December 20 2009
If the name Juha Kankkunen means nothing to you, then it’s probably safe to assume that you know nothing about rally driving. For he is to the sport what the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” are to Formula One. (And the Finns are pretty good at that too: just think of Kimi Räikkönen, Heikki Kovalainen and Mika Häkkinen.) But there’s one big difference between the Formula One champions and rally drivers. Kimi et al tend not to be in the business of letting you get in the driving seat.
Forty miles south of the Arctic Circle, near the ski resort of Ruka, Kankkunen runs an extreme driving school on a frozen lake. In a fleet of brand-new 2-litre VW’s and a Subaru Impreza, each equipped with Kankkunen’s custom-designed snow studs, he and his team will teach you how to drive like a rally driver. This could be interesting. The last time I had a driving lesson, it was around a housing estate.
Friday 2200 To make the 1900 flight from Helsinki to Kuusamo requires some ingenuity – a business meeting in Helsinki, a “work from home” arrangement or even better, a debt that can be cashed with your boss – for the flight out of Heathrow leaves at noon. Arriving into Kuusamo at 8.15pm, it’s possible to get an hour’s skiing in at Ruka – on a Friday its floodlit slopes stay open until 11pm. But I opt for bed at my nearby luxury log cabin. On the way, I explain to my driver that when it snows in Britain, the whole country comes to a halt. “Do you not change to snow tyres in winter?” she asks, surprised.
Saturday 0800 I go native for breakfast, eschewing the cereal and pastries for salted porridge and smoked salmon. Just before 9am, Kankkunen’s business partner Jyrki Hautakangas picks me up for the 20km journey to the academy.
I meet Kankkunen at the academy “office”, a simple wooden hut with an open fire at its centre. At first I’m unsure which one is him. Surrounded by peacock drivers, it’s hard to discern who exactly is numero uno. But there’s no mistaking when I’m introduced. With chiselled good looks and a face weathered by some hard living, he’s clearly the alpha in the pack. He greets me with a manly handshake. “We go out this afternoon,” he says. “This morning you’re with Riku.”
Saturday 1030 Riku Tahko, 24, has been pro for six years but has been racing for much longer. “We Finns have been sliding cars since taking our mothers’ milk,” he boasts. He ushers me towards our first vehicle of the day, a 2-litre, 4WD turbo diesel VW Golf. Like the rest of the fleet, it’s fresh from the factory. He drives to one of 16 purpose-built tracks on the frozen lake, a simple oval, and spins around it a few times, effortlessly sliding the car around the bends while I hold onto to the door tightly. “The only way to control the slide is with the throttle, not the steering wheel,” he says. “Now you try.”
All safety systems, such as ABS braking, are turned off. I do up my belt and, with the apprehension of a 17-year-old learner, gingerly put my foot on the pedal. It’s counterintuitive: at the first hint of a slide I instinctively hit the brakes – and crash into the barrier. “Sorry.”
Tahko is understanding. “As Juha says, ‘If you don’t want to damage the car, you should keep it in the garage.’”
Lesson number one is to learn that with my foot on the pedal, the car is like a pendulum that swings around the corner. Hit the brakes and it is as though the pendulum cord is snapped and the car won’t make it round. After a few more crashes into the snow, it’s time for a coffee break.
Saturday 1130 Armed with marker pen and whiteboard, both Tahko and Hautakangas go over the basics again, stressing the importance of braking early, using the steering wheel sparingly and keeping the foot on “the throttle”. But there’s no substitute for the real thing, and I’m soon back behind the wheel.
This time Tahko tells me to be a bit more assertive on the pedal. So I approach my first bend at speed, hit the brakes and then, with a hard flick of the steering wheel, get the car into a slide. “More gas! More gas!” he shouts.
I floor the pedal and feel the full force of the 140hp engine roar underneath me as the rear swings out behind me. At first I think I’m going to hit the barriers again but then there is a moment of serenity, like the coiling of a spring. Suddenly I’m released and catapulted along the next straight. It’s a fantastic feeling. However, I’m so pleased with myself that I’m too late correcting the steering and we start fish-tailing wildly, swinging from side to side.
