Finnish rally ace Rauno Aaltonen won the 1967 Monte Carlo rally in a Mini Cooper S. Today I’m privileged to be riding shotgun with the man they call the ‘Rally Professor’ as he retraces some of his tyre tracks in a near-perfect replica.
You can read the full story in the new November 2009 issue of CAR Magazine out now, as part of our 33-page special. Here’s a taster of what happened.
After Aaltonen’s ensured I’m firmly strapped into my bucket seat – he’s obsessive about detail and preparation, Aaltonen – he fires up the raspy 1275cc and sets off up the dusty mountain road. At first it’s a slightly underwhelming, pedestrian experience; the car wheezes as it struggles to overcome the gradient and 150kg or so of human ballast.
But what comes next is quite remarkable. ‘Watch the feet,’ says Aaltonen, focussing intently on the road ahead, sawing at the steering wheel. ‘The feet!’ The car picks up speed and, as we dash alongside quite terrifying tumbles into thin air, the old-age pensioner alongside me stabs at the brake pedal with his left foot. Now, OAPs putting feet on the wrong pedals generally ends in car park Armageddon, but this isn’t any old OAP.
With the brakes biased firmly to the rear, Aaltonen’s inputs have a handbrake effect, tweaking the nose of the car towards the apex and eliminating understeer. It’s his trademark, a technique he’s credited with inventing. Did he stumble across it accidentally?
‘No,’ says Aaltonen. ‘I thought about what I was trying to achieve and decided left-foot braking was the best way to do it. So I practised and practised it.’ Logic, preparation, dedication. Very Aaltonen.
We pivot through hairpins, scorch through left/right flicks and remain fully committed at moments that would most certainly have me backing off. And we’re still going uphill! When we spin 180 degrees to turn around in front of a group of astonished tourists (imagine you’re at a beauty spot and a 71-year-old in a baseball cap roars up in a Mini and pulls the handbrake) it’s time to head down.
‘Look, second gear already,’ says Aaltonen, his foot to the floor. ‘Third! Fourth!’
We bounce down the road, skipping towards guardrails that’d struggle to deflect a toddler, the Mini gaining speed like an Everest avalanche. All the while Aaltonen remains entirely unflustered and simply taps at the middle pedal to avert otherwise certain disaster. Amazing.
If you’ve ever tried left-foot braking you’ll know how easy it is to get wrong – novices don’t have the required feel in that hoof and tend to brake so hard that they make for the windscreen.
Forty years on, watching Aaltonen is still a masterclass.