3 May 2017

Henri Toivonen: The day a superstar died

Jerry Williams has been covering rallying for more than 40 years, attending World Rally Championship events across the globe to get all the insider knowledge.

I always like to stop and think for a moment today and remember… It was May 2nd, now 31 years ago that we lost Henri Toivonen who died along with his co-driver Sergio Cresta, on the 1986 Tour de Corse.

At the time he was killed I was arriving in Cardiff, having gone there for the Welsh Rally, only to get the shock news.

Toivonen was a one-off, a Group B superstar who I only met two or three times. But each of those meetings was an occasion. The first was pre-Group B, when he won his first RAC Rally, in a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, then the youngest driver ever to win a WRC event.

He drove that snarling Sunbeam Lotus and I remember him arriving for service at Carlisle airfield. His team boss, the legendary Des O’Dell, who I knew quite well, was always a bag of nerves on-event.

Now, with Henri an unexpected third, Des stood by his car, hopping from foot to foot. Then Toivonen arrived, got out, leaned on the car, and, whipping off his shades, said to the still hopping O’Dell: 

“I wish you don’t do that Des or I copy your nerves, not know which foot is for accelerator and crash car!”

“Oh, Gawd, don’t say that, boy” gasped his boss.

Two stages later Toivonen, co-driven by the redoubtable Paul White, was in the lead and held it to the finish in Bath, despite huge pressure from Hannu Mikkola.

Another Toivonen event I vividly remember was the RAC Rally again, in 1985. It was an event-long battle between the two Lancia Delta S4s of Toivonen and Markku “Maximum Attack” Alen and Tony Pond’s Metro 6R4.

Henri won and the moment that sticks in the mind came in the post-rally press conference when an Italian journo complained volubly and constantly about too much time being spent interviewing Pondy, instead of Henri.

Suddenly, the television presenter Barrie Gill spoke up in that piping voice: “Look mate, it’s a British rally, a Finnish driver and an Italian car. Why don’t you f*** off and interview the car?”

Then, on the 1986 Monte a road section shunt with an errant spectator car badly bent Toivonen’s Lancia and left him with a painful hip. Just after the Burzet stage, he told me, chuckling in that deep voice: 

“I don’t know which is more broken; me or car!” 

He must have liked the line. I heard him use it several times afterwards. Despite the injury, he won the rally, humiliating Peugeot’s Timo Salonen on the final night.

Toivonen was the prototype rally driver as rock star. He used that languid walk, the big shades, the basso profundo voice to great effect. And he was all about speed, both in a rally car and in his private life, which was sometimes chaotic.

But he had amazing presence for someone still in his late 20s and was certainly the only driver who truly mastered the crazily powerful S4. Until, that was, the fateful moment in Corsica when he went off on a tightening left hander and the car exploded in trees. 

Before the crash he’d complained that the Delta – 0-100km/hr in 2.9 sec and 0-200 km/hr in a fraction over nine – was virtually uncontrollable on Corsica’s tight, bendy roads. 

But the stage before he crashed, on the D18 just out of Corte, he’d taken second-placed Bruno Saby for 49 seconds. He had also said: 

“This rally is insane, even though everything is going well at the moment. If there is trouble I’m as good as dead.” 

At the time he was taking medicine for a bad head cold. Did he just lose focus? We’ll never know. But I believe that if he had lived he would have become one of the greatest rally drivers of all time. A true loss for the world…

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