Henri Toivonen

INTRODUCTION

Henri Pauli Toivonen (August 25th 1956 ~ May 2nd 1986) was a Finnish rally driver born into what later came to be known as “Finland’s Fastest Family”. His father, Pauli, was the 1968 European Rally Champion (ERC) for Porsche and his brother, Harri, became a professional circuit racer. In his early motorsport career, Henri swapped back and forth between circuit racing and rallying, ultimately settling on the latter. At 24 years old, Henri set the record for being the youngest driver ever to win a World Rally Championship (WRC) event: a record that stood for almost 28 years. Henri’s furious hard-charging style made him crash out or retire from almost half of the rallies he ever entered. Henri’s legacy is widely synonymous with Group B’s tumultuous fate.


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PERSONAL SUMMARY (WRC)

Personal information
Nationality Finland Finnish
Born August 25th 1956
Jyvaskyla, Finland
Died May 2nd 1986 (aged 29)
Corse, France
World Rally Championship record
Active years 1975~1986
Teams Talbot, Opel, Porsche, Lancia
Rallies 40
Championships 0
Rally wins 3
Podiums 9
Stage wins 185
Total points 194
First rally 1975 1000 Lakes Rally
First win 1980 Lombard RAC Rally
Last win 1986 Monte Carlo Rally
Last rally 1986 Tour de Corse

RALLY BIOGRAPHY

EARLY CAREER

Henri Toivonen had strong ties to rallying at an early age since he was born in Jyväskylä, the city which has hosted the Rally Finland since 1951. Henri grew up watching his father, Pauli, become a successful international rally driver and go on to win the Monte Carlo, 1000 Lakes and Acropolis rallies to become the 1968 European Rally Champion.

Henri learned to drive when he was five years old, but despite his father’s rallying connections, started competition in circuit racing instead. He began with karts and won the Finnish Cup in touring cars before switching to Formula Vee, winning one round of the Scandinavian Championship in his first year. Toivonen graduated to Formula Super Vee the following year and won a round of the European Championship, as well as becoming the 1977 Finnish Champion in the Formula Vee class.

Due to Finnish legislation, which at that time limited new drivers to a top speed of 80 kph (50 mph) on public roads, Toivonen was unable to compete in rallying until he was 19 years old. With Antero Lindqvist as his co-driver, Henri made his WRC debut at the 1975 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland, driving a privately entered Simca Rallye 2. He would retire from his first four events, finishing a low 81th place on the fifth, which closed his unsuccessful rally debut with the car. Things got much better after switching to a Chrysler Avenger as Henri finished in 5th place at the 1977 1000 Lakes Rally, also scoring his first podium at the Pohjola Rally (2nd place).

From there on out, Toivonen would consistently finish in the top ten of rallies he did not retire or crash out from. In 1978, Henri went on to compete in two WRC rallies for Citroën Compétitions, driving a CX 2400 GTI. Although he did not finish either event, his driving attracted attention; a private Porsche team offered Toivonen a car for the 1000 Lakes Rally, as did Chrysler for the Lombard RAC Rally. That same year, Henri captured his first career rally wins at the Nordic Rally and Tott Rally.

In the 1979 season, Toivonen gathered rallying experience by competing in fifteen rallies of the British, Finnish and European championships. Toivonen also competed in two WRC events: the 1000 Lakes with a Fiat 131 Abarth and the RAC with a Ford Escort RS 1800. Henri retired from both, but at his home event he had been matching the pace of the leaders before leaving the road. These eyebrow-raising performances led to a contract with the factory Talbot Sport team for the 1980 season.

1980~1981: TALBOT

Toivonen’s first season driving for a major car manufacturer’s ‘works’ team was largely a trial year to get the Group 4 Talbot Sunbeam Lotus through its paces. Henri started the season by winning the Arctic Rally in January, but only drove in four selected WRC events. His exuberant driving style often led to crashes, and his results were often not representative of his pace. In hopes of better results, the team partnered Toivonen with three different co-drivers during the season: Antero Lindqvist, Paul White and Neil Wilson.

