When Mazda got its moment in the Swedish sun

The plucky underdog scored its first WRC victory in 1987, with 1985 world champion Timo Salonen on board

Salonen Girardo Overlay v2

Timo Salonen rarely believed in convention.

The 1985 World Rally champion is primarily famous for three things: driving a Peugeot 205 T16, chain smoking, and his penchant for oversized spectacles.

The last two things hint at an overarching theme of how Salonen approached his rallying: he wasn’t really one for following norms. And he didn’t follow convention when I met him for the first time, either – but more on that later.

Salonen faced a problem at the end of 1986. Group B was being banned and Peugeot had no Group A car to replace the 205 with. Much like Volkswagen 30 years later, its trio of drivers needed to find a new home, pronto.

Juha Kankkunen and Bruno Saby both went route one and headed for Lancia. It was a masterstroke for the reigning champion: Kankkunen took title number two immediately.

As for Salonen? He headed for Mazda, a team that had a single WRC podium to its name (Acropolis 1985 with Ingvar Carlsson) and with the dainty 323 4WD as its weapon of choice.

For Girardo’s Picture of the Week, we’re celebrating the time that underdog Mazda got its moment in the Swedish sun. Lancia won nine of 13 WRC rounds in 1987: Sweden was one of the few where it was bested.


Swedish Rally Karlstad (SWE) 13-14 02 1987

For it to be Salonen that scored Mazda’s first WRC win feels apt given his character. He was always one to give the underdog a chance – I know from experience.

My first time ever interviewing rally drivers in person – not on the phone – I was in at the deep end. On the interview list were: Ari Vatanen, Markku Alén, Miki Biasion, Stig Blomqvist, Jimmy McRae and Salonen.

Salonen was the last of the lot. The others had been very standard one-on-one sit-downs in the designated interview zone of the motoring event where all six were driving classic rally cars. But Timo wanted to do ours differently: I was summoned into the drivers’ lounge at his behest and told to sit down for a coffee.

I sheepishly tried to get him talking about the WRC and its then-new World Rally Car era. Not interested. “Those two French guys” keep winning everything. Let’s talk about Finland instead.

I don’t really remember much else; it was a bit of a blur. A complete rookie to this line of work, I’d somehow ended up in the inner sanctum of rallying royalty.

After our one-to-one, we retired to the sofas. McRae was busy elsewhere but I’d found myself gathered around a coffee table with the remaining rally legends, talking about this and that. All because Salonen had insisted that we shun standard procedure.

Mazda will have been grateful that Salonen arrived to spearhead their Group A efforts. But I’ll also be eternally grateful that Salonen wasn’t interested in following convention.