It all started at 5.30 a.m. outside the Smith residence on the Wednesday. Five and a half hours to London, we reckoned, but in the event it took a little longer to reach David Sutton’s establishment, mainly on account of the last mile of the M1 involving a little matter of about three quarters of an hour. To pass the time we had a chat with David ‘Chunkey Chicken’ Porter who happened to loom alongside.
A small convoy set out from Sutton’s to Heathrow, and soon Finnair Flight AY830 headed north-east over the North Sea, Denmark, Sweden and the ice bound Baltic to land in a flurry of snow at Helsinki some two and a half hours later.
We were taken to our hotel in a fleet of cars provided by Pentti Arikkala, whose kindness to the British contingent was not to stop at this thoughtful gesture. The fabulous Kalastajatorppa Hotelli was the base not only of the overseas competitors, but of the Hankiralli administration. Words to describe this establishment are hard to find, if only because they would have to convey an impression that will not be found in Britain for another ten years. From the hot tiled bathroom floors to the saunas; from the swimming pools to the simple yet breathtaking tunnel which connects the hotel buildings underground; from the triple-locking bedroom doors to the general air of sumptuousness, all spoke of a country supporting considerable wealth, in spite of having to live under the very shadow of the U.S.S.R. The Pound Sterling does not convert very well these days, so the cost of living was felt acutely on two fronts. Indeed, we only had one main meal in the Kalastajatorppa which ran to about £10 a head for a one course meal. (All right, some of us had to lay in about the reindeer, barbecued on a spit, but even so! The coffee at over a pound a cup put the lid on things). Anyhow, we were there for a rally—not a gourmet expedition.
And what a rally! The annals of East Ayrshire Car Club deserve a supplement all of its own for this one. Thirteen hundred kilometres—over six hundred of stages—narry a hint of tarmac or gravel—just snow and ice, snow and ice, snow and ice, and all compressed into an all-go event spanning Friday, Saturday and Sunday with only a four hour halt at Mikelli which was euphemistically dubbed by the organisers as “the long rest”!
Before this ordeal however, Pentti Arikkala arranged for a patch of sea just outside Helsinki to be cleared off, and provided a brace of rally Avengers and a Peugeot Estate car for practice in the weird techniques of ice racing. The fun lasted half a day with everyone having a shot in the hot seat with Pentti for which experience alone the writer would have made the trip. To come in on a perfect line at over 120 kph and with everything you know telling you it can’t be done and then seconds later drifting gracefully out and into the next bend was a thing of beauty. All the British heidbangers had tuition from Pentti which perhaps explains why Ian and Andy changed their names to Gemmellquist and Smitharikka for the duration (positively ashamed they were of having mere Findlays and McHargs beside them. Incidentally the Finns blessed Big D with the Kelvinsidian McHerg in the rally documentation.) It was a bit of a pity that practice couldn’t have been done with the competing cars, but they were late in arriving owing to excessive ice blocking Helsinki harbour.
Documentation and scrutineering started at 8 a.m. on the Friday, but as we still had the studded tyres to collect and have fitted, it was later on in the morning by the time we had collected the required number of rubber stamps. The first car of Timo Makkinen left the ramp at 16.01 and the British competitors in a bunch spanning the late forties to early fifties left just before 5 o’clock for the longest road section of the rally, which was all of thirty miles.
Only a hint of light remained in the cold, clear sky, as with more than a little trepidation we checked in at the first of 45 stage controls. Crash hats on; tighten belts; check watches; intercoms on; Finnish for five, four, three, two, one, then—Aja; No one just tittered round the first stage, but equally certainly, no one went hell for leather—there was a lot to learn, and a long long way to go. David Lang, however, did manage to stuff it on this first stage, and after several offs in the first few stages, rolled right out of the rally on the fourth.
