It’s no easy thing to rank a century of rally drivers, but John Davenport asked some of the great names in the sport for their votes on which one had it all
Man has faced all manner of difficult tasks over the years, such as climbing the north face of the Eiger. But it is just possible that, in the first few months of the twenty-first century, Motor Sport has already discovered something harder. We have tried to place in order the Greatest Rally Drivers of the century that has just passed.
This kind of driver ranking is hard enough when the protagonists have all driven state-of-the-art racing cars on established racing circuits. Levels of racing technology have varied widely over the years, but the challenge has been basically the same. But in rallying, the technology has varied even more widely. And as to the events themselves, even contemporary fixtures bear little resemblance to one another, while if one tries to compare today’s rallies with those of years gone by, the task is almost impossible. Only the tag ‘rally’ links, say, the current Rally of Finland with the Marathon de la Route of the 1950s.
Thus it is a bold task indeed to try and equate the skills and qualities of successful rally drivers down the years and come up with a proper comparison. To try and make the exercise as interesting and as fair as possible, it was decided that a form of oligarchic democracy should prevail. In short, 20 eminent journalists, team managers, drivers, photographers and engineers were asked to pick their top six rally drivers and comment on their first choice. The results have been interesting, to say the least.
The most common reaction from the experts was also the most expected, namely the difficulty of the task. Michèle Mouton went furthest of all by politely but firmly refusing to nominate her list. She felt that the parameters were too wide, in that one could not easily compare a modem special-stage driver with one of the endurance experts of old. She also rather cleverly opined that she was too young to have known some of the older drivers and thus be able to form an opinion about their skills and talents. Jean Todt did give his six top drivers, but said that it was however impossible to put them in a strict order of merit due to the discrepancies between events and machines over the years.
In any case, the effective outcome is that, of all those voted for, not one rally driver comes from the first half of the century. This may be unfair on drivers who distinguished themselves on the early events, but only a few people alive today witnessed at first hand the driving skills of Donald Healey, Jean Trevoux or Ian Appleyard. Their reputations are alive and well, but the passage of time makes it hard to place them against ‘modem’ drivers.
The other criterion that seemed to weigh heavily with our panel was versatility. The performances of drivers like Jean Rolland and Jean Vinatier on the Coupe des Alpes, Sandro Munari on the Monte Carlo, Lucien Bianchi and Eugen Böhringer on the Marathon de la Route, or Bernard Damiche and Didier Auriol on the Tour of Corsica were felt to be very specialised. Of course there are driven like Ove Andersson, Mild Biasion, Ari Vatanen and Jean-Pierre Nicolas who have won both the Monte Carlo and the Safari, events at extremes of the rally firmament. But there were many more varied examples that were raised by our panel.
Perhaps now is the moment to reveal the result of the voting…
Hannu Mikkola emerged as the clear leader over current and four times World Rally Champion, Tommi Makinen. The most frequent comment about Mikkola concerned his versatility at being able to win long distance events like Safari, London-Mexico, Ivory Coast and Morocco as well as sprint events like 1000 Lakes, RAC Rally, Portugal and Sweden. And sometimes he would go straight from an endurance event to a sprint and win both.
Even Erik Carlsson, a driver with no lack of versatility himself; put this ability as a prime reason for Mikkola being his first choice. A similar thought was in the mind of David Richards, now Prodrive supremo but co-driver to Ari Vatanen back in 1981 when they clinched a World Championship in the face of the threat from Mikkola’s first season in the Audi Quattro. For him, Mikkola was a threat anywhere and in any vehicle.
However, among Hannu Mikkola’s long list of rally successes stretching from the late 1960s right through into the 1990s, there are few all-tarmac rallies and no Monte Carlo win. Tommi Makinen was only just getting into his stride as Mikkola was reeling in his commitment to the WRC, but statistically, he has racked up all the necessary qualifications within ten years. These include wins on every kind of rally in the World Championship from Monte Carlo to Safari and from Finland to San Remo.
