Born in 1938, Aaltonen got a taste for competition racing speedboats in his native Finland before moving onto four wheels and ultimately rallying in 1956. Highlights of his long and illustrious career include winning the European Rally Championship in a Mini Cooper S in 1965 and taking the third Monte Carlo Rally victory for the iconic car in 1967.
Now 73, Aaltonen is still heavily involved in rallying and was in Finland last week to give support to the next generation of MINI drivers, Kris Meeke and Dani Sordo. Aaltonen spoke to Wrc.com about his home round of the championship, MINI’s entry into the World Rally Championship and the thrill of driving a 1,200bhp Formula One-engined Opel Manta.
How do you think Dani Sordo and Kris Meeke performed in Finland?
“Early in the event I think the drivers were approximately 0.4s per kilometre slower than the fastest cars. Which is quite good. Especially considering they had been ordered not to overdo it - not fighting at full speed. And then you have to consider the nationality. Only the Finns, not Swedes or anyone else, are familiar with the type of driving we do here in Finland. You see the roads are mostly undulating, which means the car is often getting lighter, although not necessarily airborne, and when you have light wheel load you should not turn the steering wheel too much because then you lose the grip. The amount of steering depends on how flat the car is on the road. It’s what I call three-dimensional driving. It’s new to everyone else but Finns. We are born with this understanding. That’s why they call us Flying Finns.”
Did you give Dani or Kris any advice before the rally?
“Not really because you see it all happens so quickly. Advice can only be given if we had been driving together for a full week. Mostly during that time I would be observing how they were driving. Only then could I think about ways to go faster.”
Have you driven the MINI John Cooper Works World Rally Car?
“I haven’t because they have very limited time to test them. And because I’m not competing with the team I would be just confusing the programme and taking up time.”
Could you get to grips with it?
“Oh yes no problem. Because you see these cars for me are a little underpowered. The fastest rally car I have driven is a 1,200bhp Group B Opel Manta prototype. The engine had two turbos and was borrowed from a Formula One car. That was a fantastic car. I love power.”
What did you think of Matti Rantanen's performance?
“It was short but promising. In rally you can’t rely on bravery and good luck because both will run out very quickly. Instead you must have a good overview of what you are doing and how to do it. Obviously Matti is well focused. In today’s world where there are so many attractions, it isn’t enough to just have the money to get into a very efficient team and have a good car. You must have your whole life for a certain period focused on what you are doing. Rallying especially compared to racing is even more a psychological sport because there are so many surprises every second. And if you don’t have them you are too slow. Even if you know the road you have tested it and have good pace notes you haven’t tested it at full speed. And if you drove it last year probably the road surface is now slightly different. All the time there are small changes and you have to react really quickly. Car control is a small factor. The rest is in the mind.”
Can MINI win a WRC rally this year?
“No. Every rally is different and the amount of time to test is limited. Therefore to win a rally you have to concentrate on that one event for such a long time that you end up spoiling your chances on other rallies. For the general development you have to stick to a careful plan for the future. There are so many unknown factors but next year they should have enough experience with the car. It doesn’t mean they are not top people but a car is a complex thing. As you see in Formula One, at every grands prix they all have something new. They’re getting faster all the time because they always find new things.”