2021 will mark the 70th edition of Rally Finland and a lot has happened throughout the years on this incredible event. Driven on wide and smooth gravel roads, featuring blind crests and big jumps, it is the fastest event in the World Rally Championship and has been dubbed the “Grand Prix of Rallying” and the “Grand Prix on Gravel”.
Rally Finland is among the largest annually organized public events in the Nordic countries, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators each year. It is also among the most popular and prestigious rallies in the championship.
Over the years, Rally Finland has been known to be one of the most popular event in the Nordic countries. It’s also a very difficult event for non-Nordic drivers; only seven drivers from countries other than Finland or Sweden have won the event- in the 1980s and before, the field was made up almost entirely of Finnish and Swedish drivers.
Rally Finland was first held under the name Jyväskylän Suurajot (Jyväskylä Grand Prix) in 1951. Originally an endurance event that stretched to Lapland in Northern Finland, the rally was at the forefront of the adoption of the modern rally format, splitting the route into a number of special stages in the mid-1950s. With increasing international attention, it became part of the European Rally Championship program in 1959. After the start of the World Rally Championship in 1973, the event became the Finnish round in the series.
Rally Finland began to gain importance in the 1970s, and local heroes such as Hannu Mikkola, Markku Alén, Timo Salonen, Tommi Mäkinen and Marcus Grönholm are the most successful names at this rally, and Swedish drivers such as Stig Blomqvist also found success in there.
In July 1951, Pentti Barck’s proposal for an annual competition in Jyväskylä was accepted. The first-ever rally began on 1 September 1951 as Jyväskylän Suurajot (Jyväskylä Grand Prix). 26 entrants tackled the 1,700 kilometre (1,060 mi) route that stretched to Rovaniemi in Lapland, through Kokkola and Oulu, and back to the rally headquarters in Jyväskylä. The winner Arvo Karlsson, driving an Austin Atlantic, had accumulated the least penalty points and had been the closest to the target times throughout the route and the special tests involving hill climbing and acceleration.
The 1952 event included Helsinki as an alternative starting point and the field expanded to 48 entries. Eino Elo was the only driver to finish the route, the acceleration and braking tests without penalty points.
In 1953, Oulu was added as a third starting point, and 66 crews started the 2,200 kilometers course in two-minute intervals.
The 1954 running of the rally saw the introduction of the international name “The Rally of the Thousand Lakes”. There were now eleven starting cities, one of which was Sundsvall in neighboring Sweden.
In 1955, the event became increasingly closer to the format of a modern rally competition; the number of special stages was increased to eleven, marking the highest amount in any European rally. Elo and Peugeot became the first two-time winners of the event.
The 1956 rally featured 19 stages totaling 1,800 kilometers (1,100 mi).
In 1957, the rally had a record number of entries from foreign countries. Sweden’s Erik Carlsson drove his Saab 93 to victory as the first non-Finn.
In the 1958 1000 Lakes, documented by a 20th Century Fox film crew, seven drivers crashed out on the same curve on a foggy night. Brothers Osmo and Eino Kalpala took a record third win in an Alfa Romeo Giulietta TI, which marked the first victory for an Italian car.
In 1959, the 1000 Lakes Rally was included in the European Rally Championship calendar. It was also one of the four rallies that counted towards the first-ever Finnish Rally Championship.
At the 1960 1000 Lakes Rally, nearly half of the 85 entries were from foreign countries.
Later in the 1960s, the 1000 Lakes was dominated by the first generation of “Flying Finns” of rallying. Rauno Aaltonen beat Pauli Toivonen to the win in 1961, while Toivonen took the honours in 1962. A record 104 drivers started the 1962 event.
Simo Lampinen, barely twenty years old, became the first driver to take consecutive wins, finishing ahead of Sweden’s Tom Trana in 1963 and 1964.
As practice had been allowed for 1965, speeds became higher than ever. These factors brought several challenges to the organizers. 1,200 officials were appointed for the 1965 event, over 2,000 for 1967 and over 3,000 for 1968. As the organizers and the gravel roads could not handle fields close to 200 cars, only 130 of the 173 entries qualified for the start in 1965.
In 1966, entries were only accepted from drivers who had finished in at least three rallies. Timo Mäkinen, who had already won in Monte Carlo, drove his Mini Cooper S to victory in 1965 and continued the success in 1966.
In 1967, he beats Lampinen to the win by eight seconds despite driving the high-speed Ouninpohja stage with his bonnet open.
His hat-trick of wins was followed by Hannu Mikkola’s successes in a Ford Escort TC.
The 1970 1000 Lakes had a record 52 stages, which totaled 460 competitive kilometers. An estimated audience of 350,000–500,000 spectators watched Mikkola match Mäkinen’s feat of three wins in a row.
