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May 2, 1986, thirty years ago, was the day I will always remember.  It was the day when the Lancia Delta S4 shot off the road on stage 18 of the Tour de Corse and exploded where it landed in a group of trees below road level, ending the lives of Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto.   1986 was already a very special year, memorable not always for the right reasons after the spectator tragedy in  Portugal in March, during times when the Group B crisis was reaching its climax.  And Corsica, for a long time recognised as the ultimate tarmac rally, was an early and long awaited highlight of the season. Of the six different Group B top level teams it was soon evident that only Lancia and Peugeot had the resources and determination to run a fully competitive programme.  After the previous round (Safari), Peugeot led Lancia in the Manufacturers’ championship by four points, far ahead of Audi and the other manufacturers.   For Corsica, Lancia entered three S4s for Markku Alen, Henri Toivonen and Miki Biasion.  The year before had been a sad event in Corsica when the Lancia team driver, Attilio Bettega, carrying competition number 4, lost his life when his 037 slid off the road and impacted a tree.  That had been the first top driver fatality in the WRC.   It was widely assumed that the entry list for the 1986 event would leave number 4 blank in respect, but in fact it was given again to a Lancia driver, this time Toivonen.  Nothing was said about it, but silently it increased the pre-event tension.

Henri Toivonen at the Rallye Monte Carlo 1986. Photo: Martin Holmes

After an initial loop of stages in the south of the island when the Peugeots of Bruno Saby and Timo Salonen led, the rally headed into the inland hills and Henri pulled steadily ahead.  For the second day Henri was running first car on the road, lying 2m45s ahead of Saby at the halt at the middle of the second day.   Immediately after that the accident happened.  I was waiting to see the cars on a mountain top half way through the following stage, but the cars did not arrive.  A sinister pall of smoke rose up from across the hills.  The other cars running behind Henri stopped at the scene, the stage was halted and crews turned back down the stage. For many, even seasoned rally reporters, the rest of the day was filled with emotions.  As soon as news arrived of the accident, I was seized by an extraordinary reaction of needing to remember what had been the last time I had spoken with Henri.  We used to speak many times during each event – but I was mentally paralysed wondering what had been the last occasion with Henri.   Instead of following the rally round to the overnight halt at Calvi, we all headed back to rally HQ at Ajaccio to see what would happen.  My mind kept racing, the solution never came.  In the end the Press Room monitors were switched over to national TV news where the accident was the lead item.   The programme showed Henri sitting in his car at the restart earlier that day at Bastia, with occasional flashgun flashes.  I had my Eureka moment, one of those flashes had been mine, and I instantly recalled what we had been taking about.  1986 was the year when we started using cheap “Mickey Mouse” cameras when we were not on the stages.  Henri was asking me about my cameras. I told him I would show him on the next rally a print of my picture of him, so he could see how good it was.   That evening in Ajaccio the FIA President, Jean-Marie Balestre, gave one of the most crucial speeches of his career.  It was when he outlined the changes he would impose on the sport. The immediate end of evolution homologations of Group B cars, the introduction of a Group A formula for the WRC, the limit of 300bhp for rally cars, a maximum limit of 30km for special stages. All a carefully planned road map for the future of the sport.  

Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto in action at the Monte Carlo Rally 1986. Photo: Martin Holmes

It was apparent that Jean-Marie had not suddenly dreamed up these changes to the sport. He must have stored up his ideas for just such an occasion as this.   That day was extraordinary for another reason.  Just how quickly the burned out wreckage of Toivonen’s car was taken away from Corsica and found its way back to Italy.  With my colleague, journalist Thomas Lindberg, we walked up from the closest access point to the scene of the crash. It was 4km uphill, but apart from an aircraft crash type collection of pieces still embedded in the ground at the scene of the crash, there was nothing of the car to be seen.  The wreckage had long gone.  We later passed it under a tarpaulin on the back of a truck on the island’s main road.  That day an endless series of conspiracy theory debates started up.   What actually happened?  The car may not still be seen, but there were important signs to be noted, notably that there was no sign of panic braking or a puncture, just an indication of the line of the tyres making a slight attempt to the curve.   Was this a pacenote mistake?  Highly unlikely, this was one of the worst bends on the stage.  Drivers do not forget bad bends.  Henri was known to have a bad cold that day, was his judgment impaired by medicine?  He was still suffering pain from a back injury suffered on previous events.   People then started thinking about the car.  These were days before control fuels, teams used whatever suited their cars, Lancia included.  Could the crew have been affected by leaking fumes?  Unlikely, the car had been serviced shortly before.   In a recent interview, Henri’s brother Harri said the Lancia people believed a sticking throttle had caused the crash.  It had happened on various previous occasions and probably this was the reason.

The wreckage was hurriedly taken back to the Lancia base in Italy. Photo: Martin Holmes

There is not only a special fascination for rally people about Corsica, there is a tragic beauty about the place.  The intensity of the tensions between families on the island, which they keep to themselves when the rally people and the regular tourists are around, is always there, but you see all about the violence the rest of the year in the newspapers.   For rally fans, however, Corsica remains a very special challenge for sporting reasons.  Nowadays new rules about the format of world championship rallying mean that the old true “Tour” style of event is no longer possible, and many of the old iconic sections of the route are not followed.   The Tour de Corse has been held at a wide variety of times during the year, not only in the glorious springtime, first week in May, which was when the tragedies involving Attilio, Henri and Sergio happened.  There was always something different and unexpected in Corsica.   Thinking back to the Attilio accident, there was an uncanny coincidence.  Both the 1985 and the 1986 accidents happened on the second of May.  The rally may have changed.  The roads have become faster and smoother, but Corsica will always be special.  It is great that the world championship these days came back to the island.
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