Markku Alen, Ari Vatanen, Hannu Mikkola, Juha Kankkkunen, Tommi Makinen: Finland has produced some of the most legendary names in the history of rallying. The name Timo Salonen is not always revered to the same degree, but he is something of a cult hero among die-hard fans and became a world champion during the iconic Group B era. And today, he celebrates his 69th birthday.
Like many of Finland’s rally stars, Salonen began driving very early. At the age of seven he was stopped by the police while driving home from the family-run garage. He took part in his first rally in 1970 soon after his 18th birthday, and success quickly followed. He finished sixth on his home round of the World Rally Championship in both 1975 and 1976 driving a Datsun, and then got the chance to join Alen in the all-conquering Fiat line-up, finishing second on the 1000 Lakes in both 1977 and 1978. He also scored his first WRC victory in Quebec, Canada.
His first full-time WRC drive came back with Datsun, with which he finished fourth overall in the 1979 championship standings. Victories followed in New Zealand in 1980, beating Walter Rohrl, and in the Ivory Coast the following year. While Datsun became Nissan, the opportunities dried up for Salonen to compete for victories against faster machinery. But then he got a call from Jean Todt, head of the Peugeot team, who wanted a solid number two driver to partner Vatanen in the rapid new 205 T16 Group B car in 1985. It was a life-changing phone call.
It’s fair to say that – in contrast to Vatanen – Salonen did not have the appearance of a typical athlete. He also wore big glasses and smoked heavily, and his laid-back style earned him the nickname Löysä – meaning ‘slack’ in Finnish. But none of that seemed to stop him from driving quickly, as Vatanen would discover the hard way.
Already a winner of three events in the Peugeot at the end of the previous season, Vatanen began 1985 with victories in Monte Carlo and Sweden, with Salonen third on both occasions. But Salonen didn’t take long to become a winner, standing on the top step of the podium at the third round in Portugal. Vatanen began to suffer a series of retirements, some of them mechanical, but also a big accident in Corsica.
Salonen added further wins in Greece and New Zealand as he took the lead of the championship. Trying to fight back, Vatanen then had a huge crash in Argentina, suffering life-threatening injuries that ruled him out of action for the rest of the year. Suddenly, ‘Slack’ was Peugeot’s number one: on whom their title hopes rested.
Salonen took the win in Argentina and another in Finland. His streak of four consecutive victories was a record that was only beaten 20 years later by Sebastien Loeb, and he comfortably secured the 1985 title. Not bad for a number two driver…
For 1986, Salonen was joined in the Peugeot line-up by another quick Finn, Juha Kankkunen. It was Kankkunen who this time quickly gained the upper hand in the intra-team battle and went on to win the title, while Salonen had to wait until Finland in September to win again. Then, the Group B cars were banned over safety concerns and Peugeot’s rally programme was cancelled as a result. With seven wins, Salonen had been statistically the most successful driver of the era, but he was now out of a job.
‘Slack’ would go on to join Mazda, winning on his second start in Sweden in 1987, but he only entered four or five rallies a season over the next few years, and his career came to an end in 1992 after a stint with Mitsubishi. Ten years later, he took part in Rally Finland as a 50th birthday celebration – as many of the Finnish stars do – in a Peugeot 206 WRC.
Today, Salonen runs his own car dealership in Finland and still makes occasional appearances behind the wheel of a rally car at historic events – sometimes with the same model of Peugeot that made him famous. He might not have the profile of some rally legends, but there can be no doubt that Salonen tamed the sport’s most spectacular period. And when it came to parties, this quiet man from Helsinki could light up a room as effectively as he lit up the rally stages.