Leo Kinnunen, who participated twice in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, passed away on Wednesday, July 26th a few days before his 74th birthday. The first Finn to take the start at a Formula 1 Grand Prix and winner at the 1970 Rolex 24 at Daytona made his mark primarily in endurance, and to a lesser degree rally racing.
From a generation used to partaking in multiple motorsports disciplines successfully, Leo Kinnunen, nicknamed Leksa, was a pioneer in Formula 1 racing. He competed in the Grand Prix of Sweden at the Anderstorp circuit in 1974 with a Surtees TS16 lent by recently deceased constructor John Surtees. Despite four additional attempts, the Finn was unable, due to lack of quality equipment, to qualify at another race though he had been previously successful in endurance.
After a brief stint in moto racing, Leo Kinnunen competed in rally before dedicating himself to endurance. His title in the Nordic Challenge Cup mini-championship with a Porsche 908 in 1969 allowed him, the following year after a successful testing session, to join the John Wyer Automotive Engineering team that entered two Porsche 917Ks for the German constructor in the World Marques Championship.
The Finnish driver's first run with the team founded by John Wyer, who popularized the colors of Gulf Oil Companny, proved a triumph when Leo Kinnunen along with Pedro Rodriguez and Brian Redman (the latter reached the second step on the podium with the sister car, but did a stint for the duo) won at the 1970 Rolex 24 at Daytona. With the Mexican driver, he repeated the feat at Brands Hatch, Monza and Watkins Glen to offer the title to Porsche at the end of the season (at a time when drivers were still unpaid) despite a retirement at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Leo Kinnunen, who did not speak English, then left the British team, but not before setting the lap record at the Targa Florio during the Interserie championship in which he dominated with three consecutive titles between 1971 and 1973. It was also in 1973 that the Finn claimed the third step on the podium at the Rally of Finland, at the time still called the Rally of 1,000 Lakes, behind two legens of the discipline, Timo Mäkinen and Markku Alén.
Back on the endurance scene in 1975, Leo Kinnunen appeared once again at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1976, along with Egon Evertz, with a Porsche 908/3 entered by Evertz, but his participation ended once again in a retirement.
The native of Tampere, the second largest city in Finland, retired from competition in 1977 but remained present in the world of racing.
The Automobile Club de l'Ouest extends its sincerest condolences to Leo Kinnunen's family and loved ones.
PHOTO (Copyright - Archives/ACO): The #21 Porsche 917K shared by Leo Kinnunen and Pedro Rodriguez at Scrutineering at the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans.