Leo Kinnunen

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Last updated: 20-August-2001


Before Formula One Formula One After Formula One

Before F1

First Finnish Formula One pilot the last to use an open faced helmet

Considering its pedigree in both road-racing and rallying, and keeping in mind its relatively small population, it's probably fair to say that Finland is the most successful motor racing country on the planet. Rallying has been graced by the likes of Hannu Mikkola, Markku Alen, Juha Kankkunen, Henri Toivonen, Tommi Makinen and Marcus Grönholm. F1 has seen two great champions in Keke Rosberg and Mika Häkkinen, with Kimi Räikkönen touted as a future hero.

What is less remembered, though, is that the very first Finn in F1 was a sports car star from Tampere near Turku named Leo Kinnunen; a man of firsts and lasts. Not only was he the first Finn in the highest echelon of motorsport, he was also the last man to use the open-faced helmet and goggles combination in F1. A far cry from the cloth caps of yesteryear, but just as far away from the current full-face helmets with their lexan visors which can withstand a stone thrown up at 500kph!


Plenty of success straight off for Wyer's Gulf including Daytona

Kinnunen made his reputation in the late 1960s by haring around in his homeland in Volvos (what else?), Porsches and an F3 Titan machine. But out of nowhere he was chosen by legendary sports car team manager John Wyer to become a part of his Gulf-sponsored Porsche team to contest the 1970 International Championship of Makes in a Porsche 917K (although the team would use a Porsche 908/3 in two events). Little did Kinnunen know that he was about to become part of sports car folklore.

Partnering Pedro Rodriguez and Brian Redman, Kinnunen won his debut race, the Daytona 24hrs, before coming 4th at Sebring with Rodriguez and Jo Siffert. Teaming up with Rodriguez for the rest of the year, Leo then won two in a row at Brands Hatch and Monza, and came 2nd in the Targa Florio, followed by a disappointing run of 4 retirements in the next five races, including Le Mans, where the car retired after only 3 hours with a broken turbine drive. The horror run was broken only by a win at Watkins Glen.

Kinnunen's Gulf Porsche (shared with Pedro Rodriguez) at Spa 1970, a year when the Gulf Porsches were a dominant force.
Kinnunen's Gulf Porsche (shared with Pedro Rodriguez) at Spa 1970, a year when the Gulf Porsches were a dominant force.


Dabbles in other sports car series, including one race at Keimola

There was no drivers' championship then; as the name suggests, it was championship for makes. But coupled with the success of the other Gulf car of Redman and Siffert, and the efforts of the other Porsche teams, the German marque was a runaway winner of the championship. One suspects that had there been a drivers' title, even if Kinnunen and Rodriguez hadn't won it, they would only have been beaten by their Gulf team-mates.

In 1970, the ICM naturally wasn't the only sports car championship going around. There was also the Interserie championship, and here Kinnunen raced one round at his local track, Keimola, coming 8th in a Bill Bradley Racing McLaren M12/6GT Chevrolet. In addition, there was the European Sportscar Championship for 2-litre machines, and driving a works Abarth 2000SP, Kinnunen came 2nd and 3rd in his only two drives at Mugello and the Nurburgring. This was good enough to give him equal 11th overall, with 12 points.


Concentrates on the Interserie title, wins it with three heat victories

It came as something of a surprise when Kinnunen left the Wyer operation after just one year to concentrate on the Interserie title for 1971, driving a Porsche 917 Spyder for the AAW-Finland Racing Team. With most rounds run over two heats and the outright result being decided on aggregate, Kinnunen won a heat at Zolder and both races at Keimola, winning the Keimola round outright, and coming 2nd outright at Zolder and Hockenheim, plus 3rd outright at Imola and Hockenheim again.

This was enough for Kinnunen to waltz away with the championship, scoring 81,000 points in their rather inflated points-scoring system. Not staying away from the ICM permanently though, he teamed up with Rolf Stommelen in an Autodelta Alfa T33/3 at the Targa Florio, only for the German to crash on the first lap! Kinnunen then entered a private Porsche 911S for the Nurburgring round, and with Björn Waldegaard he came 16th.

The Kinnunen challenge at the 1971 Targa Florio came to an end when co-pilot Rolf Stommelen crashed on the first lap of the race.
The Kinnunen challenge at the 1971 Targa Florio came to an end when co-pilot Rolf Stommelen crashed on the first lap of the race.


Wins six of nine rounds outright to totally dominate Interserie for AAW

In 1972, he only drove in the Interserie championship, once again for AAW in their blue Porsche 917/10. In an incredible display of utter dominance, of the nine rounds he won six of the last seven outright (including the last five rounds of the championship), at Silverstone, Hockenheim (twice), Norisring, Keimola and the Nurburgring, racking up nine heat wins in the process. With a gigantic 135,500 points he easily defeated Willi Kauhsen (of future Kauhsen F1 infamy) on a meagre 109,200.

For 1973, though, Kauhsen was a much stronger challenger. Kinnunen was again driving a Porsche 917/10 turbo, alternately entered by AAW and Motorsport Club Stuttgart, winning four of the seven rounds outright, coming 2nd in two others, recording 6 heat wins and 7 heat 2nd places. With 127.5 points, he pipped Kauhsen on 117. That year, Kinnunen also did one race in the re-named World Championship of Makes, placing 3rd in the Targa Florio in a Martini Racing Porsche Carrera 911 with Claude Haldi.