It was Makinen’s association with Mitsubishi that brought him his first full WRC programme in 1995 and the first of his four consecutive World Championships a year later. Veteran Finnish journalist Mauri Salo commented that Tommi Makinen deserved our ‘Greatest’ title because his achievements have been won in the face of extremely stiff opposition. The last few years of the WRC have been hotly contested. Indeed there is a sense that, without detracting one jot from the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, Makinen has been able to produce performances from that car which represent the peak of its ability. But so far, while demonstrating his versatility on events, all his major results have been achieved with one type of car. The exception to that was his electrifying win on the 1000 Lakes Rally of 1994 in a Ford Escort Cosworth.
The ability to drive cars with very different layouts and still come up with the goods was very evidently a factor in Mikkola’s standing with our panel. Co-driver and journalist Richard Hudson-Evans rated him as “the outstanding master of his craft in both two- and four-wheel-drive cars”, an opinion reinforced by many opportunities to sample top drivers’ techniques on test days.
This ability to win rallies no matter how many wheels were being driven or where the designer had placed the engine was a recurrent theme in those who voted for our third place man,Walter Röhrl . Some rated him as a bit of specialist. Jimmy McRae considered that Stig Blomqvist was better even on tarmac with the Audi Quattro, but Röhrl’s four Monte Carlo victories over five years in, respectively, Fiat Abarth 131, Opel Ascona 400, Lancia Rallye 037 and Audi Quattro show an amazing talent.
No one was in a better position to appreciate Röhrl’s talent than Cesare Fiorio, his team manager at Lancia for races as well as rallies. “Walter’s versatility plus his skill in endurance racing makes him my vote for the best rally driver.” Röhrl also scored top marks with the engineers, David Lapworth commenting that he had “a very technical and precise approach to the job”.
The comments that came from photographers were also interesting, giving a visual rating of the driver’s appeal. Reinhard Klein provided an alternative to his mainstream vote for Björn Waldegård who “owned the Monte Carlo for many years, beat Munari on Italian tarmac in the same car… and regularly won Sweden and Africa”. His Visual Vote went to Colin McRae in the Subaru with Armin Schwarz’s Toyota Celica GT-4 second and An Vatanen in the Ford Escort RS 1800 a close third. Certainly whenever, Colin McRae’s name was mentioned in the voting, the comment about “best viewing value” was never far behind.
If the voting were done on media people alone, then the title of Greatest would probably sit with Juha Kankkunen. Universally respected and liked, journalist Martin Holmes summed it up when he said that, “As a driver, he is trustworthy, extremely unlikely to crash. And as a person, he carries his greatness with charm.” Even higher praise came from another driver and ex-employer, Ove Andersson who reckoned that, “Juha is the most naturally talented driver I have ever come across. He drives fast in any condition with less than perfect car set-ups. He is extremely nice to the car and understands how to pace himself”
Carlos Sainz did not go without recognition; high praise came from Italy where Maurizio Ravaglia drew attention to his 1990 victories in the 1000 Lakes and the RAC Rally, both trailblazers for non-Scandinavians on those events. Winning the Monte Carlo three times and two World Championship titles was a just reward for “a generous, clever and versatile driver. His method and approach has changed rally sport.”
The highest placed driver from the middle of our century was, appropriately enough, Erik Carlsson. He may only have driven one make of car during his professional career, but such was his success and charisma that this seemed to count in his favour rather than lead to any suggestion of lack of versatility. His two Monte Carlo and three RAC Rally wins created the first international rally superstar. But many people also recall his efforts to win the Marathon de la Route (twice second overall) and Safari (once second, many times leading) in a car with an 850cc engine.
Without any doubt, the next rally superstar after Carlsson was the man who shares a surname and initial with our current World Rally Champion, Timo Makinen. His mentor and boss at BMC, Stuart Turner said that, “His Monte win was the drive of the century. And he headed every rally he did.” Most people brought up that Monte Carlo Rally win in the blizzards of 1965. Former team manager Graham Robson rated it as a “colossal achievement” and it is indeed almost certainly the Most Outstanding Performance of the Century. But one should not forget that Timo Makinen was also a visual feast in the Austin Healey 3000 in which he finished second twice on the RAC Rally. Over ten years later, he was to complete his hat trick on that event with Ford Escort RS 1600s.
