Tractors on ice… retirement Kankkunen style

Donuts in a tractor, Audi's silent bullet, sideways in a 911 and a song about Henri. That's a week in Finland

Finland BTS 5

I’m sitting in a kitchen not far from the Russian border staring at snow. There’s a cassette player in the corner playing Arttu Wiskari’s rally ballad Mökkitie. I’ve finished a plate of moose (the sort that moves – or moved – not the chocolate one) and watched Juha Kankkunen doing donuts. In a tractor. On a lake.

It’s fair to say last week in Finland wasn’t an ordinary week.

In a happy coincidence, the stars aligned to deliver the Secto Rally Finland launch at the same time as Secto Labs was ready to shake down its recently rebuilt 1968 Porsche 911. Would I like to take on that particular responsibility?

Oh, go on then. I was going to sit in the office and work on Safari Rally Kenya logistics and planning, but let’s be Arctic-bound via a day in Helsinki to hear the news we’d all hoped for… Ouninpohja’s back.

There’s always something special about flying to Finland. As well as landing into our sport’s spiritual home, Suomi brings a true sense of adventure. Point your rental car north and drive and things change. The landscape evolves from city to town to village to forest to wilderness. Welcome to planet earth’s top side. It’s a great place to be; you can’t bring enough jumpers. My kind of place.

Typically, the route announcement for August’s festival of flying was its usual brilliantly creative and constructive affair. The combination of Finland press officer Terhi Heloaho and AKK promoter Tiina Lehmonen worked its magic to showcase what’s to come from the season’s most anticipated three days.

Now in its fourth season partnering Rally Finland, Secto Automotive is fast achieving a subconscious rebranding few thought would be possible in such a short timeframe. Depending on which generation of Finn you talk to, the Jyväskylä-based event will always be known either as “1000 Lakes” or “Neste Rally.” Last week I was hearing “Secto Rally” for the first time.

It’s no surprise. Secto Automotive, one of Finland largest car leasing firms, is run by brothers Mattias and Stefan Henkola – two of the world’s more go-ahead and dynamic folk. Even better, they have – sustainable – fuel flowing freely through their veins. They have an idea, they make it happen. Or they bring Secto’s marketing rockstar Sami Heiskonen in and then it really happens.

Secto Labs is the fun side of the business: this is where the motorsport happens. And happens in a way that it can always happen – core to everything Secto Labs does is P1’s WRC-spec sustainable fuel and LubriCan’s sustainable lubricant. Anybody who thought a late ’60s two-liter 911 had to be fed fossil fuel, think again. It rips on the clean stuff.

The original plan was to run the car on the snow and ice just outside Helsinki. Then spring sprung in late winter, it rained and ruined a good day out. Typical Sami: “No problem, we go to the north.”

So we did. North to Kuusamo.

Finland BTS 2

Rally Finland's route annoucement was centered largely around the world Ouninpohja. The whole event was typically well organised

This was where things got slightly surreal. Waiting in the airport with a big car was one of the Finland’s foremost Formula 1 drivers, Heikki Kovalainen. The one-time grand prix winner and McLaren star is very much part of the Secto setup. And a local to these parts. He’s fixed lunch in an awesome restaurant (moose bolognaise, it was off the charts), but before that it’s over to his place for a chat.

You’ve probably heard about the hand Kovalainen was dealt at the back end out of last year; a routine check-up identified a significant, if asymptomatic, heart issue. The Škoda Fabia Rally2 driver knocked on the doc’s door for an MOT ahead of a planned program of World Rally Championship events through this season. He came out having been told he could play chess.

And, if he was willing to sit down and play chess for the rest of his days, it’s possible the condition wouldn’t bother him. Not really an option. Meet Heikki… he used to thread a race car through Monaco streets at 200mph. Now he does 120mph between the trees.

Chess? Yeah, right.

Surgery is coming soon, with the full support of his lovely wife and baby boy. Kovalainen’s approach to the process is remarkable and fully data-driven. He’s watched video footage of the operation, he wants to understand all aspects of what’s coming. It’s his recce. His free practice. He doesn’t want any surprises.

He’s one of the most sincere people in our sport. And he’s got a totally rad hydraulic simulator for sale. He’d want me to mention that. Interested? Hit us up, we’ll make it happen.

Lunch done, cloud lifting and northern Finland’s second largest ski area in full view, we’re off to see a man about a tractor.

“Let’s go and see Juha,” smiled Heikki.

From the middle to end of January until the end of March, four-time world champion Juha Kankkunen spends every day on a frozen lake at his own Academy. It’s probably the second best place in the world to learn to go sideways (DirtFish… obviously).

Today’s no different. There’s a corporate group on the ice today, but there’s still going to be room for us (he carves eight different tracks into ice which is a meter thick). We might be in the middle of a lake and the grip of a Lapland winter, but Kankkunen’s wit is razor sharp and his opinion on just about everything as forthright as ever.

