Henri started his competitive career in Karts, but once he moved onto cars proper, his grounding was wide and varied. He drove saloon cars - where he was the Finnish Cup Champion, and then he switched to single seaters (Formula V) and won one round of the Scandinavian Championship. Henri then graduated to Formula Super-V, where he promptly won a round of the European series. He became the Finnish FVee champion in 1977.
Rallying was denied him initially due to Finnish legislation on new drivers - hence his exploits on the circuits instead. For the first year after obtaining his license Henri was limited to 80 kph on the open road (50 mph) and so had to wait until he was 19 to compete in his first rallies. His first major event was the 1975 1000 Lakes (Rally of Finland) where he competed in a Simca Rallye 2, partnered by Antero Lindquist.
Under pressure from his family about the safety aspect of circuit racing, he switched to rallying full time, which, looking back on it now, was an extreme case of irony. His first major result was in the 1977 1000 Lakes, which is based around his birthplace of Jyvaskyla - Henri actually lived in Espoo, where his family had moved when he was a toddler.
It was the first time the world had to sit up and notice the young Finn, as he Yumped his Chrysler Avenger to fifth place.
Henri returned to the world scene in 1978, driving two events (Portugal and Acropolis) for Citroen. He didn't finish either event, but he was quick off the mark, and impressed a lot of people. This led to being offered a privateer Porsche for his home event (1000 Lakes) and a semi-works Chrysler for his first visit to the UK's premier rally, the Lombard RAC. Henri finished 9th, and thus began his love affair with British forests in November.
Other one-off works and semi-works drives followed, alongside the campaigning of privately-run Chryslers and Ford Escorts on UK and European and WRC events. Henri's exuberant style of driving meant that most of these rallies were ended stuck in a ditch, up against a wall or wrapped around a tree, but when he did keep it on the road, finishes were top ten or better.
In 1980, after winning the Arctic Rally, he came to Britain to contest the Open series as team mate to Guy Frequelin and Russell Brookes in the Talbot team, with Antero Lindquist as his co-driver. He also drove in selected WRC rounds, managing a fifth place on that years San Remo.
Frequently faster than his more experienced colleagues, his performances were however, somewhat inconsistent until the team decided to replace Antero with first Neil Wilson and then by Paul White, known by Henri as Chalkie. The partnership with White started to gel on the Welsh Rally, and went from strength to strength, where Paul's knowledge of the British special stages paid a big part in the partnership. (note: Paul White was transferred from team mate Russell Brookes' car.)
The big breakthrough came on the Lombard RAC rally, where he outdrove Frequelin and Brookes to win the rally convincingly in a car that wasn't expected to do that well on the event. At just 24 years of age, he was (and still is to this day) the youngest winner of a world championship rally. The skill he showed in the wet and muddy conditions endeared him to the British public...
In 1981, Henri was signed up for a full WRC programme with the Talbot squad, but the car was no longer truly competitive against the fledgeling group B machinery. The revision of the rules meant that the RWD Group 2 car was effectively obsolete.
Despite the performance handicap, he still managed second places on both the San Remo and Portuguese Rallies as well as a 5th place on the Monte Carlo Rally. He also had a new co-driver, Fred Gallagher, later of Juha Kankkunen fame. One of the high points of the season, was a win on the Audi Sport International Rally, the only win of the season for the Talbot squad, courtesy of a guest appearance by Henri in the final round of the British Open Rally Championship.
1982 brought a move to the Rothmans-sponsored Opel Europe team, managed by Tony Fall, an ex-BMC works driver (in Mini Coopers) and Dave Richards ('81 champion co-driver and now entrant of Subaru in the WRC), where his team mates were Walter Rohrl, Ari Vatanen and Jimmy McRae. He managed 3rd on the Acropolis, 5th on the San Remo and 3rd on the RAC, all in the Ascona 400. Incredibly enough, Henri also guested in one of the Thruxton rounds of the British F3 championship, finishing in a creditable 10th place in a Ralt RT3.
Henri also drove for Opel in the newer Manta 400 in 1983 (a car nominally in the fledgeling Group B category), but the car was losing ground fast to the much more powerful machinery fielded by Lancia and Audi. He still managed a strong fourth place on the San Remo and guested in several rounds of the British Open series. The highlight of the year was winning the 1983 Manx International Rally at the first attempt, the first driver to do so... It was to be his first and only tarmac rally win.
The Mille Pistes rally of 1983 - held in the Camargue region of France - was certainly the most bizarre of events though. Driving the Manta 400, Henri had the rally at his mercy, leading by a considerable margin. Halfway through the event, the organisers suddenly decided that they would ban the Group B cars, effective immediately. So despite finishing first on the road, Henri didn't actually "win" the rally, and a rather embarrassing podium ceremony ensued, with him and Ian Grindrod receiving a set of consolation trophies.
1983 also brought a change of scenery. This time, it was the World Endurance Championships, where he signed up to race a Porche 956, chassis no 956-106-2 , for Richard Lloyd Racing. He practiced the car at Imola for round 7, but finally got to race the car in round 8 at Mugello, where he finished third in the 6 hour race, partnered by Jonathan Palmer and Derek Bell.