In 1971, the rally was won by a Swedish driver for the third time; Stig Blomqvist finished well ahead of Tapio Rainio and Markku Alén.
The 1972 event increased the length of special stages to almost 700 km.
The 1973 1000 Lakes Rally guaranteed a spot in the inaugural World Rally Championship calendar and ended with Ford’s Timo Mäkinen becoming the first driver to win the event four times, and the first Finn to win a WRC round.
The rally route became a secret again in 1975, and pre-event practice was heavily limited. Mikkola drove to a record fifth victory and Toyota became the first Japanese manufacturer to win the event.
In 1978, the course stretched to Kuopio and as a result 25 of the 45 special stages were new.
The 1979 1000 Lakes raised the highest number of accepted entries to 150. World championship points were now awarded for drivers as well as for manufacturers. Fiat’s Alén collected most by taking his third win in the event.
For the 1980 season, the 1000 Lakes saw the return of the short Harju asphalt stage held in the center of Jyväskylä.
Although the 1000 Lakes continued to be dominated by Nordic drivers, David Richards became the third British co-driver to celebrate the win in 1981.
In 1982, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden arrived to follow the event and a record 450 reporters were present. Dominant Audi took a one-two with its factory drivers Hannu Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist.
The 1983 rally featured a field of 180 cars, over a hundred of which failed to make it to the finish. Mikkola edged out Blomqvist to extend the event record to a still-standing seven wins.
In 1984, over half a million spectators were expected and about 5,000 marshals were appointed. Vatanen won the event and Peugeot continued their success in the last two Group B years, as Timo Salonen drove to victory in 1985 and 1986.
The 1985 event marked the first time the drivers’ world championship had been decided in Finland; Salonen captured the title with three rallies to go.
1986 marked one of the tightest duels in the event’s history, Toyota’s Juha Kankkunen led Lancia’s Markku Alén by just two seconds after 33 of the 39 stages. Kankkunen’s engine failed on the next stage, and Alén became the first driver to win the same WRC round six times.
In 1989, Mikael Ericsson of Sweden drove to victory as the first non-Finn in 18 years.
The 40th anniversary event in 1990 featured a route stretching to Tampere and gathered a large audience, roughly estimated at 450,000–500,000. Toyota’s Spanish driver Carlos Sainz became the first competitor outside Finland and Sweden to win the rally.
Sainz’s feat was soon repeated; Didier Auriol, who had become the first Frenchman on the podium in his debut in 1988, beat his Lancia teammate Kankkunen to the win in 1992. Kankkunen took his second win in three years in 1993.
In 1994, the rally was renamed to Neste 1000 Lakes Rally as Neste became the title sponsor.
In 1997, AKK Sports, the marketing company of AKK-Motorsport, took over as the organizer and the WRC teams awarded the event for its safety efforts. A new super special stage was built at Hippos, along with a VIP village for 1,600 people. In the following year, teams voted the event as the Rally of the Year. On his way to a record third consecutive title, Mäkinen set a record with his fifth Rally Finland win in a row.
Entry lists included ice hockey star and auto racing enthusiast Teemu Selänne, who finished 33rd in 1997 and 24th in 1998.
The 50th running of the Rally Finland in 2000 was won by Peugeot’s Marcus Grönholm, who would go on to dominate the event. In 2002, Englishman Richard Burns challenged teammate Grönholm to become the third non-Nordic competitor to win the rally but broke his car on a jump in Ouninpohja while leading the event. The next foreign winner was Ford’s Estonian driver Markko Märtin in the following year. For the first time in the history of the event, no Finnish driver made it onto the podium.
Rally Finland was chosen the “Rally of the Year” for the third year in a row in 2004.
In 2005, Grönholm set the still-standing record for the highest average speed in a world rally; 122.86 kilometres per hour (76.34 mph).
In the 2007 Rally Finland, Grönholm equalled Mikkola’s win record and became the first driver to win the same WRC event seven times.
At the 2008 rally, Sébastien Loeb added his name to the list of non-Nordic winners. This also marked Citroën’s first win since 1962.
The 2010 event saw a major change; the rally was run in two days instead of three and finished on Saturday. Ford’s Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala took their debut home wins in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
At the 2011 Rally Finland, Loeb made history by becoming the first non-Finn to win the event twice and repeated the performance in 2012.
The Flying Finn Jari-Matti Latvala secured his second and third Rally Finland win in 2014 and 2015 with the Volkswagen Polo R WRC.
In 2017, Esapekka Lappi took his first ever WRC Win on home soil with the TOYOTA Yaris WRC
The two last editions were marked by the domination of Ott Tänäk becoming the first Estonian driver to win Rally Finland twice.
The 70th Edition will take place in Jyväskylä in the beginning of October for the first time since the event debut due to the COVID-19 challenges. The question stays open. Who will win this very special edition?