But can he really turn donuts in a tractor?

Finland BTS 2

Four-time world champion Kankkunen tries to remind Evans there's only one of them capable of spinning a Valtra...

“No problem,” he grins. “Actually, easier than in a car. You can lock one wheel. Hey, I show you. Watch…”

Cue one of the most unexpected – yet astonishing – motorsport maneuvers I’ve seen in my career. From one extreme to the other, we departed the state-of-the-art Valtra for a spaceship Audi which was just nuts. Silent and nuts.

The first moment I saw an e-tron GT quattro was the same as the first time I saw an original quattro (or, more pertinently the Sport quattro – I love that car). I just stared. And stared. Seeing a bright yellow one parked up on the ice with the full Juha Kankkunen Academy livery down the side stopped me in my tracks.

“Shall we take a lap?”

Finland BTS 5

Kankunnen's e-tron GT quattro is a fair bit quieter than his tractor. Faster too

Shall we take two.

We took five. Stopped. Did some donuts, then took five more.

Fully sideways at warp factor 10, and chased only by our own 100mph cloud of snow dust, I started to laugh. There was nothing else for it.

“Not bad for two tons, hey?” grinned Kankkunen. “And look, heavy car, but I can put it to the millimeter where I want it.”

So he did: the right-front – complete with half a turn of opposite lock – nibbling the apex of a eye-wateringly quick right-hander. He started laughing.

“I still enjoy to drive like this,” he said. “But the Bentley was really quick – remember that?”

Indeed I do. Who could forget Kankkunen’s 2011 attempt at a world record on ice aboard a largely standard Continental Supersports?

GFOS 2023 Juha Kankkunen b0015

The Finn still loves to drive, and has even recently been behind the wheel of Toyota's new GR Yaris Rally2

“I did 330kph on ice,” he said. “But that was easier, it was on sea ice. It wasn’t so bumpy, but still there was some input needed. I was sideways for some time.”

Some time?

“One point two kilometers,” he said. “I was sideways because the wind caught the car. Worse thing you can do?”

Venture out onto the ice in the first place? Apparently not.

Finland BTS 6

David Evans had a few lessons to learn from Kankkunen before he got his chance to drive the Secto Porsche

“Lift off,” he said. “You must stay with the throttle.”

With those words ringing in my ears, I stepped from the passenger seat of the intergalactic Audi to the driving seat of its marginally tamer cousin. A 1600cc A3 with around a fifth of the power, but, crucially, four-wheel drive.

Interestingly, Kankkunen had some more tractor work to do. No matter, another megastar Finnish rally driver would be by my side. Step forward Hyundai driver Riku Tahko.

“We don’t have so much time left,” he told me. “We will go to the oval, then the figure of eight and then directly to the track. This is the crash course…”

One of us laughed more than the other.

Riku was mega. And mega patient. In less than an hour, I’d stopped going backwards into corners and started seeing the odd apex on the horizon.

“You are ready,” said Riku.

Finland BTS 3

Sliding the wrong way towards the horizon in a four-wheel-drive Audi A3. Evans tested the patience of the very patient Riku Tahko

Between you and me, I was nowhere near ready. But Steffi was there, holding the door open for me to slide inside a full historic-spec Porsche.

The 911 was truly something else. An absolute work of art. There was nothing to choose between this car and the one Vic Elford had driven to victory on the 1968 Monte. Or Waldegård’s ’69 Monte and Swedish winner.

The flat-six did that lovely, long, slightly lazy turnover, then fired and burbled. I’m fortunate enough to have driven a two-liter car at Richard Tuthill’s Below Zero facility a few years ago. It was epic. And so was this.

Knocking it up to second (via fourth – sorry Steffi!), the thing just revved , pulled and absolutely sang. With seven-mil Pirelli studs hooking into the ice, grip was no bother and suddenly I was sending this thing sideways with a mile-wide grin splashed across my face.

New Porsche pic

Built in a garage in just five months, the Secto Labs' 1968 Porsche 911 is a thing of beauty

Sitting alongside me Stefan was exactly the same.

Five months ago, this very 911 was sitting on the floor looking very sorry for itself. What happened next was quite incredible.

“We wanted to get the car built,” said Henkola, “and this incredible bunch of friends came together and made it happen. They worked all the time in their garage after work – seriously, two hours per night for five months and they made this incredible car.

“Robbe [Bärlund] was the main guy, Jonas [Sarkala] did the bodywork and the technical side, Micke [Sundberg] did the paintwork, Mikael [Karstikko] sorted the electrics and the engine was sorted by Christian Valtonen at Valtonen Motorsport.

“From Secto Labs side, my brother Mattias, Sami [Heiskonen] and I worked on it as well. Was it worth it?”

Yes. Just… yes.

Drifting that car across a frozen lake watching the winter sun starting to slip beneath the trees was a moment I’ll remember for a very long time.

In fact, there’s not much about last weekend that I’m going to forget!