Henri Toivonen, Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, RAC Rally 1980

Henri’s rise to stardom came by winning the famous WRC Lombard RAC Rally, over four minutes ahead of runner-up Hannu Mikkola. Neither Toivonen nor Talbot were expected to be competitive in the rally. In an interview published in Autosport three days before the rally started, Toivonen himself had not expected to challenge for the win:

“I don’t think that I have done enough events to win the rally just by driving skill, for instance. If I win, it will be because I have a little bit of luck and some of the others have trouble. I mean, Hannu Mikkola knows the forests like the back of his hand so there is no use trying to drive to beat him. You have to wait for him to have trouble. Then you are in with a chance.”

At 24 years and 86 days, he remained the youngest driver to win a WRC event until his countryman Jari-Matti Latvala won the 2008 Swedish Rally at the age of 22. When interviewed about this feat, Latvala stated:

“It’s a super feeling, it’s almost unbelievable. Henri (Toivonen) was one of my idols and secretly I’ve always wanted to beat his record as the youngest winner.”

(c) eWRC-results.com / Henri Toivonen – Rallye Sanremo 1981

In the 1981 season, largely due to his surprise win, Henri was signed up for a larger WRC programme and was assigned Fred Gallagher as his new co-driver. Talbot’s rear-wheel drive Sunbeam Lotus was now less competitive against the four wheel drive Audi quattro. Despite this, Toivonen would score three podiums, resulting in a seventh place overall in the drivers’ championship. However, together with more consistent teammate Guy Fréquelin, Henri helped brought Talbot a surprise manufacturers’ title.

1982~1983: OPEL

For the 1982 Group 4 to Group B transition year, Toivonen switched to the Rothmans-sponsored Opel team, which was co-managed by David Richards. Henri’s star-studded teammates were Ari Vatanen, who had won the 1981 driver championship, 1980 world champion Walter Röhrl, and Jimmy McRae, the previous year’s British Rally Champion and father of future rally star Colin McRae. In his debut season with the Ascona B 400, Toivonen competed in four more WRC events, finishing on the podium twice at the Acropolis and RAC Rally. This would see him end the season in seventh place in the WRC and runner-up in the British championship.

Henri Toivonen – RAC Rally 1982

In the meanwhile, Toivonen did not forget his former circuit racing aspirations and also made a guest appearance in one round of the British Formula 3 championship, where he finished tenth driving a Ralt RT3. In his Formula 1 test for March Grand Prix at the Silverstone Circuit, Toivonen was 1.4 seconds faster than the team’s regular driver Raul Boesel – a result that impressed many but Henri would return to focusing on his rally career.

Henri Toivonen – Sanremo Rally 1983

Toivonen continued with Opel into the 1983 season, soon switching from the Ascona to the Group B Manta B 400. Although the Manta took advantage of the looser Group B regulations, it was yet under-powered against the likes of the Audi quattro A2 and the Lancia Rallye 037. Both cars would soon control the international and WRC scenes thus leaving Opel to watch the fight from behind. Henri nonetheless achieved a win at the Manx International Rally at his first attempt. He also finished first at the Mille Pistes rally in France, but the organisers decided to ban all Group B cars halfway through the event. Toivonen and his co-driver, Ian Grindrod, received only a consolation trophy. In the WRC, Henri would crash out of most events, only scoring a 6th and 4th place at the Monte Carlo and Sanremo rallies, respectively.

Jonathan Palmer – Derek Bell – Henri Toivonen, Porsche 956

In late October, Toivonen again competed on the circuits by entering two races, driving a Porsche 956 for Richard Lloyd Racing in the World Sportscar Championship, partnered with Derek Bell and Jonathan Palmer. Toivonen and his teammates finished fourth at Imola and third in the next race at Mugello.

1984: PORSCHE (ERC) / LANCIA (WRC part-time)

Opel Team Europe basically abandoned their WRC programme due to their poor results of 1983 and ended the contracts of their drivers. While originally in negotiations with Peugeot, Toivonen eventually signed to drive a Porsche 911 SC/RS for the Rothmans-sponsored Porsche factory team in the ERC. The team was run by Prodrive, a new motorsport group set up by David Richards, Toivonen’s former boss at Opel. Henri would also sign-up for selective WRC events with the Lancia Martini team.

