Ahvenisto is something of a hidden gem, nestling in the Finnish forests and these days only known by local racers but which once attracted the top stars of car and bike racing. Distinctive by being twisty and narrow with multiple elevation changes, the circuit is also one of a handful around the world to feature a figure-of-eight crossover layout.
The 1.783 miles (2.870 km) course near Hämeenlinna marries sweeping curves along with several hairpin bends and, while not exactly high-speed, is certainly a roller-coaster challenge. Add in an all-too-obvious lack of run-off at several spots and the high forest pines which almost completely envelop the track and you can be forgiven for finding the place somewhat claustrophobic.
Today the track mostly hosts races in national and Nordic championships and cups, including the Finnish Touring Car Championship, NEZ Racing Championship, Nordic Supercar, Finnish Rallycross Championship and Historic Race Finland.
The father of the idea to build the circuit was renowned racing driver and sawmill owner Arvo Sorri. In the late 1950s, he announced plans for a track, which would have been Finland's first, traveling around Lake Ahvenistonjärvi. These plans were shelved following harsh criticism from people concerned about the environmental impact.
After a few years the project was restarted by Heikki Mikkola, the long-time executive director of a local car club, after the city of Hämeenlinna and the state exchanged pieces of land around the lake. The former gravel and sand quarry seemed an ideal location, given that it would allow for the course to be visible from high up on the slopes, affording spectators a safe viewing spot on the action below.
A course with an unusual figure-of-eight design was penned by engineer Mikko Köppä, who needed the crossover in order to cram in as much track as possible in a small space.
The new Ahvenisto course had been beaten to the post as Finland's first permanent track by Keimola by the time it opened on 16 July 1967, though of course it would go on to outlive its rival by more than 40 years. The opening races of the new course involved the Finnish Championships, held across a variety categories and watched by an enthusiastic crowd of 20,000 spectators.
The stars arrive on two and four wheels
Ahvenisto's most famous race was the second to be held on the course, when the Formula 2 cars visited on 5 September 1967 for the 'I Hämeenlinnan ajot', in what would turn out to be the only international car race held at the venue. As was typical for such events, local aces mixed with the established stars such as Jim Clark , Graham Hill , Jack Brabham and Niki Lauda. The race was won by Jochen Rindt in a Brabham BT23 ahead of Jack Brabham's Brabham BT23C and Jim Clark's Lotus 48. The supporting Formula 3 race saw a battle between Finnish and Swedish drivers, with Sweden's Freddy Kottulinsky taking the win. Other notable entrants included Leo Kinnunen, Ronnie Peterson and Reine Wisell.
After the initial successes, spectator numbers began to dwindle and the track ran into financial difficulties, exacerbated by the energy crisis in 1972. The operating company went bankrupt and ownership passed to the City of Hämeenlinna a year later.
The circuit rebounded somewhat from 1973, this time on two wheels, when Ahvenisto was chosen as part of the then new FIM Formula 750 races. At one stage the championship looked likely to become the next 'big thing' until it fizzled out at the end of the decade. From 1973-75 Ahvenisto featured on the calendar of a series which variously held World or European Championship status. Barry Sheene among the stars of the first race, though the local Finns dominated, taking the wins on each of the three occasions the motorbikes raced.
Rallycross boosts the international appeal
While no further international circuit races have been held at Ahvenisto, between 1980 and 1999 a total of 18 FIA European Rallycross Championship events were organised on a modified, mixed-surface version of the circuit, with some of the run-offs converted into gravel sections.
Despite the rather limited viewing opportunities afforded spectators due to the preponderance of trees, the circuit has at times attracted some rather impressive crowd figures. The track reached its crowd record in 1985, when over 40,000 people arrived to watch Tähtien kisat ("The Race of Stars"), in which both Formula 1 and World Rally Championship stars from around the world, including Nelson Piquet, Keke Rosberg, Timo Salonen and Michele Mouton, gathered at Ahvenisto to race in identical and near-standard BMW cars.
While the official lap record stands at 1:13.226 and was achieved by Marko Nevalainen in a Formula 3 car on September 16, 2000, the 1982 Formula One World Champion Keke Rosberg managed an unofficial lap record of 1:10.000 during his 1984 show run in a Williams FW08C Formula 1 car. Meanwhile, two-time Formula One world champion Mika Häkkinen briefly held the lap record for the Carrera Cup class, recording a time of 1:19.905 during his visit to Ahvenisto on May 29, 2004 in a Porsche 911 GT3, but was surpassed by a 1:18.923 from Fredrik Ros the following year.
One tragic footnote is that the track was the location of Finland's worst helicopter accident in 1984, when a pilot lost control while landing and crashed into the crowd during a race meeting. Five spectators were killed and another 26 injured.