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The first chapter



Related articles


Leo Kinnunen


AAW Surtees-Cosworth TS16


Brands Hatch


1974 British Grand Prix (July 20, 1974)


The beginnings of many stories are forgotten about because the rest of it is much more interesting. The story of Finnish F1 history is a perfect example. After the first chapters there are well-known parts written by Keke Rosberg and Mika Häkkinen and less successful appearances by JJ Lehto and Mika Salo. These days Kimi Räikkönen is adding his own chapters to the story, and Heikki Kovalainen is waiting for his turn. But very few remember that first chapter, apart from a statistical point of view. That is, the story of Leo Kinnunen, seen here at Brands Hatch during practice for British Grand Prix, or the story of the only Finnish F1 team, the AAW Racing Team.

Leo or "Leksa" was one of those guys who had the ability to take whatever car he was given and instantly drive it faster than most others, no matter what the surface was. His natural talent in controlling a car was immense. Throughout his career he raced a wide variety of different cars on very different racing disciplines. From ice racing with a Fiat 500 to Volvos and Saabs in rallies, all the way to international sportscar races in Porsche's monstrous 917s. Leo did it all, and usually was successful.

Leo was born at Tampere, a town in south-western Finland, in 1943. He started racing with motorcycles in his youth, and later moved to four wheels when he got his driver's license in early sixties and moved to Helsinki. His first racing car was his own Fiat 500, and he took it to all events he could. Soon Leo dominated his classes in ice racing and autocross, and also took part in some asphalt races. There were also some races with Formula Juniors and naturally, being in Finland, rallies.

In fact, Leo was touted as one of the most promising rally drivers of his era, just a couple of years before the great breakthrough of The Flying Finns on the international scene. He achieved this by rallying a variety of cars, mostly Volvos for the Finnish importer, and was also sent to take part in his first international motor race when the Volvo importer sent him to Monte Carlo in 1965. There he and co-driver Charles Lindberg were disqualified after being late from a time control. Those aware of the history of Monte Carlo and the French organisers might be interested to know that the pair was leading their class at the time, appropriately enough ahead of a pair of Citroëns…

Leo's career in rallying peaked in 1967. That year he started his cooperation with Antti Aarnio-Wihuri, a motorsport enthusiast and amateur racer whose family company imported VW:s and Porsches. Antti had set up a Finnish VW Rally Team and offered to run Leo in the Finnish Rally Championship. Leo took the offer and after one rally win and a string of good finishes he was the runner-up in the Finnish Rally Championship, matching the score of the title winner Simo Lampinen. Nevertheless, Leo's priority was rapidly moving towards circuit racing.

That year Leo had also driven in Finnish F3 Championship with an old Brabham which was not on par with the machinery of his rivals. That changed for 1968 when Antti Aarnio-Wihuri found a new team that would concentrate on circuit racing and the team bought a brand-new Titan for Leo. The car gave much better chance for success and Leo won several races with it. On one notable occasion he beat two foreign visitors of the undulating Ahvenisto circuit; young Swedes Ronnie Peterson and Reine Wisell.

The sportscar years

Leo spent first half of 1969 in F3s, but the latter part of the year was quite a bit more eventful. In summer a new sportscar series, the three-race Nordic Challenge Cup, was announced. AAW bought a used Porsche 908 Spyder for Leo to drive in the series. The first race in Keimola was hampered by confusion surrounding the prize money, which led to just three cars taking part with Jochen Rindt taking victory, followed by Leo. The other two races in Anderstorp and Mantorp Park featured healthy grids and Leo won both races. An impressive feat for a sportscar rookie in a grid that featured names like Brian Redman and Jo Bonnier.

These two races didn't go unnoticed, and were followed up by an invitation to test a Porsche 917 at Österreichring in October. In that test Leo impressed many experts including Helmut Flegl, a development engineer for Porsche, who later said that "The most dramatic driver of them all was Kinnunen. He threw the car into the corners like the devil himself, in true rally style." Such was the impression Leo made that John Wyer made a surprise move and hired Leo to partner Pedro Rodriguez in one of his Gulf-sponsored Porsches in the 1970 World Sportscar Championship.

