At a recent MINI event in Austria, I had the pleasure and honor of meeting one of motorsport’s brightest stars. True, it’s been some time since Rauno Aaltonen sat behind the wheel in the heat of competition, but nevertheless, he shines as an ambassador of motorsport and continues to keep pace with racing’s many forms.
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My time with Rauno in Austria was brief, but memorable. My first quality face-to-face encounter happened in a car not so different from the one he drove to victory in the Monte Carlo Rally of 1967. Strapped into an original MINI Cooper, we set off down a twisty alpine road leading a caravan of modern MINIs behind. The pace and conversation started off quite conservative and polite, but as the minutes past both Rauno’s driving and our topic of discussion started to sizzle. We delved deeper and deeper into his racing career and before I could switch topics, he was demonstrating a good portion of his racing career.
Knowing Rauno’s racing background and pedigree, I figured he could left-foot brake the MINI with valor and precision. He did not disappoint when I roused the topic, and once again answered as much in action as in word. Foot to the floor, he made the classic MINI’s inline 4 scream for mercy as we sped down a switchback en route to a hairpin right-hand corner. Going wide he got on the brakes, nudged the car left then authoritatively turned right, still on the brakes but now with a heavy helping of throttle. The car rotated gracefully and smoothly until we were perpendicular to the road, aimed squarely at the apex. Continuing to rotate the car, we clipped the apex and he released the brakes, still heavy on the power – now winding-out second gear going slightly up-hill. I had just witnessed the perfect left-foot braking technique.
Impressive – but what really blew my mind was the conversation that followed. “I invented left-foot braking because using the hand-brake didn’t make sense, it was too slow,” Rauno proclaimed – still driving at 8-10ths pace. “Every other driver was using the handbrake to rotate the car at corner entry, but I didn’t like it so I didn’t use it. I punched a few holes through snowbanks as a result.” We had a short discussion about mitigating understeer and then got back on topic, “I determined that if I used my left foot to brake, I could stay on the power, maintaining good steering and speed while getting the tail to slide out.” It all made good sense to me, and apparently to every other rally driver in the 1960s because it caught on and spread through the driving ranks like wild-fire.
Already honored to be in his presence – let alone his high-speed passenger – I figured that since he was of Scandinavian background and already mustered the beginnings of a Scandinavian flick – he must be well versed in this maneuver as well. Not 10 seconds later we were swinging right-left-right-left-right through a right-handed hairpin – this time full opposite lock on corner entry. Talk about a blind date. I had no idea that the man I had recently shaken hands with had invented two of motorsport’s most important driving techniques – still used with great success in modern racing. No wonder he’s been championed as “The Rally Professor” in racing circles.
Rauno is unassuming and extremely humble. At no time does he project his great skill, experience or racing success in a condescending way. Perhaps this is why his name is not well known to the current generation of motorsports fans. Regardless, his relaxed, easy going persona instantly puts you at ease and draws you in for a captivating conversation. Speak with Rauno long enough, and you’re bound to learn something.
Squeezing every ounce of speed out of the vintage MINI, a look in the rearview mirror revealed that we had completely lost the journalists following in their modern machines. This led to a lengthy road-side story of Rauno’s beginnings in motorsport, his take on modern MINIs, and – once said MINIs had finally caught up – his opinion of old verses new.
Finally, the time had come to part ways. I begrudgingly gave up my passenger seat to jump into the modern MINI behind, making an attempt to pace the rally champion down the slippery Alpine pass. What I witnessed next through the flurry-dotted windshield was a reenactment of the Monte Carlo Rally from a different angle – which culminated into one of the most exciting drives of my life. Okay, I’m embellishing the story a bit – Rauno was probably only pushing to 5 or 6 tenths of his ability, but it made for a brilliant drive drifting down the mountain side nonetheless.
The above more or less summarizes my first encounter with the rally legend. My flight home was punctuated by flash-backs of our mountain exploits, rendering on-board action movies thoroughly boring. I felt lucky to have spent the better part of a day with Rauno, and I sincerely hoped that we would meet again.
Coming in the form of a very belated Christmas gift, the phone rang with great news. “You’re invited to a MINI event in Montreal, Rauno Aaltonen is coming.” Feel heart rate quicken, palms go moist.. “Excellent, I’ll be there,” I managed, with vocal cords near the point of prepubescent quivering. One giant fist-pump later and I was packing my bags, determined to make the most of my second encounter.
Rauno was walking the hotel lobby when I met him the second time, and to my surprise, he remembered my name. In typical fashion he cracked a few jokes, set a happy tone, and we headed for breakfast.
Rauno’s visit corresponded with MINI’s inaugural Winter Driver Training Program. Once at the snow and ice-covered track I enjoyed a full day spent learning advanced winter driving techniques. We also studied not so advanced but under-practiced driving techniques. And in the unlikely event we find ourselves nose-to-the-police whist robbing a bank, we perfected 60 km/h reverse 180s. Several hours later I once again found myself strapped-in beside the venerable racer, this time ready for a hot lap of what appeared to be a rally special stage carved out behind an abandoned airport. Jagged concrete barriers jutted out from the sides of the course, metal poles and boxes lay within the in-field.