One comes to the conclusion on looking back over the votes that actually this has been quite a valuable exercise. Despite the difficulty of the task and the widely differing views, what has emerged is actually an assessment of the general appeal of these rally drivers and their place in people’s minds. You could say that it is more like a beauty contest, where vital statistics count but the winner needs that indefinable ‘It’ factor.
Let’s not accuse Hannu Mildcola of exuding sex appeal. That would be taking the analogy too far. But, from a career spanning quarter of a century, he does have all the formal requirements to deserve this informal title, plus that indefinable something that fixes him in so many minds as being worthy of it.
Thoughts of Hannu Mikkola, Motor Sport’s greatest rally driver of the century.
What were your favourite events? I liked Safari very much. It was more than a rally, more of an adventure. Anything could happen. Next best was the 1000 Lakes here in Finland. You have to be precise and brave and you are in a real race to beat the other guys. You can’t find anything so different to the Safari. Then I liked the old RAC Rally vvith its unseen stages. There was always a mistake waiting for you round the corner. And the atmosphere was always so good. I think the British people are always so sporting. You would find an old couple handing out tea at the start of a stage in the middle of the night asking you if you were enjoying yourselves!
What cars did you most enjoy?
I think the Escort was the nicest It suited my driving style and was such fun. You always knew just where it was going. I always felt with front-wheel drive that the car was taking me somewhere, not me taking the car; with the Audi Quattro there was always this slight understeer when it got slippy and then the car always felt like front-wheel drive. I never really felt at home. Especially with racing tyres in Monte Carlo when you found a little bit of ice round a hairpin …
Was there a car that you would like to have added to your list?
I drove a Porsche 911 in the Monte Carlo for Almeras back in 1980 but the one car from that period that I think I would have liked was a Renault Alpine. With the Porsche you had be careful and brake early, but the Alpine was so much smaller and lighter that it looked as if you could do anything with it.
Are modern cars as fun to drive?
I just drove the Toyota Corolla in the Race of Champions and it’s a fun car. You don’t have to use so many tricks to get it going round the bends, the handling is so much better.
No, I don’t think so. My sons are not that interested in motorsport. They have done some karting and, actually, they beat me easily. But they don’t ask all the time to drive, so for them it is just fun. Vesa is more keen on ice hockey. I don’t know where they got those genes, but I don’t think it was from me because they are also good in their school work!
Our thanks to those who voted: Ove Andersson, Erik Carlsson John Davenport, Cesare Fiorio, Peter Foubister, Ame Hertz, Martin Holmes, Richard Hudson-Evans, Reinhard Klein, David Lapworth, Hannu Mikkola, Michèle Mouton, Gunnar Palm, Jimmy McRae, Maurizio Ravaglia, David Richards, Graham Robson, Mauri Salo Jean Todt, Stuart Turner.
A personal view
I rallied with Hannu Mikkola for three years in the early 1970s. In fact, I think l brought him the longest streak of bad luck in his career. We retired from three RAC Rallies in a row and one glorious Safari in 1973, but we did manage to win the 1000 Lakes in 1974.
On that event, we were locked in a desperate struggle for the lead with Timo Makinen in the other works Ford Escort RS, and Hannu’s concentration had never been so acute.We needed to gain an advantage and on one of the long stages just south of Mikkeli, Hannu decided that this was the place. Timo started one minute behind us.The whole stage was pretty fast stuff but towards the end for the last six kilometres, the road was narrower and most of the slight bends had been rated as fourth gear stuff in the pace notes.
We went through them flat out in fifth, kissing the bark of trees and generally acting as if we were tired of life.When we stopped to have the time recorded at the end of the stage, Hannu had eyes for only one thing — the rear view mirror. When a minute had passed without any sign of our sister car, he started to relax and, as the seconds ticked away,a beautiful smile broke out. “Now we have done a good thing he said. And do you know something ? He was absolutely right.