Henri Toivonen at Estoril – exploring the myth

We investigate whether Lancia’s Henri Toivonen really lapped Estoril in 1986 as fast as an F1 car.

Henri Toivonen Lancia Delta S4
© McKlein Image Database

It was the mid-80s Group B era, witness to the most outrageous rally cars ever built and the performance was staggering – but not this staggering, surely?

The rumour has it that in 1986, ‘man of the moment’ Henri Toivonen lapped the Estoril Formula One circuit so fast in his Lancia Delta S4 rally car that his time would have put him sixth on the grid for that year’s Portuguese GP, headed incidentally by Ayrton Senna’s Lotus.

Toivonen, who died in a crash later that year, will forever remain one of the WRC’s all-time greats when it comes to flair, bravery and outright speed. He was effectively what Senna was to F1 at the time – not yet a world champion but clearly destined for greatness.

It’s also true that the Group B machines were terrifyingly fast. So fast that after a sequence of tragic accidents – including the one that took Toivonen’s life – and other near misses they were banned at the end of the ’86 season by the sport’s then-governing body, FISA.

Henri Toivonen Lancia Delta S4
Henri Toivonen feels the heat in 1986© McKlein Image Database

On full tap they thumped out a ground-trembling 600bhp and were capable of going from 0 to 100kph in barely two seconds. For the purposes of a single banzai run, such as that in private at Estoril, it would have been possible to crank up the turbo boost pressure even further. But to the dizzying 1000bhp-plus levels of a turbocharged F1 car? It’s doubtful.

However, it seems there is some truth in the Toivonen tale. We tracked down eloquent Italian Ninni Russo, team manager of Lancia’s WRC squad in the 80s, whose word is surely as good as it gets.

Russo told redbull.com: “In 1986 Rally de Portugal did not use the Estoril circuit as a stage – that came in 1987. But I have made some calls for you and talked with some friends and someone from Portugal who was helping Lancia for this event.

Henri Toivonen and Ninni Russo discuss tactics
Henri Toivonen and Ninni Russo discuss tactics© Ninni Russo's Personal Archive

“A few weeks before the rally, on the full circuit, there was a test. It was a private test and Henri made a time – it is difficult to say now exactly the time – but it was in the first ten of the F1 cars from their test at Estoril two or three weeks before.

“It is incredible but the gap then between F1 and WRC cars was not as big as it is now.”

Henri had something more, a very special feeling

Russo also believes Toivonen’s superhuman skills as a driver meant that such an achievement was possible.

“In my opinion Henri was the one who better interpreted the S4. It was a difficult car. I’m not saying the other drivers didn’t get a feeling for the S4 but Henri had something more, a very special feeling.”

It’s now almost 30 years since the Estoril story first emerged and it’s clear to see how the facts may have become twisted over time. With a bit of fantasy and ‘Chinese whispers’, people have simply confused F1 testing with qualifying for the Grand Prix several weeks later and applied Toivonen’s performance to the wrong session.

Regardless, it is a story that will forever make the mind boggle…