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Henri Toivonen (August 25, 1956 – May 2, 1986) was a Finnish rally driver born in Jyväskylä, the home of Rally Finland. His father, Pauli Toivonen, was the 1968 European Rally Champion for Porsche and his brother, Harri Toivonen, became a professional circuit racer.
Toivonen took his first World Rally Championship victory with a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus at the 1980 Lombard RAC Rally in Great Britain, when he had just turned 24 years old. He is still the youngest driver ever to win a world rally. Toivonen’s next big success came with Lancia. In 1985, he was finally signed up for a full WRC programme, but ended up nearly paralysed early on at a rally in Costa Smeralda. He returned to rallying the same year, winning the last event of the season, the RAC Rally, as well as the 1986 season opener, the Monte Carlo Rally, which his father had won exactly 20 years earlier.
Toivonen, driving a Lancia Delta S4, died in a mysterious accident on May 2, 1986 at the Tour de Corse rally of Corsica, while leading both the event and the championship. His American co-driver, Sergio Cresto, also lost his life as the Delta S4 plunged down a ravine and exploded. The fatal accident had no witnesses and the remains of the Lancia were merely blackened spaceframe, making it impossible to determine the cause of the accident. Within hours of the accident, Jean-Marie Balestre, the President of the FISA , banned the powerful Group B rally cars from competing for the next season, ending rallying’s popular supercar era.
Although Toivonen is remembered for his exuberant driving style on gravel, he started his career in circuit racing and was very competitive also on tarmac. During the 1986 Rally of Portugal, he drove his Delta S4 rally car at the Estoril track, and it is often reported that his fastest lap time would have qualified him in sixth position at that year’s Formula One Portuguese Grand Prix. Eddie Jordan, in whose Formula Three team Toivonen made a few guest appearances, claimed he was certain that Toivonen would have become a winner in Formula One and compared his performances to Ayrton Senna. The annual Race of Champions, which was originally organised in Toivonen’s memory, awards the winning individual driver the Henri Toivonen Memorial Trophy.
The 1986 Tour de Corse, a world rally around the island of Corsica, began on Thursday, May 1. Toivonen had a sore throat and was suffering from flu, but he insisted on driving after having his championship lead reduce in the last two rallies. According to several sources, he was also taking medicine to treat fever. Regardless of his ill health, he was taking stage win after stage win and leading the rally by a large margin. After day one, the first leg, Toivonen commented on the event: “This rally is insane, even though everything is going well at the moment. If there will be trouble, I’m as good as dead.”
Toivonen was complaining about the car being too powerful for a rally like the Tour de Corse. He found it very hard to keep the car balanced on the road and admitted it was very exhausting. In a short interview before he steered his Lancia on the 18th stage, Toivonen made a comment which would remain his last words in public: “It’s hard to keep up with the speed.”