Fifteen minutes of fame
Mitsubishi Starion: British Open Rally Championship, 1988
Ford was expected to dominate our home series when it went fully Group A in 1988. But for a while, John Davenport explains, the Blue Oval was eclipsed by a red sun
Group B’s legacy was the universal adoption of turbos and four-wheel-drive for rally cars. But initially, the new breed of Group A cars took a time to filter through to national levels, which is why we had two turbo rear-wheel-drive cars slugging it out for the Open title in 1988. And one of them, until the first round in February, had only appeared infrequently on European rallies and usually retired. This was the Mitsubishi Starion Turbo which, for a season of British rallying, was ‘a contender’. In fact, in the hands of Pentti Airikkala it darn nearly won the tide.
In 1987, Airikkala had campaigned GM cars as the lead driver for Safety Devices Motorsport, a division of the roll-cage manufacturer founded by Brian Wilkinson. That same year the chief engineer of Mitsubishi Ralliart Europe, Alan Wilkinson – no relation – had been developing the Starion Turbo by rallying it in the Middle East with Lasse Lampi. They carried off the Group A title within the Middle East Championship, but were less successful on the 1000 Lakes, where the turbo blew, and at Ypres, where the car went off the road. The model had been homologated as long ago as 1983 and, on its import to the UK, become a successful production car racer. But it had not been rallied here.
Safety Devices was based in East Anglia, not so far from MRE’s home in Maldon. Thus, when Tony Willis, MD and partner to Brian Wilkinson, approached MRE about the idea of running a Starion in the 1988 Open Championship, geography and commercial interests were both in its favour. The crew would be Airikkala and Ronan McNamee, and the car would start the season with sponsorship from Pirelli and Lucas, later to be joined by Castrol.
The deal was that MRE would own the car, but that Safety Devices would prepare and run it using the specifications provided by Alan Wilkinson. MRE looked upon Safety Devices as a satellite team which could choose the driver, but any changes made to the car had to be discussed with them…
“I became good friends with Alan in 1989, when we worked on the Mitsubishi Galant VR-4. But that year with the Starion was difficult. It was my fault, because Alan had said, ‘Do what you like to the car so long as I know about it…’
“Before the first rally I tried it and the traction was not so good. I phoned Alan and discovered that all the rear suspension joints were metal. So I got the Safety Devices guys to put standard Starion rubber joints in the main links. This made a big improvement But we forgot to tell Alan…
“We went to the Cartel Rally – and won it We were having a bit of a celebration afterwards and everyone was happy, particularly Alan. Then I put my foot in it. In front of everyone, I told him about the rubber joints. He went pale and then became very angry and stormed out. No-one enjoyed the party much after that.”
The question of Japanese company politics came into play. It was impossible for MRE to lose face and admit that the car had been altered without its knowledge. The Cartel victory could thus have been reported as a result of brilliant driving or the taking of major risks. They took the latter course.
MRE then insisted that Airikkala should not be responsible for testing the car before the next rally, the Circuit of Ireland, as he ‘had little experience on Tarmac’. Airikkala was a bit surprised but, realising that he had not played his cards well in Yorkshire, kept quiet.
Pentti got to drive the car the day before the start in Ireland and discovered that it was pretty difficult to keep under control – a sort of ‘wild Starion’: “It appeared that the rear wheels were set with toe-out. I asked Alan and he said that, for sure, they were set with toe-in. I drove it like that on the first day and spent most of the time bouncing off bits of Ireland. So I arranged a secret night rendezvous with Safety Devices’ mechanics so that we could change the setting. They went like hell with the service car, I met up with them off-route and we changed it to toe-in – because it was set wrong. After that we were one of the fastest cars.” It was too late to get on the podium but the Starion finished fifth and chalked up more valuable points.
The next event was the Welsh, and this time Airikkala wasn’t even allowed to try the car before the start. Despite this, things went well and, after a close fight, he won, lifting him clear in the lead of the championship.
On the Scottish, the car went well despite gearbox problems and Airikkala collected a fourth place. Still he led the championship.
The fifth round was the Ulster and here, for the first time, the Starion began to be outclassed by its rivals. The Group A rules for 1988 had forced all the turbo cars to go back to standard intercoolers, which had the effect of dropping power outputs by 20-30 bhp. Manufacturers such as Ford, who had longer-term plans for their cars, developed bigger standard intercoolers. But for Mitsubishi there was no point, since the Starion was soon to be dropped. Thus the Sierras worked up a power advantage.
On the Tarmac roads of Ulster, Airikkala realised that there was only one way to go quicker and that was to take bigger risks over the jumps. And who better to do that than a Finn? But one jump – or rather its landing – proved too much and Pentti had to go to hospital with a damaged back.
Going into the final round, the Manx Rally, three drivers were in contention for the title: Jimmy McRae, Airikkala and Malcolm Wilson in his Vauxhall Astra. Sadly, the Starion’s handling was not improved and, after hitting a couple of banks and sustaining a puncture, Airikkala went for a finish in the hope that his rivals would not. But McRae’s Sierra romped home to win the rally and title. Airikkala finished sixth and secured second in the championship.
At the end of 1988, the Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 made a major impact by winning the Asia-Pacific title with Kenjiro Shinozuka. The following year Mikael Ericsson won the 1000 Lakes and Airikkala the RAC Rally, while Airikkala also won the GpN title in the British Open Championship. And 10 years later Tommi Mäkinen won his fourth world rally drivers’ title for Mitsubishi.
All these successes had grown from the acorns sown by that troublesome Starion.