; the bewinged monster that grew out of the evil-handling Sport quattro. It’s 1985 and Hannu is lining up at the start of Ouninpohja. His mood is dark. Bouncing the car off a log pile in the previous stage had broken a spring and the chase car only had a steel rather than titanium replacement. The car’s handling was impacted by increased mass on one corner. Not that Mikkola cared.
“I drove that stage in full anger mode,” he said. “And I will remember it forever. The harder I pushed, the more grip we got from the aerodynamics.
“That was the only time I got the sensation I was no longer sitting in the car. I was told later on that this is the same feeling which fighter pilots can get. It was incredible.
“We made the 25 kilometers of Ouninpohja in a record: 11 minutes 35 seconds.
“My co-driver Arne Hertz never really said anything when we finished a stage. But this time he said: ‘I will give my overalls to the person who goes faster through that stage.'”
2. Ari Vatanen
When you think of sisu, that inner steel Finns call upon at the most difficult of times, you think of Ari Vatanen. Here’s someone who thought he knew what it was to struggle as he sought to get his early career on track, only to realize the true meaning when he was convinced he was dying of AIDS in hospital following his Rally Argentina crash.
Prior to that horrifying 1985 crash, Vatanen had already written his place in rallying’s history. He’d won the world championship four seasons prior. But, almost more importantly, he’d written himself into people’s hearts. Watching him – especially in a Group 4 Escort, a car he describes as the ‘glove on his hand’ – was poetry in motion. He could do things with a car other people wouldn’t even have considered.
And his natural flair and ability translated perfectly from Ford’s RS1800 to Peugeot’s 205 T16 – the extraordinary, mid-engined supercar which took Audi’s Group B ideal and perfected it.
It was incredible. I’d been so close to dying and now they were hear sharing this moment with meAri Vatanen on his 1987 podium
His first home win came in 1981, the championship season with a David Sutton-run Rothmans Escort, with a second following in the 205 three years later. Such was Vatanen’s experience, composure and pace in the Peugeot, it was difficult to imagine the pairing being beaten at home for some years to come.
Then the accident.
Then Vatanen part two. After months in the darkest of dark places, Ari emerged.
There’s a picture in his autobiography which tells much of the joy he felt to be back behind the wheel. The picture is one of a Dakar-spec long-wheel base 205 T16 E2 flying through the desert. Vatanen’s own caption: “Just weeks after awakening from my depression, I was leaping 67 meters in my Peugeot 205. I must be mad!”
Far from it. He was free. And Africa and Dakar helped free him.
But genuine redemption came when he returned to Jyväskylä for the first time since winning in 1984. Gone was the brutal traction and speed of the 205, replaced by a return to Ford and a Group A Ford Sierra RS Cosworth. A car made for the racetracks, but tweaked for the ultra-fast Finnish forests.
“I remember when I was testing the car,” Vatanen told DirtFish. “The wheels were spinning in every gear, all the time. It felt like I wasn’t moving forwards.”
Except he was. And at some speed. Second place to Markku Alén’s Lancia Delta was a near-perfect return and one very much appreciated by Finns up and down the land.
“I could hear the crowds cheering,” said Vatanen. “It was incredible. I’ll never forget so many of the people waving. I’d been so close to dying and now they were hear sharing this moment with me.”
Around that time, Vatanen had two pictures on the wall of his study. Both were about deliverance and salvation. One was his Paris-Dakar Peugeot and the other that Texaco-backed black Sierra.
1. Markku Alén
Like I said at the top of this story, the number one choice here isn’t the driver who’s won Finland the most times. It’s about being the most Finnish of Finns. It’s about an attitude. It’s about Markku Alén.
For 19 years, between his second start in 1970 and finishing fourth in a Subaru Legacy RS in 1990, this man finished the 1000 Lakes on the podium or the retirement list. Five times he didn’t finish. Six times he won.
For Alén, victory started on the very first stage. Traditionally, the contest would always open with the Laajavuori test and a maximum attack.
“I always wanted to come out of there with a five-second lead,” Alén told DirtFish. “[The] first night was the time to show who was the boss and to take control. The big roads were the place to do this. Anybody could drive on the smaller roads, but it was on the faster places which would make the difference with the boys.”
But actually, it all started even earlier in the event for Alén.
It’s a well-told story now, but it’s worth it for the number one in the list. It’s journalist David Williams’ story of going to talk to Alén as he lined up for shakedown on the 1986 1000 Lakes.
With a handful of cars to go onto the stage before him, Alén was starting his preparations, running an eye over the Lancia Delta S4’s dials and getting himself together. As Williams closed on the Finn’s side of the car, he noticed he was trying to get his gloves on.
Trying. Alén’s hands were shaking so much, he could barely pull them on.
Five hundred-plus horsepower, a turbocharger, a supercharger and a headlong charge at the trees from standstill to 60mph in just a couple of seconds would do that for you.
At the height of his pomp, Alén simply couldn’t – and wouldn’t – consider the prospect of being beaten on his home round of the championship. Victory at home wasn’t of paramount importance. It went way beyond that.
And that attitude was never clearer than when he saw Sébastien Loeb score his first win in Jyväskylä in 2008. Loeb had defeated Mikko Hirvonen by nine seconds with a gargantuan effort. On the podium, the pair shared a moment and smiled about the fight that had been their lives for the last three days.
Alén was appaled that his countryman could find anything to smile about. What should he have done?
“Close the phone,” said Alén, “and go to the sauna for a week to think about what he’s done.”
That, right there, is the Finn’s Finn.
And there we have it. Ten of the best. The very best? For me, yes. And no. Even as I sit here typing the end to this tale, I’m terribly torn. What about Mikko Hirvonen? He should be there. The same for Simo Lampinen.
Henri Toivonen? Surely, had it not been for that tragic crash in Corsica, he would have won the 1986 1000 Lakes and many more to come. If it is the ultimate Finnish hero in Finland we’re after, surely we have to look to the man who won biggest in those scariest of seasons – the seasons when Group B was at its maddest and baddest: 1985 and 1986.
If that is the case, this thing needs a re-write. Step forward Timo Salonen (pictured above).
And of course, this week could be the week another Finnish hero adds their name to the legend. Have you ever heard of Kalle Rovanperä…?