What began as an adventurous pastime for gentlemen was gradually turning into a professional sport in the 1950s. It didn’t take very long before the first Finns were emerging in top flight international rallying.
Rauno Aaltonen and Pauli Toivonen were both given drives in works teams during 1961, when Aaltonen actually won a European Championship round in Poland. Mercedes-Benz had entered him as co-driver to Eugen Böhringer, but in reality Rauno drove virtually all loose surface sections, while the German kept the wheel for tarmac.
Aaltonen soon drifted to British Motor Corporation, where he was joined by Timo Mäkinen, whose spectacular approach immediately got attention wherever he was competing. The two were often referred to as “Mini Finns”, when they started to reap successes in BMC Mini Coopers. Aaltonen also took a prestigious victory in the last ever Spa-Sofia-Liege event with a big Austin Healey. This was a marathon road race from Belgium to Bulgaria and back, using the most treacherous mountain passes in Central Europe and lasting three days and a half. After this 1964 event it was deemed too dangerous to run on open roads and the legendary rally was discontinued.
1965 became perhaps the most successful season ever for Finnish rallying. It started with Timo Mäkinen’s fantastic win in Monte Carlo and was capped by Rauno Aaltonen being crowned European Champion after victory in RAC Rally. By this time a very young Simo Lampinen had also joined the growing number of Finnish works drivers.
In 1968 the hottest Finn was Pauli Toivonen, who collected the European title after claiming victory in six international rallies with Porsche. Hannu Mikkola made his big break to the elite, where he stayed for the next two decades. During the early years of his career Hannu emerged as winner in two particularly long and arduous events. He first triumphed in the 16.000 mile London-Mexico World Cup Rally in 1970 and then, as the first non-African, conquered the Safari Rally, which still ran through three countries in 1972.
Markku Alén joined the ranks of factory drivers in 1974 and went on to collect what was known as the FIA Cup for Drivers, one year before a similar feat would have been acknowledged as an official world title. The first Finn to claim that honour was Ari Vatanen in 1981. Two years later the mantle was claimed by Hannu Mikkola, who had become the 4wd pioneer in his Audi Quattro.
Most memorable chapter of Vatanen’s career was in 1984-85, when he took Peugeot to victory on five consecutive WRC outings. The period from 1983 to 1986 is commonly called the supercar era. Altogether it comprised 48 WRC rounds, 29 of which were won by Finns. That yielded world drivers’ titles for Timo Salonen and Juha Kankkunen.
Henri Toivonen was expected to emerge as a champion, too, but his untimely death in Corsica changed the face of rallying. The cars were legislated to become much slower and event duration as well as special stage length was chopped. That did not stop Juha Kankkunen from driving to a second consecutive championship in 1987. He added more titles in 1991 and 1993. Kankkunen’s four titles were achieved in three different makes of car: Peugeot, Lancia and Toyota.
Juha Kankkunen and Timo Salonen gained more success in rally-raids, which were developing alongside traditional special stage events. The real trailblazer in this type of off-road competition, though, was Ari Vatanen with his four victories in the Paris-Dakar Raid. In the deserts the Finns were normally driving for Peugeot or Citroen.
During the latter part of the 1990’s WRC got more organized and works teams had to commit to participation in every single qualifying round. This meant that any driver targeting to win the title had to be competitive in virtually all environments and conditions. Accepting that challenge with steely determination was Tommi Mäkinen. He won on tarmac, gravel, snow and ice, even in the mud and dust of Kenya. The result was four consecutive world championship titles driving for Mitsubishi in 1996-99 and four Monte Carlo wins 1999-2002, the last of these with Subaru.
Mäkinen’s run of success was seamlessly followed up by Marcus Grönholm, who managed to become champion in his first full WRC season of 2000. In a way Grönholm repeated what Ari Vatanen had done before, because while Ari had been instrumental in lifting Peugeot to top the supercar era, Marcus helped the French make to a similar status immediately on its return to WRC. He collected another world title in 2002, but never managed to follow that up after moving to Ford, although still added to his tally of victories.
The obstacle for more Grönholm titles was Sébastien Loeb, who reigned undefeated from 2004 to 2012. Occasionally he could be challenged by drivers like Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, the first-named collecting 15 WRC wins before calling time on his career after 2014.
The national junior team of Finnish motorsport, Flying Finn Academy, strives to carry the torch in search of new rally stars. Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen are shining examples of its alumni, who have already shown their class on the highest international level. In addition, the young rally sensation Kalle Rovanperä has proved, that the Finnish success story is not about to end anytime soon.