Henri Toivonen: Racing driver!
People often say that rally drivers are the most talented in the sport, and very few have succeeded at both levels: You are either a rally driver or a road racer. Gerard Larrousse and Vic Elford spring to mind, while today’s candidates are Stephane Sarrazin and of course Sebastien Loeb. Robert Kubica was also a pretty quick rally driver too until his unfortunate accident. And we can’t forget that Jim Clark nearly won the 1966 RAC Rally of Great Britain.
As you can read earlier here on Motorsport Retro, Ayrton Senna dipped his toe quietly into rally waters to see what it was like. Fun was all it was, he stuck to road racing.
Not many rally drivers, however, start in road racing then switch to successful rally careers. Carlos Sainz is one, but another is Finnish star Henri Toivonen, who could have been just as successful as a circuit racer as well as a rally star.
Motor sport was in his blood from birth, as he was the son of 1968 European Rally Champion Pauli, so it was almost inevitable that young Henri would be behind the-wheel at an early age. Five years old, in fact, in a kart. Once he started racing for real, his father sold Henri’s kart – to the parents of a six-year-old Mika Hakkinen. The Hakkinens often took their son to the Kerpen track in Germany, a track owned by the father of Michael Schumacher, and their pair of them raced together as kids, both on their way to becoming big rivals and Formula 1 World Champions many years later.
Despite having told his school teachers he wanted to be a rally driver, Henri moved up to circuit racing in cars, purely because he wasn’t old enough to drive on the public roads. He was quickly winning on the tracks, taking the Finnish Touring Car Cup. Then he switched to single-seaters, moving into Formula Super Vee in Europe, and became the Finnish Super Vee Champion in 1977.
His father, naturally, preferred rallying to racing, and Henri made the switch as soon as he was old enough, where he became highly successful. But he continued in circuit racing too, largely to avoid conscription into the Finnish army. Basically having as many event commitments as possible where he ‘represented Finland’ abroad, kept him out of the military front line…
So in 1982, he competed in a few rounds of the British Formula 3 championship, including the final round at Thruxton for Eddie Jordan’s young team, and finished 10th. It was an experience he enjoyed. “It was fantastically exciting,” he said looking back in an interview in 1984. “In F3, everybody wants to win at any cost, they’re all crazy! It was a pity I didn’t have a more powerful engine, but while I enjoyed it, I’m already too old to make the switch to single-seaters.
“If you want to get to F1 you have to be pretty close to it by the time you are 25, with one foot already well up the ladder. But F1 is really great. In 1982 I got to drive Raul Boesel’s March – what a thrill.”
Jordan himself saw talent, comparing the Finn to a young Ayrton Senna, who started that Thruxton F3 race from pole in a race won by Martin Brundle. “I don’t know if he would have become a champion in Formula 1,” Jordan was quoted in a Finnish book about Toivonen. “But he would have won Grands Prix – of that I’m absolutely sure.”
His circuit-racing days weren’t over yet, despite his growing success on the World Rally Championship. In 1983 Porsche had already wrapped up the manufacturers title in the World Endurance Championship before the end of the season. So the works team decided not to contend the final two races. Le Mans legend Derek Bell switched to Richard Lloyd Racing’s privateer Porsche to partner reigning Formula 2 champion and already a Grand Prix driver Jonathan Palmer. For the 1000kms at Imola and Mugello, they drafted in Toivonen, and they finished fourth in Imola and on the podium in third in Mugello. To give you an idea of the competition, the winners that day was the Porsche of Bob Wollek/Stefan Johansson, second were Riccardo Patrese/Sandro Nannini in the gorgeous Lancia Martinis. That alone proves Toivonen was no slouch on the tracks…
There is a whole other story about his stellar rallying career, but it was one cut short by an accident that tragically claimed the life of the 29-year-old and his co-driver, American Sergio Cresta in 1986 on the Tour de Corse. The rallying world was stunned at the loss of Toivonen, one of its shining stars.
Henri Toivonen’s legacy continues though, with the world’s most successful female rally driver Michele Mouton publishing a book in 1988, called “Champions” which celebrated 10 years of World Rally Champions. The only one not included was Henri, who most believe would have been a champion sooner rather than later, and the whole book is a tribute the multi-talented Finn.
Mouton and Frederik Johnsson have continued the tribute, starting the annual Race of Champions that year with Johnsson which is a fun/serious end of year gathering that pitches the world’s best from rallying, Formula 1, Le Mans, and others against each other in equal machinery. The event has grown, and today attracts such as Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, and NASCAR greats Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Winners of the Henri Toivonen Memorial trophy at the Race of Champions have included Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Sebastien Loeb. The event is a very fitting tribute to a great all-rounder who had success and respect on both sides of the motorsport fence.