Rallying on WRC level went through a lot of changes between the end of 1993 and the start of 1997, which reflected on the 1000 Lakes Rally probably more than the others, becoming literally a different event by the end of the period. However, a unique route was created in the eye of the storm of changes in 1996.
The 1000 Lakes Rally was one of the original WRC rallies from 1973. Being only 500 km long, it was considered to be a sprint among the longer rallies. In the 70’s and 80’s it was still tough event with just two days of driving, most of it overnight, with only a few hours of pause between.
The blueprints of the more civilized modern routes of the 90’s were written already in 1988 . The route consisted of four legs: the longest one towards Tampere on Saturday, slightly shorter ones towards Pieksämäki and Joutsa on Friday and Sunday, and a yet shorter leg towards Petäjävesi on included in Friday or on Thursday evening. The rallies consisted of 35-45 stages, each of them driven only once.
Up until 1994 The 1000 Lakes Rally had always been a full WRC event for manufacturers and drivers from the beginning of each series. However, a rotation system meant that every rally had to take their turn in hosting an event only for the F2 series, this occuring in 1995 for Finland.
The route of 1000 Lakes Rally 1995 was still mainly the same as before, complete with 500 stage kilometres over three days. However, it seems the sabbatical year was used for various experiments, including a stage repeat on Sunday, a couple of common service places and some new stage material.
The 1996 1000 Lakes Rally was again a full WRC event, but the rule book had a lot of new paragraphs since the last time.
A new rule stated that servicing would be allowed only at service parks. They would not occur between every stage, although there were still nine different service locations compared to the single-service full clover leaf format of today.
In the previous years, the competitors had been chased by the service vans, with tyre changes and and necessary fixes being done in ad hoc locations between almost every stage. Only occasional service prohibitions had been placed on extremely short liaisons. Now, there would be 20-40 stage kilometres between each service.
Service parks also changed the 1996 route on a daily level from a big loop into a series of smaller loops linked together by service parks, since the drivers visited most of them more than once. At the same time, stage repeats made a comeback after almost a decade.
One of the oddest things about the 1996 route is that it ended on Monday and the Friday itinerary consisted only of the single super special stage of Harju*. Actually, the latter was a quite futuristic idea considering today’s rallies, complete with having the starting order being reversed.
According to the clerk of the course Simo Lampinen in the Vauhdin Maailma magazine, the reason behind moving the competitive action one day forwards was to emphasize the Saturday, which had always been the most popular spectator day. In the three previous years the rally had suffered from popular drivers retiring from the rally before Saturday, so removing the challenging Friday stages would ensure that all the competitors are still in the race on the most spectator-heavy stages.
Thus, the typical Friday leg towards Pieksämäki was now dropped almost completely. This meant the end of the road for classic stages like Myhinpää, which wouldn’t be driven again until 2009.
Saturday wasn’t as much of a marathon as before, although it still contained 40% of the whole rally. Like said before, the structure was changed from a big loop into a chain-like figure with service parks in Jämsä and Orivesi. The Southmost location of the route was Kangasala, meaning that the popular stages Uskila and Savo were not included anymore, nor were the super specials in the cities of Valkeakoski or Tampere.
The traditional Saturday opener Leustu was now absent. Instead, the day opened with Parkkola, traditionally a part of the Petäjävesi area loop.
The small-road version of Hassi from 1995 was replaced by Rapsula, which ended on the fast rollercoaster of the older Hassi stages. It also contained the Kakaristo area roads to be repeated later in the day as a part of the mighty Ouninpohja. Most of the drivers tackled that classic stage now for the first time in its modern direction, as it was reversed the year before.
Meanwhile, this new service-park-suitable Saturday loop structure would be reused for years to come. Especially the sequence of Sahalahti, Siitama, Västilä and Ouninpohja would remain the same until 1999, with Vaheri – lengthened to 31 km in 1994 and reversed the year after – being driven each year either before or after these stages.
One rarity for 1996 is the name of Heräjärvi, but actually it’s just an alias for Kaipolanvuori, in almost the same format as in 1990. However, Kaipolanvuori wasn’t really a staple stage in those years, as it hadn’t been driven since 1991 and wouldn’t be driven again until 2007.
Typically the Saturday leg had ended with the dusk falling over the last stages, the long and challenging Surkee being the final and darkest one. In 1996, the whole stage was absent and the drivers would be already in the final service of the day by 6 PM.
Instead of Surkee, the day ended with the twin-track super special of Himos, which had been introduced in 1994. The competitors kept saying its purpose-built roads were too narrow to drive, and it was no wonder that the whole stage was dropped after 1997.
