Two years ago, at the most challenging rally of any event on the WRC calendar, then 51-year-old Juha Kankkunen stepped off his porch and climbed into a rally car. Although the legendary Finn lives in Monaco, he also spends much of the year in his native country, right on the doorstop of the Thousand Lakes Rally. Here are the directions to his country house: go straight, turn right onto the Ouninpohja stage, you can’t miss it…
If you have any rally interest in you at all, you’ll know that Ouninpohja is a sacred word, and indeed, hallowed ground — it is the single most famous, demanding, and exhilarating stage out of the hundreds that make up a season of top-level international rallying.
Kankkunen’s backyard — the smooth gravel stages where he grew up — honed his remarkable talents and gave him the ability to drive fast, very fast, for over three decades. But it was 2010 when he was strapping in, where really he should have been rocking his grandchildren on his knee. The young guns were hungrier; Sébastien Loeb, Petter Solberg, and Sébastien Ogier the elite. Did you get lost grandpa?
To mark the sixtieth jubilee of the Rally Finland event, Kankkunen was asked to drive a Ford Focus WRC car, and the rally world bounced with excitement, even if we all really expected him to parade around and wave to his faithful fans. Instead, Kankkunen buried his foot and flew over the crests of Ouninpohja, and countless other stages, to finish the event in an impressive eighth position, beating many WRC regulars in the process. The old man still had it. After all, this was his temple…
Over his long and storied career, the Finn won 23 world rallies and an unbelievable four drivers’ titles during an era that rarely saw a single man defend his championship even once, and with all the best-known manufacturers fighting it out. Only the seemingly otherworldly Loeb has managed more titles now, with very little competition and dismal factory involvement in the sport. Loeb collected all his trophies with Citroën. Kankkunen brought titles to three different manufacturers.
After the Group B years, and his couple of decades in the modern WRC formula, as well as winning the Race of Champions and the Dakar Rally, Kankkunen set the world speed record on ice in a Bentley Continental GT, and in 2011 went 330.695kph in a convertible Bentley Continental Supersports. Last week, he got back into a Bentley at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
But the heart of this flying Finn will always be somewhere on top of a yump, undoubtedly in the fastest section of Ouninpohja, with all four wheels off the ground and the car slanted in mid-air. Who are you calling a grandfather?