Leo Kinnunen, who died on July 26th, is best remembered as Finlandʼs first F1 driver, but he was also a highly effective member of the legendary John Wyer Gulf Porsche 917 team
A look back over the life of the late great Porsche racing driver
Like virtually all the Scandinavians, Finnish-born Leo Kinnunen made his competition début in rallying. His first mount was a Fiat 500 followed by a Volvo PV544 provided by the then Volvo importer. As he had demonstrated on motorcycles as a teenager, Kinnunenʼs talents on four wheels were also exceptional – he was leading his class in the 1965 Monte until disqualified for a disputed time infringement, and was spotted by, amongst others, a certain Antti Aarnio-wihuri whose family was the VW and Porsche importer.
Aarnio-wihuri took Kinnunen under his wing and established the AAW racing team: in its second season (1967), Kinnunen was second in the Finnish rally championship driving an Aaw-prepared 911S. This fired the young Finnʼs ambitions to get into circuit racing so, for 1968, AAW launched him in F3 with a less than competitive Brabham.
More successful was the teamʼs venture during the same season in a new series, the Nordic Challenge Cup, a precursor of the Interserie series. Driving a secondhand Porsche 908 Spyder, Kinnunen chalked up two victories ahead of such luminaries as Brian Redman and Jo Bonnier. That sufficed for an invitation to join the Gulf Porsche team.
The beginnings were promising: during practice sessions at the Osterreichring in October 1969, 917 development engineer Helmut Flegl remarked that no one could throw the 917 rally-style into corners like Kinnunen. He was paired with Rodriguez for the 1970 season but, despite winning the opening fixture at Daytona, he never really got on with the Mexican and always felt the 917 was configured to suit Rodriguez rather than him. Essentially he found the steering wheel too far from him.
Kinnunenʼs lack of English and, it was said, lack of
“KINNUNEN NEVER REALLY GOT ON WITH THE MEXICAN…”
interest in trying to learn English, did not help communications; team manager David Yorke clearly regarded him as number two to Rodriguez. Significantly Kin nun enʼs greatest achievement came at that yearʼs Targa Florio where Rodriguez was ill and the Finn drove the entire race alone, finishing second and setting a never-to-be equalled fastest lap of 33mins 36 seconds.
Although Porsche won the world championship of makes that year, thanks partly to Kinnunenʼs two victories (he and Rodriguez won again at Watkins Glen), the 917s were not entirely reliable and outings at Spa, Zeltweg and Le Mans all resulted in retirements.
However, the 1000km at the Nürburgring was a turning point: Kinnunenʼs friend Hans Laine, driving an AAWentered 917, died in practice in a blazing crash that Kinnunen had the misfortune to witness. Pressed by David Yorke to drive in the race itself as the team had no reserve driver, a severely distracted Kinnunen also crashed, though without injury. The Gulf team did not renew his contract for the 1971 season.
Kinnunen hoped he could get into Formula 1 with help from Jochen Rindt, but when the latter was killed, the plan fell through. He approached Ecclestoneʼs Brabham team: the canny Londoner was prepared to make a car available, but not a salary. Kinnunen thus turned back to AAW to drive the teamʼs new 917 Spyder in the Interserie and, once he had mastered the car, a series of seconds and thirds and a win in Finland were enough to secure the championship.
The following year saw a repeat performance, this time in the turbocharged 917 despite the close attentions of Willi Kauhsen in a similar car. In 1973, too, Kinnunen underlined his versatility, finshing third in the last Targa Florio and third in his native Rally of a Thousand Lakes, both in a 911RSR.
For 1974, things became harder: AAW withdrew from racing and Kinnunen tried his luck once more in F1, this time in a Surtees TS 16. The season was a fiasco: the Surtees was both unreliable and uncompetitive. Not only did the car fail to complete more than a few laps, at several Grands Prix
“THE GULF TEAM DID NOT RENEW HIS CONTRACT FOR 1971”
it was even too slow to qualify. Like his contemporary Rolf Stommelen, who had been in Porscheʼs works team and whose attempts at F1 were similarly thwarted, Kinnunen returned to racing Porsches.
For 1975 he drove for the Martini team in the World Sportscar Championship and, partnered by Porsche stalwart Herbert Müller, the pairʼs best result was third in the AD AC 1000km at the Nürburgring with a turbocharged 908/3. For 1976, the Finn found a drive with Egon Evertz and with the latterʼs 934; the team was relatively successful with third places at Mugello and Silverstone and second at Watkins Glen. At the end of the year, Evertz decided he had spent enough money and closed his team, leaving Kinnunen unemployed once more.
He decided to give up active competition. At 37 he was enough of a name in Finland to get a job in sports administration and later used his renown to establish a marketing company. He was nonetheless persuaded to don his crash hat a few times more for local rallies (and no doubt the publicity did no harm), even winning the 1979 Artic Rally.
Michael Cotton, who was racing correspondent for Motoring News from 1967–76, knew all the racing drivers of the period. He remembers Leo Kinnunen as a pleasant young man always rather awkward when expressing himself in English:
ʻHe was quite direct, as well, and I can imagine that went down badly in the John Wyer team, though he was very good. Undoubtedly that second place in the Targa Florio which he achieved by himself was quite outstanding, but it was also a bad year for him seeing Hans Laine killed: they were intending to race together for AAW the following season. It did not surprise me that Wyer dropped him after that: they were very quick in replacing him with Jackie Oliver.ʼ CP
Above: 1973 Targa Florio and Leo Kinnunen and Claude Haldi finished third overall sharing a 911 Carrera RSR 2.8
Below right: Kinnunen singlehandedly drove the Porsche 908/03 Spyder to second place overall
Below: Pensive before the start of the 1972 RheinlandPfalz-preis Nürburgring
Above: 1970 Nürburging 1000km – Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen shared a 908/03 Spyder, which was clearly an ʻinterestingʼ drive!
Below left: 1976 ADAC 1000km at the Nürburgring, Egon Evertz and Leo Kinnunen in the former ʼs Porsche 934/5
Below right: In a 917/10 Spyder in the Interserie round at the Hockenheimring in 1972
Below: Rheinland-pfalz-preis Nürburgring, Leo Kinnunen at the wheel once more of the Porsche 917/10 Spyder
Above right: Le Mans 1976, Kinnunen and Egon Evertz were running in 20th place in a 908/03 before retiring in the 10th hour
Above: In a 917/10, 1972