- August 05, 1943
- July 26, 2017
- Not Active
Leo Kinnunen (1943 – 2017) was a racing and rally driver from Finland who deserved a place in motorsport history as the first ever Formula 1 driver from Finland. He made just one F1 start in six attempts in 1974 but it was enough to enter the history books.
Kinnunen was successful in sports car racing, winning the Nordic Challenge Cup in 1969, the Interseries three times in a row from 1971 to 1973 and helping Porsche to take World Sportscar Championship title in 1970. In rallying, he was Finnish vice-champion in 1967 and recorded six starts in the World Rally Championship, finishing best in third place at Rally of 1000 Lakes in 1973.
Starting a career with motorcycles, switching to rally in the early 1960s
Born in August 1943 in Tampere, Leo Juhani 'Leksa' Kinnunen spent his teenage years racing with motorcycles, switching to car racing in the early 1960s when he received a driver's license. He competed in rallying, autocross and ice racing.
He made a debut at Rally of 1000 Lakes in 1964, driving a Volvo 544. In 1965, he traveled across Europe to make a debut at Rallye Monte-Carlo in a Volvo 122S, not finishing the rally. In 1966, Kinnunen switched to Volkswagen 1600 TL and started to win rallies in the national championship.
Finnish rally vice-champion in 1967
His greatest success in national rallying came in 1967 when he was a vice-champion in the Finnish rally championship, tied in points with Simo Lampinen. That yeat, Kinnunen was driving Volkswagen 1500 or Volkswagen 1600 L, sharing cars with three different navigators.
Kinnunen spent two more seasons in a Volkswagen, scoring some wins or podiums in the national championship in 1968 and 1969. At Rally of 1000 Lakes, a part of the European Rally Championship, he was driving a Porsche 911 T (in 1968) or Porsche 911 S (in 1969), retiring in both events.
Nordic Challenge Cup winner in 1969
Parallel to his rally career, Kinnunen started to develop circuit racing career in the mid-1960s. He was driving an old Brabham-Ford in Formula 3 races in 1967 and then switched to Titan-Ford in 1968.
He also participated occasionally in sports car races, then entering the Nordic Challenge Cup with Racing Team AAW Porsche 908/02 in 1969. He won two races and finished second in the third race, dominantly taking the championship title.
Four victories for World Sportscar Championship title in 1970
Following his success in the Nordic Challenge Cup with Porsche, Kinnunen has been invited to test a Porsche 917 and then he was hired to partner Pedro Rodriguez in the World Sportscar Championship. In February, they won Daytona 24 Hours in the #2 Porsche 917 K, sharing a car with Brian Redman. Next month, they finished fourth at Sebring 12 Hours.
Two more victories followed at Brands Hatch and Monza, then second place at Targa Florio in a Porsche 908/03 and DNFs at Spa and Nurburgring. In June 1970, Kinnunen didn't finish the race in his debut at Le Mans 24 Hours, sharing the #21 Porsche 917 K with Pedro Rodriguez. Later in the season, they won at Watkins Glen and gave the championship title to Porsche. Drivers' title was not awarded until 1981.
Racing with McLaren and Abarth in 1970
In 1970, Nordic Challenge Cup has been replaced by Interserie, which become one of the most popular European sports car competitions in the next two decades. That year, Kinnunen participated in just one race, driving Bill Bradley Racing's McLaren M12-Chevrolet at Keimola.
In other competitions, he was driving an Abarth 2000SP in the European 2-litre Sportscar Championship.
Interserie champion for three years in a row
In 1971, Kinnunen joined Finnish AAW Racing Team to drive the #11 Porsche 917 Spyder in the Interserie. Scoring five podiums, including one victory, he won the championship in his debut year. He skipped the race at Norisring after seeing his former teammate Pedro Rodriguez crash into the barriers and lose his life.