As far as results go, that season with Pedro can be considered as Leo's best. However, beneath the surface life in the team was not easy for Leo. The main reason for this was David Yorke, Wyer's team manager who ran the team with an iron fist and considered Pedro the team's primary driver. For him Leo was only the backup driver demanded by the rules. Most frightening of the handicaps this caused was that the car was mainly built for Pedro's measurements, and Pedro wanted to drive with his hands stretched to their full extent. This meant that Leo, who had shorter arms, had to hang on from the steering wheel for his dear life while driving a 900bhp sportscar prototype!

The pair won their first race together, the 24 Hours of Daytona, a great surprise to the sportscar world of which most had never heard of the Finn. Even the flag hanging by the Mexican flag was the Swedish one! Daytona was followed by another American race, in Sebring. Daytona's success was forgotten quickly when Leo managed to beat Pedro's time in practice. Leo felt Pedro's setups were very understeery and hard to drive, and in Sebring he was given a chance to modify the car to suit his style. The result did not go well with Pedro or Yorke, and that was the last chance Leo got to set the car up to his liking.

Pedro and Leo finished fourth in Sebring and went on to score back-to-back victories in Brands Hatch and Monza. Then came the Targa Florio, one of the highlights of Leo's career. Wyer's team used the light and nimble 908/3 instead of the 917, and this suited Leo extremely well. Pedro had done most of practice and set the grid time, but on race day the Mexican was ill. This gave Leo the chance to do more driving, and on a circuit which was almost impossible to remember corner-to-corner his wonderful car control came to shine. On the final lap, chasing to secure a Porsche 1-2, he blitzed Vic Elford's old lap record by about 1½ minutes, a lap time that will remain undefeated.

The rest of the season, apart from a victory in the final race at Watkins Glen, proved to be much harder. In Spa, Le Mans and Zeltweg the car broke down, but Nürburgring was exceptionally hard on Leo. His old teammate from AAW and good friend Hans Laine crashed horribly during practise and died as a result. Leo was deeply shocked by this and didn't want to drive in the race but the team couldn't find a replacement driver in time. After only a brief stint Leo suffered one of his rare accidents, crashed into an earth bank and the car took off. "Right before I landed I saw Brian Redman flash past below me", Leo later described.

Porsche secured the World Championship of makes and Leo and Pedro were certainly not the smallest factors, but Leo never drove for John Wyer again. In the following winter Leo told the press that he had been negotiating for a drive in the Lotus Grand Prix team, with the help from Jochen Rindt. After Rindt's untimely death at Monza the negotiations hit a dead end. According to Leo Bernie Ecclestone wanted him to drive for free, but as a professional Leo demanded a wage for his services.

Instead, Leo returned to Finland and AAW. The team had planned to run Leo and Hans Laine together in the 1971 World Sportscar Championship, but after Laine's death the team decided to take part in the Interserie championship instead. AAW bought a brand new Porsche 917 Spyder, this time properly set up for Leo. After a difficult start while learning the ropes of the complicated car the team started picking up speed, racking up a string of good results and winning their home race at Keimola. The consistent results brought the team the overall victory.

However, Leo faced another tragedy in 1971, as he saw Pedro Rodriguez crash into barriers right in front of his eyes at the Norisring. The relationship between the two had somewhat healed over time, and they had even made plans to eat dinner after the race, paid by the one who finished in the worst position. Leo decided to retire from the Norisring race but still found motivation in racing. Along the Interserie schedule he also returned to the Targa Florio to partner Rolf Stommelen in a factory Alfa Romeo T33/3, only to see the German crash the pair's Alfa on the first lap.

The following year Leo and AAW returned to Interserie with their Porsche, this time fitted with a turbocharger. The 1972 season was a season-long battle against Willy Kauhsen in a similar turbocharged 917, and in the end AAW and Leo came away on top. 1973 was a repeat of previous year's title chase, Kauhsen mounting an even stronger challenge for the title. However, Leo and AAW were victorious again, for the third time in a row. 1973 also saw Leo take another shot at Targa Florio, this time in a Martini Racing Porsche 911. In the absence of sportscar prototypes Leo and his partner Claude Haldi finished third. Leo also made one of his best results in rallying by bringing his 911 to third in the 1000 Lakes Rally.

