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

Classic Porsche - - Contents - Words: Kieron Fen­nelly Pho­tos: Porsche Archiv

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


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


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

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