“Brake!” Tahko shouts. Too late – and we hit the wall of snow again.
Saturday 1230 Over a traditional Finnish lunch of creamy salmon and potato soup called lohikeitto, I get the chance to catch up with Kankkunen. During a 20-year career, he notched up four Rally World Championship titles and 23 career victories, making him one of the most successful rally drivers of all time. Now 50, he is semi-retired but still competes. Recently be broke the ice speed record in a Bentley Continental GT, averaging 199mph. “It’s boring to drive at 20mph all day,” is his take on speed limits. “We’re still boys, and it’s good to play.”
Saturday 1400 It’s time for the master to take me for a spin. We walk past the fleet of VWs and head towards the fully specced-up rally car, a 310hp Subaru Impreza WRX STI, complete with roll cage, racing seats and handmade tyres. “It’s a real toy,” Tahko says to me.
Kankkunen discards his cigar and slips through the driver’s open window with the agility of a gymnast. I climb in awkwardly and make sure that the straps on my harness are done up tight. Kankkunen then hits the pedal. In rally driving there is no such thing as 50 per cent; it’s either hard down on the throttle or hard down on the brake.
To hear the power of the engine as we scream around the bends has the hairs on my arms standing on end; to watch Kankkunen fling the car from one side of the track to the other, within inches of the buffers, has me breaking out into laughter. (I think it’s a “response to terror” thing.) But though it’s the most thrilling ride of my life, this isn’t just high-octane adrenaline. There is actually something balletic about the motion. Kankkunen himself is effortlessly at ease steering, at times with just a couple of fingers on the wheel, throwing the car from side to side in perfect rhythm. It is like a dance.
The final run back to base is along a straight runway of ice. Kankkunen floors it until we approach triple digits and then suddenly, with a hard flick of the wheel, performs a perfect 360. The engine roars, snow and ice spray everywhere and with the throttle pressed hard against the floor we shoot off again. This is like being in a Bond movie. “That was awesome,” I tell Kankkunen.
“You want me to do it again?”
Saturday 1500 With about an hour of light left there’s time for one more session behind the wheel. This time I’m joined by Juha Repo, Kankkunen’s racing co-driver, the man whose job it is to stay calm and read pacenotes (a detailed description of the course) while taking hairpin bends at 100mph. Whether it’s because of his unflustered demeanour or the white-knuckle ride I’ve just been given, it all starts to slip into place. At the small circular track, I send the car into a side-on spin with ease and then, with just my foot on the pedal and a light hand on the wheel, slide the whole way round. The sense of satisfaction is enormous.
Back at the hut, Repo offers me some celebratory “rally sausage” cooked on a grill above the fire. Outside, the winter sun begins to set – it’s the first time I’ve taken notice, but it’s really quite beautiful up here.
Saturday 1800 Besides driving, there is another activity that the Finns are crazy about: sauna. There’s even an international World Sauna Championships – a test to duke out the hottest heat – which, in the 10-year history of the men’s competition, a Finn has never not won. So I’m just a bit apprehensive as I join a party of beer-drinking Finns back at the hotel for a traditional ice sauna. It’s as hot as Hades and I’m determined not to be the first to leave. But up here the experience is not complete without a skinny dip into a hole cut into a frozen lake. So I find myself staying somewhat longer than I’d planned. Refreshing isn’t the word.
Sunday 0900 I’m faced with a choice of alpine or cross-country skiing, husky dog-sledding or motoring through pine forests by skidoo to the “Russian border”. I opt for the latter but discover that this is a Finnish joke, a faithfully recreated border post complete with “menacing Russian guard” – actually a Soviet army veteran émigré. His acting is a bit too authentic, and when I re-mount the skidoo I’m only too happy to head west once again to catch the 3pm flight to Helsinki and then on to London. All at full throttle, naturally.