Henri Toivonen – Ypres 24 Hours Rally 1984

Toivonen’s ERC season with Porsche turned out to be a success overall, despite starting with two retirements, thanks to three victories and three other podiums. Henri’s hunt for the ERC championship was going well until his part-time WRC contract with Lancia began to muddle things up. Lancia boss Cesare Fiorio wanted fellow Italian Carlo Capone to win the European title, hence it was suggested that Fiorio would purposely entangle Toivonen in WRC events to keep him away from important ERC rounds. However, Toivonen’s ERC title campaign ended when a back injury kept him out of action for two months, missing several events, and finishing second in the championship behind Capone.

1985~1986: LANCIA

Albeit Porsche wanted to retain Toivonen for another go at the ERC championship, Henri chose to sign a new WRC contract with Lancia Martini. Fiorio stated that the team needed another top driver as arch-rival Audi had signed four world class drivers to spearhead their efforts. For Lancia, this would also be a transition year since the marque’s four wheel drive contender, the Delta S4, was due out near the end of the season. Toivonen would also be assigned to assist its development.

(c) eWRC-results.come / Henri Toivonen – Rallye Sanremo 1985

The 1985 season started badly when Toivonen crashed his Lancia 037 rearward into an embankment at the Rally Costa Smeralda, seriously injuring his back and breaking three vertebrae in his neck due to whiplash. This would keep Henri out of the driving seat for almost four months. Meanwhile, Toivonen and Markku Alén would lose a friend and teammate, when Italian driver Attilio Bettega crashed fatally during the fourth special stage at the Tour de Corse.

Toivonen made his comeback from his injuries at the 1000 Lakes Rally in August and finished a decent fourth. Henri finished third at the next rally in Sanremo, his final event with the Rallye 037. The ageing rear wheel drive car did not quite suit Toivonen’s driving style and had fallen well behind Audi’s Sport quattro and Peugeot’s 205 T16 four wheel drive supercars. It was replaced by the twin-charged, mid-engine, four wheel drive Delta S4 for the final event of the season. The car turned out to be an immediate success at its very first outing, the RAC Rally – Lancia scoring a 1-2 finish at the hands of Toivonen and Alén, respectively.

(c) eWRC-results.com / Henri Toivonen – Lombard RAC Rally 1985

The 1986 season started with a dominant win for Toivonen at the Monte Carlo Rally with new co-driver Sergio Cresto, emulating his father Pauli who had won the event 20 years earlier after ten cars, including the first four to cross the finishing line, were disqualified due to having non-standard headlights. The disqualification had caused an uproar and Prince Rainier of Monaco refused to attend the prize-giving ceremony. Henri’s victory caused his father to comment “Now the name of Toivonen has been cleared”. The Monte Carlo win made Toivonen and Lancia instant favourites for the WRC titles.

(c) eWRC-results.com / Henri Toivonen – Rallye Automobile de Monte-Carlo 1986

It would then seem that Toivonen had found in the Delta S4 the car that best suited his all-out driving style and immense talent. However, at the Swedish Rally he retired from the lead due to an engine failure. At the next rally in Portugal, Joaquim Santos lost control of his Ford RS200 on a special stage and plunged into the crowd. The accident killed three spectators and injured more than 30. Toivonen along with all the other factory team drivers decided to withdraw from the event, but Lancia disapproved of the retirement.

In a well known myth, it was unofficially reported that, before the Portugese Rally, Henri Toivonen drove two test laps on the circuit of Estoril in Portugal with a 800+ BHP version of the twincharged engine and came within a few seconds of the qualification times made by the Formula One cars. The myth had some recent backing when Ninni Russo, Lancia’s rally team manager of the time, somewhat confirmed the rumours. However, Russo stressed on the fact that Toivonen, whom had prior Formula experience, was no ordinary driver. It has since remained a highly debated story.