Outside Interserie, he raced with Autodelta's Alfa Romeo T33/3 at Targa Florio, sharing a car with Rolf Stommelen and not finishing the race. He also partnered Bjorn Waldegard in a Porsche 911 S at Nurburgring 1000 Km, finishing 16th overall and third in GT+2.0 class.
In 1972, Kinnunen scored six wins in the #1 Porsche 917/10 of Team AAW, dominantly taking his second Interserie title. The third triumph followed in 1973, again in the #1 Porsche 917/10, when he won four out of seven races. Outside Inteserie in 1973, he finished third at Targa Florio in a Porsche 911 Carrera RSR, sharing a car with Claude Haldi.
Third place at 1973 Rally Finland
While developing his sports car career, Kinnunen never left rallying. He competed occasionally in national events, including Rally of 1000 Lakes, with different cars (Saab V4, Volkswagen 1302 S, Datsun 1600, Porsche 911 S, Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV).
In 1973, when the World Rally Championship has been established, Kinnunen participated at Rally of 1000 Lakes (today Rally Finland), finishing third in the #3 Porsche Carrera, behind Timo Makinen (Ford) and Markku Alen (Volvo). Kinnunen's navigator was Atso Aho.
The first Formula One driver from Finland
As established sports car races and rally driver, Leo Kinnunen has been considered as Formula 1 candidate few times during the early 1970s. He finally entered Formula 1 in 1974, leasing a Surtees TS16-Ford from Henry Surtees. Kinnunen made a deal with Antti Aarnio-Wihuri to use the name of his AAW Racing Team.
Kinnunen's first F1 Grand Prix event was the Belgian Grand Prix at Nivelles. With no previous experience with a car and struck by mechanical problems, he failed to qualify for the race. After that, the team concentrated on testing and fixing the car and Kinnunen managed to qualify for the Swedish Grand Prix at Scandinavian Raceway. Starting from P25, he stopped after eight laps but marked the history as the first ever F1 driver from Finland.
The rest of the season was disappointing as Kinnunen failed to qualify for the races in France, Great Britain, Italy and Austria. Lack of funding then forced him to leave Formula One. However, the history has been made.
Two starts in the 1974 World Rally Championship
Outside Formula 1 in 1974, Kinnunen started and won one race in the Interseries with Martini Racing Porsche 917/30 but also recorded two starts in the World Rally Championship.
In August, he was driving Fiat 124 Abarth Rallye in the Finnish WRC round, finishing in the sixth place. Atso Aho was his navigator. In November, Kinnunen came with the same car to Lombard RAC Rally, finishing in 14th place.
Last attempt at Le Mans 24 Hours in 1976
In a post-F1 career, Kinnunen continued to race with Porsche 908/3-6 Turbo in sports car events in Europe, sharing a car mostly with Herbert Muller. Their most notable result in 1975 was the third place at Nurburgring 1000 Km.
In 1976, Kinnunen was driving a Porsche 934 for Egon Evertz in the World Championship or DRM (German Racing Championship), finishing best in the second place at Watkins Glen 6 Hours. In June 1976, Kinnunen recorded his last Le Mans 24h attempt, not finishing the race in the #16 Porsche 908/3 Turbo he was sharing with Egon Evertz.
Four more WRC starts between 1977 and 1982
In rallying, Kinnunen was driving Toyota Corolla, Datsun 160J and Volkswagen 1302 S in national events in 1975 before switching to Volvo 66 in 1976.
He was combining Volvo 66 and Porsche 911 in 1977, recording a return to Finnish WRC round. He didn't reach the finish line. In February 1979, Kinnunen won Arctic Rally in a Porsche 911, a part of the European Rally Championship.
His next WRC attempt was in August 1979 at Rally of 1000 Lakes, when he had an accident in a Porsche 911. One more DNF at Rally Finland followed in 1981 and then, Kinnunen recorded his last WRC attempt in 1982, retiring at Rally Finland in a Porsche 911 SC.
Kinnunen recorded his last racing appearance in the Scandinavian Special Saloon Cup in 1985, driving a Saab 900 Turbo in several rounds.