1984 brought an end to Henri's association with Opel Team Europe, and he settled for a drive in the Porsche 911 S in the European Rally Championship, the Rothmans sponsorship and the Dave Richards connection carried through from the previous seasons getting him the drive.
Despite missing several rounds through ill health, back problems in particular, he still finished second in the series with 369 points, only 56 behind the series winner Carlo Capone in a Lancia 037. By now, Henri also had a new co-driver in Juha Piironen, (formerly and subsequently with Juha Kankkunen) but on some of the rounds that Henri contested, Ian Grindrod was in the hot-seat when "Piiro" was unavailable.
When the chance came to drive for Lancia, Henri took it with both hands. Fed up with the pushme - pullme of the Rothmans patronage and the lack of four-wheel drive, Cesare Fiorio's offer (including a 4WD car) was the escape that Henri needed. He made his debut in the Rally of Portugal, and also finished third on that years 1000 Lakes. It was enough to convince the Turin set-up to sign him on a more or less full-time basis for the following season.
The first half of 1985, was a frustrating experience, as both Henri and his team mate, Markku Alen struggled with the now long-in-the-tooth 037 Rallye against the might of Peugeot and Audi. The main problems were that a) the RWD only Lancia struggled in anything less than perfect road conditions, and b) the 4WD Delta S4 was still only at the prototype stage and suffering from extensive developmental and reliability problems.
Henri, whose driving had by now matured considerably since the crash-bang-wallop attitude of his early career, still managed to string together some decent results regardless: 6th on the Monte, 4th on the 1000 Lakes and 3rd on the San Remo. This despite that the venerable 037 really was not entirely compatible with Henri's style of driving.
The only set-back was a crash on the Costa Smeralda rally, where Henri inexplicably stuffed his car into a brick wall and broke three vertebrae in his neck as a result. The Finn always had a history of back and neck problems (a common complaint of rally drivers) and this didn't exactly help his cause. the subsequent enforced lay-off of four months - and a third of that in plaster - put the brakes on what had been a fairly consistent season up to that point.
There was also disappointment that the new group B challenger, the Delta S4, was not proving to be entirely competitive on its trial European Championship rounds. The new car was undeniably fast, but also proved to be extremely fragile when pushed to the limit. A few tweaks to the Delta S4 transformed the car dramatically, though introducing it onto the world rally championship stage for the Lombard RAC was always going to be a gamble. But if it paid off, the rewards would be huge.
The Delta was to prove the class of the rally, even the mighty Evo 2 Quattros couldn't keep the car in check. Henri, now partnered once more by Neil Wilson (who usually co-drove for Russell Brookes) consistently out drove team mate Markku Alen to win the rally by an embarrassingly large margin. Again, as in 1980, he wowed the British fans with his driving, though little did the spectators realise, it was the last time they would see their hero alive on these shores.
1986 began where the previous year left off for Henri, with a convincing win on the Monte Carlo Rally. He was now partnered by Sergio Cresto, a promising young American co-driver. After the Monte win, there came a string of good performances, though somewhat thin on results, plus another win on the Costa Smeralda.
The Tour de Corse began on the 1st of May. Henri was suffering from flu, but insisted on driving regardless. Even though he was walking around semi-comatose in comparison to his usual jumpy and nervous self, he was constantly putting up the fastest times for each stage. Competitors and spectators alike could not grasp how someone so far from fitness, could pull out a performance like that.
The wisdom of that was debatable though, as it was not to last. On the 7th kilometer of the eighteenth stage, the Lancia inexplicably left the road and plunged down a ravine, landing on its roof. The aluminium fuel tank, ruptured by the trees as the car rolled down the cliff-face, exploded. Clouds of thick black smoke pinpointed the accident, but there were no marshalls or spectators nearby to lend assistance. Still strapped in their seats and with no means of escape, Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto burned to death.
No one knew of the accident at the stage finish, and it was only when the Lancia hadn't emerged from the competitive section on schedule, did the team realise that something was amiss. It wasn't until the next crew through explained about the black smoke and fire seven kilometers into the stage, did everyone understand that there had been an accident involving Henri's Lancia.
But it was too late. By the time the emergency services reached the scene, they were faced by an inferno. The trees in which the car had come to rest were so dry, that they added to the flames, fanned by the breeze. The remains of the car was so charred, that the Lancia engineers and technicians couldn't physically determine the cause of the crash.
So, exactly how Henri Toivonen and his co-driver, Sergio Cresto died, is still a mystery to this day. Was there a problem with the car, or was it that Henri's ill health* caused him to lose control of an extremely powerful and car on some of the most treacherous roads in Europe? We will never know, though Henri himself admitted that even he didn't really know how to drive the S4 Maybe we wouldn't want to know... It would only increase the pain caused by such a tragic loss to the sport of rallying.
* Walter Rohrl later confirmed that Henri was indeed taking some form of medicine at the time to alleviate his flu symptoms. Whether this may have been a potential cause of the crash remains unknown.
Henri left behind a wife, Erja, and two young children, Arla and Markus. Sergio was single and had no children.
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