DEATH

The 1986 Tour de Corse, a WRC event set around the island of Corsica, began on Thursday, 1st of May. Toivonen was reported for having a sore throat and suffering from flu, but insisted on driving. According to several unofficial sources, Henri was taking medicine to treat his fever. Despite his ill health, Toivonen dominated the first day of the rally, leading it by a large margin.

Henri Toivonen – Tour de Corse 1986

During the second day, on Friday, 2nd of May, at the seventh kilometre of the 18th stage, Corte–Taverna, Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto crashed their Lancia Delta S4 in a somewhat mundane left-hand corner. The car inexplicably flipped over the stone parapet, rolled down the rocky embankment through some bushes, got hanged in some trees, and caught fire. The accident had no witnesses close enough to clearly see the event but some reported hearing an explosion and seeing a huge ball of fire and smoke shooting up from the treeline. The main theory was that, when the Delta S4 hit the parapet, something pierced the fuel tank which most likely made the fuel spill out and come into contact with a hot mechanical part that ignited it. The crew had little to no chance of escape. Toivonen and Cresto reportedly died while still strapped in their seats.

The charred frame and some mechanical parts are the only leftovers from Toivonen’s crash

Since some people already considered Group B cars to be blatantly unsafe, the FISA would focus its investigation on the car itself. In the incident report, although the true cause could not be effectively determined, they attributed many contributing factors; such that the car was running the thin homologated fuel tank which was dangerously placed partly underneath the front seats and that the team had removed the skid-plates to make the car lighter for increased performance.

Ironically, Henri Toivonen was considered to be the only person truly able to tame the Delta S4 and exploit its full potential, as if the car had been designed for him. However, Toivonen had too much talent to be taken agape by such a mundane corner so one can only wonder if he had some sort of blackout just before the crash. This theory, in addition to his flu, is fuelled by the rumours that Toivonen had a pre-existing condition due to a neck injury suffered from his severe crash at the 1985 Rally Costa Smeralda, albeit mechanical failure also cannot be ruled out.

Toivonen left behind wife Erja and two young children, son Markus and daughter Arla, while Cresto was single with no children. Toivonen was buried in Espoo, where his family moved from Jyväskylä when Toivonen was still very young. In Corsica, a marble slab dedicated to him and Sergio Cresto was placed at the curve where Toivonen drove out. The memorial place always has an unopened bottle of Martini, which is a reference to Toivonen’s Martini-sponsored Lancia factory team. A local resident puts new flowers by the slab every day.

THE INFAMOUS GROUP B BAN

Jean-Marie Balestre

Mere hours after the deaths of Toivonen and Cresto, FISA’s president Jean-Marie Balestre (whom coincidentally was in Corsica) reportedly had a private meeting with Lancia Martini team boss Cesare Fiorio. Balestre is said to have told Fiorio that “things can’t go on like this” and that “Group B has to stop”, to which Fiorio reportedly agreed with even though that meant the demise of his newly launched and quite successful Delta S4 rally car.

For Fiorio, the death of two of his drivers at the same event in yearly succession surely must have weighed heavily on his mind.

Shortly afterwards, Balestre organised a press conference and announced the immediate freeze on further “evolution” development of the rally cars, including a stop to further additions of aerodynamic aids such as side skirts, and most importantly of the outright ban of Group B from competition for the end of the year. The category’s planned 1988 replacement, Group S, was also annulled on the spot.

This is the short story, for more information about Group B’s ban – please CLICK HERE.

LEGACY

In a Henri Toivonen obituary, titled Rebel With a Cause, published in Motor five days after Toivonen’s fatal accident, rally author Martin Holmes named him a “rebel driver”, and proof that young drivers can be successful in rallying, a sport which had previously been dominated by older, more experienced drivers. However, Toivonen could not achieve the necessary level of consistency to avoid a number of high speed accidents. Prior to the introduction of the Delta S4, Henri was known for his ability to make up large amounts of time in single stages. This led to a number of stage wins but also to several bad accidents resulting from driving mistakes, including in early 1985 when he was nearly paralysed in the Rally Costa Smeralda. The World Rally Archive’s Hall of Fame now names him an “icon for the one of the most controversial periods of rallying.”

