Catching Up With Rally Legend Rauno Aaltonen At The Rallye Monte Carlo Historique
Photography by Florence Walker
Historic Photos Provided By BMW Group Classic
To a driver, circuit racing is to rally racing what to a doctor is fully anesthetized surgery to field wound repair. If the thought of the dangers that the Nürburgring holds make your toes curl, move along. The people drawn to this death-defying sport are some of the more interesting sporting characters we’ll ever encounter.
Last week BMW Classic organized for one such character, Rauno Aaltonen, to enter the Monte-Carlo Rally, which he won in 1967 in a Mini Cooper S. The car he drove this year is not the same car, but it is the same model. Still, it competed in the Rallye in 1965 and has been rallied 80 times since 2010 by Hans-Åke Söderqvist, who rebuilt it at his Söderqvist Engineering firm.
I was lucky enough to be invited by our friends at BMW Classic to cheer on Rauno “the Rally Professor” Aaltonen as he sliced through the freezing mountain pass of Col Turini in the Alpes-Maritimes at the Rally Monte-Carlo Historique at 0130AM. The next day as we gathered for a photo-op back down in Monte Carlo, I squeezed myself into a huddled group where the Finnish driver was recounting what had happened during the night in 1967 when he passed through Col Turini at 4 in the morning.
Rauno Aaltonen: Listen to this. This is an interesting story. When we came down they had these concrete blocks. Classic ones. About so wide and so high and there were supposed to be iron bars between the blocks, but the bars were missing. Now, as I told you there was this snow storm that started. So when we come to the top of Turini my co-driver announced very drily, “You are two minutes down,” meaning I was two minutes slower than I had been in practice, which was amongst traffic. So we were very slow. And we knew that Vic Elford with Porsche had been behind me by 30 seconds at the start. We were leading.
RA: And between our drives, this snow storm came and you couldn’t see the road surface. So, it was all white but still quite good traction. We came down quite fast. We were in third gear already. And then suddenly under the snow there was a more slippery patch of ice. So the front goes out and out and out, and then I have to make a quick decision. Do I purposefully hit the concrete block and stop there? Write the car off? No danger for us because we had belts and things. Or, shall I fly off between the concrete blocks and hope that we don’t hit anything? So, think of the odds; first of all, if you hit the concrete box there or later on, the impact is the same, so 50/50.
The next thing is that if you break your car at the concrete posts then everything is over but there is a chance that you don’t hit anything if you go through the concrete posts. So, I took the chance. We landed on soft snow on a very steep hill and the trees were like Christmas trees. Fir trees with heavy snow on them, beautiful looking, and there are boulders this high, stones like in Asterisk, those obelisk things, and they were snow covered so they were like ghosts everywhere. So I changed down to second gear, for the soft snow, but when you have very high revs for your wheels, you keep moving.
So. The car keeps moving. I kept it moving and slalomed between those trees and boulders and suddenly there was a big bank that was the road. It was a shortcut! We jumped the bank and continued driving and then I could see that the trees were growing at the wrong angle. We were going uphill! So, I had to make a quick handbrake turn and continue in the right direction.
We won by 7 seconds.
Bystander: They used that in many James Bond movies later on though.
RA: Reality is much harder. In circuit racing it’s simple. You can see it all … You know what happens. In rallying it’s all unexpected and that makes a challenge for me. But this story I don’t usually tell anybody because, in theory, that was a shortcut and shortcuts are forbidden.
Florence Walker: How are you still awake after all of the driving you did this weekend?
RA: Well I like sleep a lot and I normally, if possible, I sleep eight hours every night. I never travel by car on holidays because it’s boring to me. I fly with a normal aircraft to somewhere where I hire a car because I hate slow driving. But when you drive these events it’s the mind. It’s your mental control. This was actually not children’s play because in the old days we used to do rallies where you drove 60 hours. No driver change. No rest. No stopping. Full speed. Then six hours hotel, then again 60 hours and it went on and on and on. Those rallies don’t exist anymore. FIA says that it’s too dangerous for the drivers. Maybe. But it’s a question about staying awake, it’s concentration, mental.
Bystander: Do you remember the average speed that you did in 1967?
RA: No, not important to know really. Sometimes though it could be 15 minutes for 25 kilometers, which is 100 KPH. But that’s only good conditions. It could, also, be 25 minutes. Therefore we don’t talk about average, we talk about times only, and the time difference for the next car. In this car, it’s part of the story: it didn’t have a high top speed. We had a final forward drive that was one to one, which means that we had lower tops speeds, but a lot more acceleration. In the Mini the gearbox and the engine is one piece, so you can’t switch the gear ratios. Then you have the final drive which is next to it, and it cannot be changed either. But we know this is good, this 4.5 gear, we’ve had it for 50 years.
FW: So what was the preparation like for this year’s rally?
RA: We had very good prep because I had the chance to make some good notes.You have to do them when it’s dry, and the reason for that is I have to see the sides of the road. If there is a big boulder next to the road or whatever, you won’t see it in winter because of the snow. You have to know what’s under the snow, because when everything is covered in snow we use the banks to bounce off of.
