It was 31 years ago today that the late, great Henri Toivonen won his last world championship rally. Henry Hope-Frost tells the story below.
No one knew it at the time, but the 54th Rallye Automobile de Monte Carlo would kickstart the final season of Group B rallying – the World Rally Championship’s most fabulous and fearsome era. Tragedy had led to turmoil and before the end of the season the mid-engined, 500bhp-plus rocketships that had brought joy and despair in equal measure would be outlawed.
Until then, there were 13 rallies to be tackled by factory teams from Audi, Austin Rover, Ford, Lancia, Peugeot and Toyota, with superstar Brits, Finns, Frenchmen, Germans and Swedes keeping the bucking broncos on as tight a leash as they could.
From the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally’s original entry of 175 cars, some 156 crews made it down to Aix-Les-Bains from the ceremonial starting point in Paris. The leading cars comprised two Audi Quattro Sport S1s, three Lancia Delta S4s, two MG Metro 6R4s and four Peugeot 205 T16s. Ahead of them lay nearly 900km of competitive mileage made up of 36 classic Monte special stages linked by 3,000km of road sections. And all on a heady concoction of mountain roads that were fast and dry one minute and snow-covered the next.
Massimo Biasion took an immediate lead in the #9 Delta in the rally’s shortest stage, the 2.6km Aillon le Jeune. The Italian was still to win at the top level but a maiden victory would have to wait as his Martini Lancia team-mate Henri Toivonen moved to the front on stage two and would stay there for the next 20 tests.
Toivonen had won the final event of 1985, the Lombard RAC Rally, on the debut of Lancia’s incredible turbocharged and supercharged Delta S4. Now partnered by American Sergio Cresto, his speed on the opening leg of the Monte marked him out as event and title favourite.
Lancia held a comfortable 1-2-3 into the start of the third day, thanks to Toivonen, Markku Alén and Biasion, but the fickle nature of the Monte would again make it a guessing game on tyre choice. It was Pirelli versus Michelin, with the Italian holding court thanks to the Lancias.
Drama struck the leader on the road section after SS12 Burzet when he collided head on with a spectator’s car. The damage looked to have signalled the end of Toivonen’s hopes of victory, but incredible work by the Lancia mechanics patched up the bent S4 and got it back into the rally, its lead still intact.
Tyre choice would give Lancia’s leading light further trouble on SS22 Col de Garcinets. A punctured Pirelli meant Toivonen would lose the lead to the Peugeot of reigning world champion Timo Salonen, who would keep the 205 T16 out front for five stages.
With his Pirellis now working better, Toivonen went on a charge and clawed back the deficit to his fellow Finn to retake top spot on SS28. From there, he hung on through the final eight stages, including a second run over the legendary Col de Turini and its massive and exuberant crowd, to take his third WRC victory, 31 years ago today.
It was to be Henri Toivonen’s final win, in fact his final finish. After retiring in Sweden with engine failure, withdrawing along with all the works teams from Portugal (after spectators were killed by a privateer Ford RS200) and skipping the Safari, he and Sergio Cresto died in Corsica when their car crashed off the road.
The death of the sport’s fastest and most flamboyant driver was too much…
Monte Carlo Rally, 1986
1. Henri Toivonen (FIN)/Sergio Cresto (USA) – Lancia Delta S4, 10h 11m 24s
2. Timo Salonen(FIN)/Seppo Harjanne (FIN) – Peugeot 205 T16 E2, +4m 04s
3. Hannu Mikkola (FIN)/Arne Hertz (S) – Audi Quattro Sport S1, +7m 22s
4. Walter Röhrl (D)/Christian Geistdörfer (D) – Audi Quattro Sport S1, +9m 35s
5. Juha Kankkunen (FIN)/Juha Piironen (FIN)– Peugeot 205 T16 E2, +28m 23s
6. Bruno Saby (F)/Jean-Francois Fauchille (F) – Peugeot 205 T16 E2, +34m 30s
7. Salvador Servia (E)/Jorge Sabater (E) – Lancia 037, +47m 08s
8. Alain Oreille (F)/Sylvie Oreille (F) – Renault 11 Turbo, +1h 12m 23s
9. Kenneth Eriksson (S)/Peter Diekmann (D) – Volkswagen Golf GTI, +1h 15m 32s
10. Franz Wittman (A)/Matthias Feltz (D) – Volkswagen Golf GTI, +1h 20m 44s
Photography courtesy of LAT