Race of Champions – Henri Toivonen Memorial Trophy

In 1988, Michèle Mouton, arguably the most successful female rally driver in history, organised the first “Race of Champions” to commemorate Toivonen’s death. The Race of Champions was originally restricted to rally drivers, but became even more popular with the introduction of Formula One and NASCAR stars. The Henri Toivonen Memorial Trophy is awarded to the winner of the individual event every year.

Another trophy bearing Toivonen’s name was the Henri Toivonen Grand Attack Trophy, which was awarded by Peugeot’s Rally Challenge, organised by Des O’Dell, “to the driver who most embodied the spirit shown by the young Finn.” In 2006, Toivonen was honoured at the Neste Oil Rally Finland. An exhibition in memory of him was opened on 17 August in the Rally HQ Jyväskylä Paviljonki. The interviewing event was attended by Henri’s former team mate Markku Alén, former co-driver Juha Piironen, current Ford factory team boss Malcolm Wilson and his brother Harri Toivonen.

Most insiders argue that if not for his untimely passing, Henri Toivonen would most likely have become 1986’s driver champion and propelled Lancia back on top of rallying. The ultimate fate of Toivonen’s career and the Group B supercars is then up to much interpretation. However, as history truly unfolded, Henri and Group B are now forever intertwined in myth and legend.

PARTIAL SOURCE: Wikipedia

(possibly spell-checked, translated, and/or edited; abridged, corrected, and/or expanded)


GROUP B RESULTS (WRC)

(# = finish position / R = retired or DNF / = did not compete)

Y TEAM EVENT PTS
Monaco
MC
Sweden
SE
Portugal
PT
Kenya
KE
France
FR
Greece
GR
New Zealand
NZ
Brazil
BR
Finland
FI
Italy
IT
Ivory Coast
CI
United Kingdom
GB
82 Opel R 3 R 5 3 32
Y Team Event pts
Monaco
MC
Sweden
SE
Portugal
PT
Kenya
KE
France
FR
Greece
GR
New Zealand
NZ
Argentina
AR
Finland
FI
Italy
IT
Ivory Coast
CI
United Kingdom
GB
83 Opel 6 R R 4 R 16
84 Lancia R R 3 12
85 Lancia 6 4 3 1 48
86 Lancia 1 R R X United States
US-
86 pts 20

WRC VICTORIES

 # Event Season Co-driver Car
1 United Kingdom Lombard RAC Rally  1980 Paul White Talbot Sunbeam Lotus
2 United Kingdom Lombard RAC Rally  1985 Neil Wilson Lancia Delta S4
3 Monaco Rallye Automobile de Monte-Carlo 1986 Sergio Cresto Lancia Delta S4

ERC VICTORIES

No. Rally Season CO-DRIVER Car
1 Finland Arctic Rally 1980 Antero Lindqvist Talbot Sunbeam Lotus
2 United Kingdom Rothmans Manx International Rally  1983 Fred Gallagher Opel Manta B 400
3 Italy Costa Smeralda Rally 1984 Juha Piironen Porsche 911 SC/RS
4 Belgium Ypres 24 Hours Rally 1984 Ian Grindrod Porsche 911 SC/RS
5 Portugal Rali Vinho da Madeira 1984 Juha Piironen Porsche 911 SC/RS
6 Italy Costa Smeralda Rally 1986 Sergio Cresto Lancia Delta S4

AWARDS & ACHIEVEMENTS

Records
Preceded by
Markku Alén
24 years, 256 days
(1975 Rallye de Portugal)
Youngest rally winner
24 years, 86 days
(1980 RAC Rally)
Succeeded by
Jari-Matti Latvala
22 years, 313 days
(2008 Swedish Rally)

GALLERY

Toivonen (far left)


VIDEOS


REFERENCES

 Affiliates Program – (free delivery worldwide!)

Toivonen Toivonen – Pauli, Henri & Harri : Finland’s Fastest Family (English + German)

 Henri Toivonen – His Rally Days DVD

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