Forgotten Racing Heroes: Rauno Aaltonen

By Natasha Colah

October 13, 2010

(Photo Credit: RX-Guru)

Rauno Aaltonen, a name very few people have heard, was a World Rally Championship driver, who just so happens to also be credited for inventing left foot braking. Known as “The Rally Professor,” Aaltonen was born in January 1938, in Turku, Finland. He is regarded as one of the first of the famous “Flying Finns” and started rallying in 1956 at the age of 18.

Aaltonen grew up as a speed junkie; at the age of 12, he was racing speedboats, and won the Finnish National Championship seven times. By the age of 16, he was also racing motorcycles and was a member of the Finnish Speedway Team, where he competed in road, speedway, and motocross racing, and was the first Finn to ever win the Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix. Once he started Rallying, though, there was no turning back. Aaltonen raced Mercedes-Benz and Saab cars for the first few years of his career. In 1961, he won the Finnish Rally Championship and the Polish Rally where he was co-driver with the famous Eugen Bohringer. Bohringer, impressed with Aaltonen’s driving, mentioned him to the British Motor Corporation (BMC) team manager, Stuart Turner, and Aaltonen was soon an accepted member of the BMC team.

Aaltonen, drove several different cars with BMC from 1962 to 1968, but had his greatest number of victories in the Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S. He is considered by many to be the greatest Mini driver (with apologies to John Cooper, of course), with eight overall victories and 14 class victories in the model. Aaltonen’s experience driving these cars resulted in him playing a large part in further developments of the Mini Cooper series.

In 1965, Aaltonen won the European Rally Championship, after winning the RAC Rally, one of the largest and most difficult rally courses. In 1968, he won the Monte Carlo Rally, and came in fifth in the Austin 1800 Rally. Later that year, BMC closed down and Aaltonen drove Lancia, Datsun, and BMW cars for a few years. In 1970, he raced with Ford for the London To Mexico World Cup Rally and came in third, after which he went back to Datsun until 1981. He switched to Opel and then Toyota for the next three years. In 1986, he retired from professional rallying, but continued to regularly race in vintage rallies in Europe, and is still racing today. After retiring from professional racing, Aaltonen was the chief instructor at BMW’s driver training program in Austria, Germany.

Aaltonen came up with the idea of left foot braking to improve his speed and agility on special stages of the rally. In an interview with Ben Barry from Car, Aaltonen was asked if he came upon left foot braking accidentally, to which he replied, “No. 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.”

Aaltonen started rally racing at a time when rallying was undergoing huge changes. Special stages were introduced and added to the courses while hard surface speed stages were removed. The special stages made driving much more challenging as they were often on ice, snow, and forest roads, which forced drivers to think differently, and constantly change their racing style to suit the conditions they were driving in. His practicality, perseverance, and constant practice are what set Aaltonen apart from the other drivers of his time.

Come back next week to read about Sir Jack Brabham, a Formula 1 driver who constructed and raced his own car.