Sunday headed towards Joutsa like the years before, but the game was now different. Traditionally it was just literally a Sunday drive on these roads to get to the finish and retain positions as they were. Now, it was a full-on competitive day with fierce battles for the lead and podium positions. All in all the Sunday of 1996 consisted of 12 stages, a number of stages in a day that wouldn’t be matched until Friday of 2017.
The structure of the day was now updated to the new format. Instead of one big loop, the drivers did three same stages as the year before – Lempää, Mynnilä and Vartiamäki – but then repeated them. This was the first time in the history of the rally that stages were repeated so tightly like in today’s rallying, since the stage repeats of past years had occured only on separate days.
Hauhanpohja was added to the route as a single run before heading Northwards via the classic Ruuhimäki stage. After that the drivers did Laukaa, Lankamaa and Valkola, very typical stages of the Pieksämäki loop of the past years, often among the very first stages of the loop or the whole rally.
The day concluded with Laajavuori, driven again in the classic direction from the hotel to the Killeri trotting track, but for the last time. It wouldn’t be driven again in the rally until 2010 and by then with a new ending as buildings had been put up in the place of the Killeri side ending of the stage, in the corner where Henri Toivonen crashed in 1985. The changed version of Laajavuori, resembling those of the early 80’s, was also often the shakedown stage in the 2000’s.
This video shows Finnish TV coverage of the Sunday, including the Mynnilä ending junction at 4:24, Vartiamäki stairs at 5:30, Ruuhimäki jumps at 30:00 and Laukaa field bends at 33:50.
The Monday loop was actually a carbon copy of the first four stages of 1995 – Kuohu, Parkkola, Keuruu and Jukojärvi. The last two stages, which were also quick-repeated, were introduced on that non-WRC year (although Jukojärvi was already driven in the 70’s), making them new for most drivers. Jukojärvi would eventually become a staple stage in the future editions of the rally.
The Monday repeat of Parkkola was lengthened to include the old Sahloinen stage at the end, resulting in the longest stage of the rally at 33 km. Some of the small road sections at the middle of the stage became very rocky, causing punctures for the later starters.
Monday wasn’t likely a big success among spectators, media or competitors . This would be the first and last time the rally ended on a Monday**.
Soon after the 1996 1000 Lakes Rally, various problems appeared in the organization. During the turmoil the WRC status of the rally was questioned and to save it, AKK (the Finnish ASN) took over organizing the WRC event, changing its name also into Neste Rally Finland. Neste had already sponsored the 1000 Lakes Rally from 1994, but now its name was incorporated into the title more firmly, sometimes people referring to the event just as “Neste Rally”.
The 1997 route
In 1997 the maximum length of WRC rallies was shortened to 400 km, coincidencally emphasizing the change from the “long” 1000 Lakes Rallies to the “short” Rally Finland events.
The first Rally Finland route in 1997 saw the rally start again properly on Friday, but with only three forest stages and a super special. The three stages were taken straight from the 1996 Monday loop, starting with the long version of Parkkola – the longest stage of the rally itself – and continuing with single runs of Keuruu and Jukojärvi.
Saturday was kept mostly the same and tightened only a bit with the reduction of Heräjärvi, containing almost half of the rally stage length, but Sunday was shortened by 50 competitive kilometres by omitting Mynnilä, Lankamaa, Valkola and Laajavuori, with the rally also ending already in the afternoon on the Laukaa stage.
In the following years more weight was put again on Friday, abandoning the idea of securing the competition for the Saturday stages. However, the emphasis partially returned in 2000 by dropping the Joutsa area stages and driving instead repeats of the Saturday stages on Sunday.
1996 remains a unique relic in the history of the rally, by being the only time the rally ended on a Monday. It was the last time the event was still over 450 km long and called 1000 Lakes Rally, but was still futuristic in its solutions on which upcoming Neste Rally Finland events would be based on.
Competitively, it also contained many battles to the seconds from the beginning to the end, strengthening the first championship title campaign of Tommi Mäkinen, marking the comeback of Juha Kankkunen and finally giving a good result for a privateer called Marcus Grönholm. It’s also worth noting that everyone of the all-Finnish 1-2-3-4 did the non-WRC event in 1995***.
* Harju was eventually cancelled because of a tragic accident taking the life of one spectator.
** The 1997 Rally Finland officially ended on Monday because the new Toyota Corolla WRC homologation started from that day. However, only the award ceremony was stretched over midnight.
*** Kankkunen did retire the 1995 rally on the first stage, but did almost all of the remaining stages as a course car.
UPDATE 11.3.2021: Added Simo Lampinen reference about moving the rally to start on Saturday