Gemmellquist gave Findlay his first snow-shovelling session on the second stage, about 30 yards after a brow-K-right, but between the ever helpful spectators and Andy Smith (who stopped to help on the end of a tow rope), we were away again, but down by eight minutes. Andy and David had any makings of a grin wiped off their faces after they too savoured the delights of struggling with a rally car embedded in a snowbank on the very next stage. From then on, the drivers had a better idea of what they were up against, and between Findlay yelling ‘screw the nut’ and Gemmell muttering ‘shut up’, car 52 stayed on the road for at least a while longer.
Speed traps in Finland can be numbered by how many there are to the mile, and with the exception of a scale of point charges for up to 10 kph over the allowed limit, any speeding meant instant exclusion. Ample time, however, was allowed for the short hops between stages, and the system used must surely find its way over here in time.
At the end of every stage control, the last whole minute of the flying finish time is entered in the time card book, to which is added the already printed number of minutes allowed for the following road section. You then have to arrive within the minute calculated—with ten points a minute being added to your penalties for being late, and twenty a minute for being early. This stops dead in its tracks any ‘road race’ between any more than the section being covered, as any time lost can never be made up later between main controls, as in this country.
The organisation and timing was an essay in perfection, and we noticed that over ninety per cent of the marshals were mature men in their late thirties and forties, who, while obviously enjoying themselves and finding time to be friendly with us ‘furiners’, still took the whole business seriously. The end result was no protests whatsoever and a book of results (about 50 pages long) in everyone’s hands within hours of the finish. With many of the stages used also forming part of the ‘Thousand Lakes’, it meant that, even without notes on the secret route, staggering time differentials could be found amongst Finns who were able to drive from memory. The stages envisaged in their summer aspects made one quake at the very thought of the ‘Thousand Lakes’, many being wide, sweeping, yumpy public roads where the speeds must be truly fantastic. At least in winter, no matter what kind of shunt you had, it would be virtually an impossibility to hurt either car or crew.
Yes, we all had our bothers too, as might be expected on a rally of this magnitude. Gemmell/Findlay had three excursions in all, the last of which was something of a disaster, in that it was the cause of our not being classified as finishers and taking the fastest overseas competitors award, which went to Peter Clarke/Phillip Boland. The penalty system was devised in such a way as to prevent people from checking out of a stage a week after the event had finished, and demanding a time by the simple expedient of subtracting the stage ‘maximum’ from the actual time spent in the stage, and adding the figure to ‘road penalties’. The end result for us was 1 hr 4 mins less 25 mins equals more than the 30 minutes road penalties allowed in any one half of the event.
Around this same time, Smith/McHarg had their bothers on one of the 47 kilometre stages. Poor David was desperate for a kip and looking forward to having nothing to do with navigation for about half an hour, when out of the corner of a nearly shut eye, he saw the inevitable happening. They were in for quite a while, but made it back into the rally within the time allowed, after some heroic effort.
Every international rally has a flavour all its own, and this was no exception. For instance: a sheet was handed to the navigator in three languages at the start of SS40 to the effect that wolves had been seen in the area, and that if one ‘happened to be under the car’ to inform “absolutely of it to the organisers as wolves are protected in Finland!” As an afterthought, they kindly suggested that in the event of a breakdown, “don’t go far from your car”. And another thing, just before the off, a marshal would hand you some last minute warning, which was very nice of them, but was offtimes in Finnish, and by the time you had screamed “English”, you were off. All part of the fun, and I suppose, in that obscure way, one other part of our addictive sport.
To debrief for a sentence or two, and pass on what advice we can:-
Finland is expensive, but if the organisers and the replacement sponsor of Nortti next year continue to provide the concessions of free shipping, hotel (accommodation only), and entry, it can be not too desperate on the pocket. Studded tyres should be bought in this country, and sensible quantities of food should be taken. (drink costs were nipped in the bud when we paid a visit to the duty free place at Heathrow). Service should be shared as widely as possible, say over three or four crews. Oh, and one final thing, – don’t act the optimist and put the snow shovel in the boot, or even in the back seat, – have it right beside the navigator.