FW: You’re kidding?
RA: Yeah. It’s totally different. A different way of driving. So, we did five days in December using a Mini Cooper S Clubman and made notes for all stages, and drove some of them depending on what time of day it was, because you have to see where you can sleep, where you can get petrol. Some of them we did three times, some two times, and some one time. Then we came back a week before the rally and went over it once more, looked through them just once, and the plan was that we wanted to do it in January, because we were expecting snow, and it would look different, so the grading of our notes would have to be changed slightly. The basic notes must always be done in dry though, i.e. without snow.
RA: My co-driver, Hans, had to put together the road book to understand the intermediate distances. Intermediate distance is understated because while the car is moving, there is no way you can measure the distance properly, and we are talking about an accuracy of two meters. Then we had at the same time a GPS navigation showing the distance. Hans then compared both of them and that was quite a big problem because there were variations, because of the weak GPS signal. You get no signal sometimes. When the signal is missing, then the distance is immediately shortened, so he had a lot to do and to write and he was just about ready with his corrections when we started. What happened was that we then happened to have the wrong type of average speed computer. In the rally itself, we measure the distance from rear wheels, one rear wheel and then we set in average speed. Then the display tells us are we ahead or behind the time, but we didn’t have this match. We dropped 100 places on the full rally.
FW: But overall, you had a good rally?
RA: For us it was actually a bad rally. But see if you compare it with the results, the Mini is a winning car. It’s not about which car may win in the moment, it is basically whether every piece of the car is good enough to have won.
FW: Is this not the same car that you drove in ’67?
RA: It’s a car that was built at the same time, which has been rallied, and when we decided that we could use this car, the car was taken apart so they could completely replace everything inside. It was resprayed in red to match the original car, and then put back together. All fatigued parts were renewed because these cars have a habit of throwing wheels. I’ve lost 100 wheels in my life.
FW: Can you remember each one?
RA: No, but I know how it happens. To stay alive, the skill is to anticipate when it’s about to go. See, my hobby is also gliding, and in gliding you are taught all the time when you fly to look for a emergency landing place. All the time. Has to be clear if you have to go down, wherever you go. Same with the car: when you’re driving, you automatically think where is my emergency exit if I have to go off?
FW: What was your first rally?
RA: That was in Finland when I had just got my license. I was 18, in 1956. It was the Finnish snow rally. The only piece of the car which was untouched was the top of the trunk. In Finland we drive on unknown roads, unpracticed.
FW: It’s all blind?
RA: All blind.
FW: No notes?
RA: No notes, all blind. That’s a Finnish specialty. This trains you to read the nature, the environment you drive in. You have to see what trees there are… is there a bend? Because that means flowing water, etc. There are millions of things like this when you’re driving. I started both rallying and circuit racing, and I found that in rallying, the challenge is much higher than in circuit racing where you know the circuit. I saw rallying as being a bigger challenge. I knew I would earn more money by trying to get to world champion with other racing, but I love this atmosphere of rallying, so you can’t do both. But I have continued to circuit race during my career as well. In Austin Healeys mostly, or GT cars, because the factory that endorses me has both and they normally put me into something for circuits.
FW: Who are your favorite competitors?
RA: Competitors? There are many. Right in the beginning, it was a Swede, Erik Carlsson. Who had the nickname, ‘Erik on the Roof,’ because he used to always roll his Saabs. Why? The reason is that Saabs had very soft suspension. Long travel, which gives you better traction, the wheels follow the road, but if the car comes onto a ledge it can easily flip.
I have a funny story about flipping a car in a Finnish winter rally. I think it was ’67. We come over a crest, blind, 130, 140 KPH, high snow walls, and suddenly between the snow walls, half of the road is filled by the snow drift. It’s powder snow, but it’s still solid. We hit this, the car flips, and it went six times end over end. It landed every time on the rear window, and the rear window broke, flew off, and every time it went over it dug into more and more and more snow, and finally the car landed back on the road. You have no control once you start rolling like that.
Then we were back on the road, in the right direction, with the front wheels a bit off but drivable, and I look back, and on the road there were two spare wheels in line. Henry, my old driver’s camera, the notes and papers are all in a straight line, with some Castrol cans too. I said, “Henry, get every thing else, leave the wheels.” The reason being, when the next car comes, and he sees my wheels on the road, he’ll get scared!
My opinion is to not take any unnecessary risks. They come automatically anyway.
FW: Slow and steady wins the race?
RA: Well, your competition is going fast! When time’s lost, you never get it back.
FW: You didn’t win this year, and I know that you have a very competitive nature. What’s your advice to people who are competitive who occasionally don’t have the luck of winning?
RA: Forget it. Look to the future, but try to learn from your mistakes.
FW: Will we be seeing you rally this next year?
RA: I hope, if my health allows. I am perfectly well, and I have tested for and passed the international racing driver’s license, so I can drive any race car on the racetrack.
FW: And finally, what’s your favorite story to tell?
RA: There are so many. It would take a week to tell them all.
FW: Sounds like a worthwhile week.