The F1 project

When approaching the 1974 season things took a bad turn. AAW had plans on running Leo in Interserie and also in Can-Am in America. However, Antti Aarnio-Wihuri cancelled the whole project prior to the new season and Leo found himself without a car to drive. There weren't many available options at that point, and one of the few was F1; John Surtees offered one of his new TS16s for Leo to lease. Seeing that Surtees' TS14As had done reasonably well in the previous year, even earning one podium finish, Leo took up the offer. He was confident that he could make a good impression in F1.

A new team was found, still carrying the letters AAW in its name, although Mr. AAW himself was not involved in any way. He gave permission to use his initials because the name was known across Europe and it opened many doors for a new team. Collecting the money Surtees demanded for the car proved a bit more problematic than expected, but finally the team found sponsorship mainly from Salora (a Finnish electronics manufacturer) and Colt (cigarettes), and the car was delivered to Nivelles in time for the Belgian GP.

Prior to the GP weekend Leo had seen the car a few times but had never sat in it, let alone drive it. The preparation time was hopeless, but upon examining the car it became clear that this was the least of their worries. The car Surtees had sold them was the first TS16 built, which was used by the factory as a mobile testbed. It already had a damaged monocoque and rear suspension. The car was also 80 kilos overweight and its DFV engine lacked power. The team was nothing to cheer about either, consisting of Leo, three mechanics and a crew chief.

Considering all this it's really unsurprising that the Belgian GP proved to be a disaster. Leo made three laps around the circuit before the blue car with a Finnish flag came to halt with a broken gearbox. Since the team had no spares the mechanics started to repair the gearbox in a hurry, and got the car running again just in time to give Leo a few more laps of track time in Saturday's free practice. In qualifying, however, the gearbox broke down again, leaving Leo dead last and the only non-qualifier of the weekend.

After the weekend the team travelled back to Finland and the Keimola circuit to do some testing with the car. Most of the time was spent fixing the faults and there was quite a lot of progress, but things looked bleak for the future. The team didn't travel to Monaco, so their next race was the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp. There Leo managed 25th position in qualifying, and the organisers decided to let him and Vern Schuppan take part in the race as backups behind the 24 qualifiers. However, the team already knew that finishing the race was unlikely. The car, now with a new gold livery, was short-fueled to compensate the car's overweight and Leo did manage to climb up to 20th by lap 8. Then a spark plug lost its threads and failed, forcing Leo to retire.

That was the only slight flash of actual racing the team had, and the rest of the season went poorly. The team was not allowed to take part in the Dutch GP, and in Great Britain, France, Austria and Italy the team didn't manage to qualify for the race. There was no more money to spend so the team didn't take part in the two American races. And so Leo's brief F1 career was over and the Finnish F1 team was dead and soon forgotten. And so the Finnish F1 team was dead and soon forgotten. Leo's F1 career was over as well, but he had left one historical statistic behind him: in the days of integrated helmets with bulletproof visors Leo came into F1 using the protective equipment he used in sportscars - an open helmet and goggles. He was the last man in the history of F1 to use such a combination.

After F1

Only weeks after the F1 episode came to an end in Monza Leo found himself back in sportscars, driving a Martini Racing Porsche at Hockenheim. After winning this race, the last Interserie race of the year, Martini Racing hired Leo to partner Herbert Müller in 1975 World Sportscar Championship. The highlight of the year was a third place at the Nürburgring.

1976 turned out to be Leo's last year in international sports car racing. He raced a Porsche 934 Turbo for Egon Evertz, who also partnered Leo in the races. The pair scored a second place in Watkins Glen and two third places in Mugello and Silverstone. However, the team suffered from financial problems and after the penultimate round in Dijon the team closed its doors and Leo was out of a job again. After this Leo never came back to top level motorsports. Before his final retirement from racing he contested some Finnish rallies in different cars with some success.

You might say that Leo was an old-fashioned racing personality, who let his driving do his talking. On this basis he refused to learn English properly for a long part of his career, and in the international races he usually had someone to translate what he wanted to say. Not that speaking in his own language did him good either. In his comments Leo was very straightforward and didn't hesitate to speak his mind. This characteristic gave him problems with team principles and sponsors throughout his career, and after it. But even during the days of Mika Häkkinen's breakthrough to international racing circuits, years after Keke Rosberg's F1 career and world championship, some experts considered Leo to be the most talented circuit racer Finland had ever produced. Leo was definitely a much more talented driver than what his career statistics, especially those in F1, lead to believe.

But most of all, he is remembered for one thing; He is the one who wrote that first chapter.