Flying Finns and Flying Finishes – A Life Lesson From History


I flicked the main beam switch and grinned as four searing white beams of light pierced the darkness in front of the bonnet. The dirt road ahead became a bright inviting tunnel leading into the forest.

The intercom in my helmet came to life. Dave my navigator was counting down, 3…2…1…Go!

I planted the throttle, the car squirmed left and right as the tyres scrabbled for grip. A split second later they bit and we blasted into the tunnel.

I loved those lamps. Rallye 2000 spotlights with 100-watt bulbs. 9” diameter, thick glass lenses, finished in matt black with chrome lens rims. They even looked good in daylight, with their Hella emblazoned black and white lens covers clipped on.

I’d first seen them bolted to the front of a works Audi Quattro rally car.

Actually, that’s not true. All I’d seen was a blinding meteor of light coming toward me at impossible speed. I shielded my eyes as it hurtled past. It sounded like thunder, it showering me in wet mud and gravel.

I looked up as it disappeared. Strobe flashes of orange light lit the trees as flames spat, popped and crackling out of its exhaust pipes.

I can still smell the mixture of unburnt fuel and baking mud it left behind. We were all left stunned and speechless

The year was 1981. The place, Clocaenog Forest in Wales. My mates and I were watching The Lombard RAC Rally. The fire breathing monster I’d just seen was the chariot of a rallying god, Hannu Mikkola. I didn’t know it at the time but I’d just seen history in the making.

It was only later that morning, in the service area at Machynlleth, that I saw the car and those lights properly.

These were the days when the RAC Rally was driven blind. Unlike most of the other World Championship events, pace notes weren’t allowed. Hannu had come past me at over 100mph. Those Hella lamps let him drive like it was daylight. I knew I had to get some for myself.

That amazing Audi car changed the rules, literally. It was so far ahead of anything else that a new competition classification had to be created.

Called Group B it raised the curtain on a new era of rallying supercars. Other manufacturers joined in with cars like the Lancia Delta Integrale and the Peugeot 206. Developers were given a free hand, 4 wheel drive, minimal weight restrictions, turbochargers, no engine limitations.

Things got crazy.

The Audi had 600bhp. The dinky little Group B Mini Metro 6R4 had a 2.9lit V6 pushing out 410bhp. These Group B cars got more insane with each new season.

It was bound to end badly.

In 1986 another Finn, Henri Toivonen was driving his Lancia Delta S4 on the Tour de Corse. The car weighed only 890kg and could accelerate from 0-60mph in 2.5 seconds (A current F1 car takes about 2.4). Seven kilometres into the 18th stage, Corte–Taverna, Toivonen’s Lancia went off the side of the road at a tight left corner with no guardrail. The car plunged down a ravine and crashed on its roof. The aluminium fuel tank underneath the driver’s seat was ruptured by the trees and exploded. Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto died in their seats.

Even godlike drivers are still human. An investigation later proved that drivers’ reactions were too slow to keep up with the speed of the cars. It was academic, within hours of Toivonen’s accident Group B cars were banned from competing. 

My own forest chariot was a humble Ford Escort. My driving skills far below godlike. But those Hella lamps were the same ones my heroes used. There was nothing better for the job, they let me be the best I could be.

I love driving a dark twisty road at night. The world contracts to a small illuminated area ahead. Nothing else matters. Your actions are dictated solely by what you can see in front of you. Your ultimate destination is known but forgotten. You’re focused entirely on the next bend and your only job to stay on the road. Once round that curve, it’s on to the next and the next after that. 

Many of us will have set big goals for the New Year. We’ll have started strong. We’ll be looking to win. We’ll be keeping the destination in mind.

But darkness will come and we’ll lose sight of the goal. Then we’ll lose sight of the track. 

If we drive blind disaster awaits.

As Sir Sterling Moss once said:

“In order to finish first, you first have to finish”

So switch on those lights and forget the goal. See what you see, do what you can do. Just make the next bend.

See you at the finish.

If you want to see exactly how crazy rallying was in the 80’s then watch the video below. It’s not the best quality, but it tells the story of Group B better than I ever could. I confess to getting goosebumps watching it. The coverage of Henri Toivonen’s crash is particularly poignant. And you’ll see that the insanity wasn’t restricted to cars and drivers. Rallying was my life back then. So many good memories. Oh, and the raven-haired beauty you won’t fail to spot is Michelle Mouton. This amazing French woman took four WRC victories and finished runner-up in the drivers’ world championship in 1982. I had a signed photo of her on my bedroom wall. Enough said.

Michelle, ma belle x

2 thoughts on “Flying Finns and Flying Finishes – A Life Lesson From History

  1. Thanks for the very interesting post, Neil.
    Keep writing!
    I’m looking forward to reading “A Foolish Escape”.
    Spring is on its way.

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