Formula One
AAW Racing

Transfer from Porsche sports car outfit to F1 team a difficult one

Sports car stardom, though, was still nothing compared to F1, and in 1974 AAW took the plunge and funded 6 F1 entries for Kinnunen using a Surtees TS16 chassis with a Cosworth DFV V8 3.0 litre engine. But while the team found running a Porsche sports car relatively easy to handle, operating an F1 outfit was a completely different kettle of fish, and the team was so out of its depth, Kinnunen now looks back and describes the experience as being like working with "scoundrels" who were "no good for anything"!

He wasn't too thrilled with the car either. Not only was the 500bhp engine underpowered, the chassis didn't handle well. What's more, the fuel tanks were right beside the driver in the side pods, posing a real health hazard in the event of a side-on accident. To make matters worse, Kinnunen found that he barely ever had any practice time to sort out the car before qualifying. It was enough to make him want to give up, but he plugged on because of his Finnish sponsors.


Slow start, but makes the race in Sweden only to retire 8 laps in

And so the team turned up at the Belgian GP at Nivelles, round 5 of the 1974 World Championship, with their Surtees painted in blue and the cliché 'The Flying Finn' under Kinnunen's name. It was ironic, then, that of the 32 entries, the only man not allowed to start was Leo. Not too surprising when you consider that he was a massive 18.95 seconds slower than Clay Regazzoni's Ferrari on pole and 4.96 seconds slower than Vittorio Brambilla's March in 31st spot.

Things were better in his next attempt in round 7 at Anderstorp for the Swedish GP. Kinnunen qualified 25th out of 26, only 4.63 seconds behind Patrick Depailler's Tyrrell on pole. But in the race, Kinnunen only lasted 8 laps before his engine failed due to an electrical fault. Jody Scheckter eventually led home a Tyrrell 1-2. But this would be the last time the AAW Surtees would ever be on the grid, as Kinnunen would fail to qualify in his remaining 4 entries.

His gold livery couldn't help the self-proclaimed 'Flying Finn' to qualify at any of Kinnunen's last four GPs. Here he nevertheless records a time faster than five other drivers in Austria.
His gold livery couldn't help the self-proclaimed 'Flying Finn' to qualify at any of Kinnunen's last four GPs. Here he nevertheless records a time faster than five other drivers in Austria. © Rob Ryder / Forix.


Four more DNQs recorded despite nice new gold livery

By now the car was done up in a fetching gold colour scheme, not that it helped. At Dijon for the French GP in round 9, where the top 12 were within a second of Niki Lauda's pole time, Kinnunen was 29th out of 30 (ahead of Gerard Larrousse's Brabham), 4.36 seconds off the pace. He was even further back next round at Brands Hatch, where he was dead last in 34th spot and 5.9 seconds away.

At round 12, the Austrian GP at the Osterreichring, again the top of the grid was bunched with the top 10 within one second of Niki Lauda. Kinnunen by contrast was 27th, 4.07 seconds off pole, but ahead of 5 others who like him failed to make the cut, including the likes of Derek Bell and Jean-Pierre Jabouille. Finally, at Monza, Kinnunen rounded off his F1 career by being last in practice out of 31 entrants, 7.16 seconds behind Lauda and 2.11 seconds behind Chris Amon's Amon/Ford in 30th spot.

After F1

Returns to sports cars and picks up where he left off with a win

With that, Kinnunen's F1 tilt was over, and he was probably glad for it too. While his bomb ended up being preserved for posterity at the Car & Communication Museum of Turun Sanomat in Turku, Leo himself returned to the comfortable surrounds of sports cars before 1974 was out. He went back to the Interserie championship, and in one start in a Martini Racing Team Porsche 917/30 turbo, he showed that he had lost none of his skill by winning at Hockenheim, leaving him 6th overall on 20 points!

Martini Racing kept Kinnunen on their books for 1975, teaming him up with Herbert Müller in a Porsche 908 turbo (both versions 3 and 4 of the car) for the World Championship of Makes. At Mugello, where Gijs van Lennep also joined them, they were 16th, before retiring at Monza and Spa, followed by 7th at Enna, 3rd at the Nurburgring and 9th at the Osterreichring.

Staying with Martini Racing for 1975 in the WCM, Kinnunen had his best result, a podium 3rd place, at the Nurburgring.
Staying with Martini Racing for 1975 in the WCM, Kinnunen had his best result, a podium 3rd place, at the Nurburgring.


More podium finishes, but the glory days are behind him

In 1976, there were two international sports car championships, one run after the other. In the World Championship of Makes, Kinnunen drove a Porsche 934 Turbo with Evon Egertz in a car entered by the latter, and they were also joined from time to time by Liechtensteiner Manfred Schurti and also Toine Hezemans. Kinnunen came 4th at Dijon, 3rd at Mugello and Silverstone, and 2nd at Watkins Glen.

In the subsequent World Sportscar Championship, Kinnunen entered two races with Egertz in the latter's Porsche 908, failing to start at Monza after engine problems, and retiring at Dijon with oil pressure gremlins. After this, in 1977, Kinnunen competed in one more race, the Nurburgring round of the World Championship of Makes, retiring with engine problems in a Josef Brambring Porsche 935 shared with Jürgen Neuhaus and Albrecht Krebs.


From what we can tell, Kinnunen then left the international motor racing scene, becoming instead a proud supporter of a campaign to preserve his beloved Keimola track, on which he had had so many sports car successes.

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