This time I would witness Rauno’s talent behind the wheel of a modern MINI: a Countryman S to be specific, manual of course. Rauno – and I make this parallel with the greatest respect and adoration for him – reminds me an awful lot of Yoda. Weathered by the sands of time, his hair is whisked and gleaming white. He walks with the care and tempo of an elderly gentleman, which he is, and generally speaking – he does not look fast. But underestimate his driving abilities and you will quickly find yourself alone, in a fog of dust, snow, or whatever else happens to be on the road surface. Like Yoda in Revenge of the Sith, Rauno stirs to life behind the wheel, revealing powers of driving ability bordering supernatural. For those Star Wars averse among us: Rauno sheds 40 years every time he gets behind the wheel.
“Ready?” he offers while building revs. Suddenly we are launched forwards with four-wheel-spin, redlining first, second, and right-left-right swinging the tail around to enter the first corner in a massive, lurid drift. Rauno is on the bubble as he grabs gears, stabs pedals and flicks the wheel. It’s always apparent when you’re driving with a racing professional. They always get themselves in ‘the zone.’ There is no half-way or middle ground. There is flat-out, or waiting to go flat-out. Rauno is definitely in the zone. We power out of a tight left hander, full throttle with engine screaming, drifting wide with rooster-tails of snow flying high in the sky behind us. Rotating the MINI back in-line, Rauno grabs another gear and flicks the car into another slide – this time coming incredibly close to one of those metal poles dotting the landscape. “That was full opposite lock,” Rauno says casually just after clearing the obstacle, still near redline. Another few seconds (which felt like glorious minutes) and we found ourselves at the end of the course, sliding across a sheet of ice until the tires grabbed bare concrete. A smile and a handshake later, our drive was over.
Having checked several items off my bucket list – one recently added, “drive again with Rauno Aaltonen” – that smile stayed firmly affixed to my face. There is something so joyous, so satisfying about driving at speed, it’s hard to imagine life without motorsports. I can understand how Rauno spent his life living motorsports, devoting all his energies to it.
In a divine twist of chance and hope, I soon found myself yet again in deep conversation with Rauno – this time at a fine Italian restaurant. Shy on seats for the trip back to the hotel, I offered to give him a ride. As much as I wanted to invite him for dinner, I figured that after such a long day of driving at the limit he would prefer to retire to his room. To my delight Rauno invited me to dinner, and this brings us back to the table.
This time, all of the recording equipment was left at the hotel, neither of us were any longer at work. Our conversation started in electronics and rounded politics before finally heading back to cars and motorsport. No longer censoring for corporate etiquette, Rauno’s illustrations and opinions became a touch spicier and his voice echoed with more inflection. I went on to see the human side of Rauno – a man of passion and great intelligence. Not only was Rauno a world-class driver, he was also a brilliant engineer. He spoke of a 1,200 hp rally car that he designed and built, powered by a bored-out turbo-charged F1 engine. Piloting it, he cut more than 15 seconds off the stage record set by the championship winning Audi Quattro earlier the same year. Seconds in racing is an eternity – 15 seconds is an eon.
Searching to pick his brain on the topic of motorsport politics, I was stunned to learn that he had met nearly everyone I could name in the F1 paddock. One name stood out more than the others. I asked, “have you ever met Jean Todt?” “Why yes” he fired back, “he was my co-driver for a time.” Another conversation with Rauno and yet another earth-shattering realization. I had long known that Jean Todt, now president of the FIA, had gotten his start in motorsports as a rally co-driver before moving on to lead Ferrari’s Formula 1 team to several world championships – I had no idea that he was Rauno’s co-driver. Dinner with Rauno is almost as exciting as driving with Rauno. He is so impassioned, knowledgeable and experienced in such a vast array of topics – he literally ‘wrote the book’ on many things motorsport.
If you’ve never heard or read of Rauno Aaltonen and you have even the faintest interest in racing, rally, cars or performance driving, I urge you to look up his name and start reading. You will not be disappointed by what you learn.
I’d love to see what Rauno could do in MINI’s current WRC car. I would fear for his competition – of any age.
If you are interested in meeting Rauno and learning from the father of rally, consider signing up for one of his driving schools, held in Scandinavia. Rauno Aaltonen’s driving school is the world’s preeminent rally racing school – designed to hone the most important and difficult rally driving techniques. Of course, the program will make any driver safer and better equipped behind the wheel. If you have half as much fun as I did with Rauno – the experience will be worth every penny. Click here to sign up and enjoy the drive of your life.
Special thanks goes to MINI Canada and Rauno Aaltonen for making the above experience and driver training possible.