"We have to go absolutely flat out..."

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Four-time world rally champion Tommi Mäkinen is back in a domain he once dominated, this time as head of Toyota’s resurrected team

Tommi Mäkinen is 52. He doesn’t look it. His eyes glisten, he walks with an athletic, confident gait and an aura of composure surrounds him. 

His realm is the rally stage. He is one of two men who have won four consecutive world titles – the only other is Sébastien Loeb. He made his debut in the world championship in a Lancia Delta HF 4WD in 1987 and won the Finnish Group N championship a year later, but it would take another seven years before Mäkinen won his first WRC victory – again in his home country of Finland. Then it snowballed.

In 1995 he was signed by Mitsubishi. He won his first rally for the team in Japan 1996 then dominated for four years with 18 rally victories and back-to-back titles from 1996 to 1999. His last victory, driving a Subaru, came at the 2002 Rallye Monte Carlo. In 2003 he retired to build a rally car preparation business in Finland. 

We meet him back on the stages of the Monte Carlo, where he took his final win. To say he has succeeded in building his rally preparation business would be an understatement – Tommi is here because his squad designs, builds and runs the cars for Toyota’s return to world rallying. He’s the boss – but a manager not a driver. Which is why everyone wants to know if he’d rather be in the car right now – back in his realm. “No, no. It’s absolutely the younger guys’ job,” replies Mäkinen. 

Few drivers have made the transition to management – the fierce selfishness and control freakery required to win as a driver creates friction in a collective. Friction and stress. Does Tommi feel the stress; and does he feel the pressure from Toyota? His body language says otherwise, but he jokes that he has another weapon to combat pressure. “I’m so stupid that I don’t feel too much stress,” he laughs. The self-denigration hides a smart management tactic – Tommi has recognised that he learned to cope with tension in his driving career and one of the key areas where he can succeed in his new role is to absorb and deflect any pressure the team may experience. “Everybody is taking the pressure a lot and I try to be there to keep them as relaxed as possible. I try to tell them, ‘Hey, come on guys. I’m sure that we will succeed.’ Of course there is some pressure, but I don’t take the most. I think many other guys take far more.” 

So why did Mäkinen opt to return to the pressure pot of world rallying, and how involved was he in Toyota’s comeback decision? He explains that his business, Tommi Mäkinen Racing, initially created a “very special car” for Toyota and it snowballed from there. In fact, Tommi is being modest – the car he built was a private GT86 for Akio Toyoda – Toyota’s president. Mäkinen was instructing Toyoda at the time, and the pair demonstrated the car at Rally Finland last year.

The discussions about WRC started “slowly” but finally Toyota asked him if he would mastermind the build of a Yaris, to the new-for-2017 WRC rules. He said he had to think “really carefully” and explained to Toyota that if it was serious there would be no half-measures. “I said ‘If we go there, we have to go there absolutely flat out. It’s the only way we can win, no compromises’.”

* * *

Mäkinen explains that they started the car from scratch, and therefore nearly a year of testing was crucial. He says that he knew the car would be faster and stronger with a dedicated and prolonged test programme, away from competitive rally stages and press or public scrutiny. “We were analysing, analysing, analysing, listening to the drivers’ feedback and studying different areas of data as much as possible.”

So did Tommi lend his experience as a World Rally Championship-winning driver to the team? “I did, yes. Quite a lot I have driven. I have some experience and I wanted to know the different areas to change, and how [set-up] changes affect the car. Then it’s easier to discuss with the drivers and understand exactly what they need.”

Much has been made of the increased performance and visual aggression of the 2017 World Rally Cars. Visually, Toyota’s Yaris is a quite extraordinary. Underneath aerodynamic parts hitherto unseen on rally cars is the vague silhouette of a regular shopping hatch, but there the comparison pretty much ends. Mäkinen admits that the aero is effective even from very low speeds, and when you witness them on the stages the cars do appear drawn into the earth by some kind of subterranean magnet. Whether the increased aero effect, and power, will deliver a commensurate increase in spectacle will emerge as the 2017 WRC season unfolds and the cars move from surface to surface. The cars and the overall spectacle are, according to Mäkinen “looking good. Basically, because we could hear the cars very, very far away. They gave a little bit more sound and that is very positive.” 

Of course, we all want to know how these new machines compare with the rally cars of 15 years ago. “When I was there, we were always saying that a certain car is more suitable for a [specific] condition and another car was better for that kind of condition. I would say that the improvement with the latest technology is that all cars are very, very fast and behave very well in every condition.” Perhaps the biggest area of change however, is in the strength and reliability of the new cars. “I remember in my time, for example, there were always places where we had to slow down a lot, because the suspension behaviour was not so good and we could break something. Now, you don’t need to care about anything, you go absolutely flat out.” The glint in Tommi’s eye, the excitement he tried to hide in his voice earlier, is now clear to see.

In that respect, we ask, does Tommi think that the modern cars suit a certain type of driver – a ‘maximum attack’ type driver? We namecheck one of Tommi”s arch nemeses – Colin McRae. “Yes, maybe, but if I think about driving style, it is not such a big difference compared to earlier. I would say that when the cars become bigger with a longer wheelbase, the Ford Fiesta and the Citroën C4, the cars didn’t want to go sideways very much. 

“That was the moment when everybody changed their driving style and they started sliding less… everybody realised that that was not the fastest way.” Tommi explains that to this day the cars remain a “bit faster” when driven in a “similar, nose-forward and understeering style.”

* * *

At the time of writing, Toyota has confirmed two drivers: Juho Hänninen and Jari-Matti Latvala. A third driver is likely to be announced later in the year for certain events. Does Tommi feel that, with the current pairing, they have two drivers with a similar driving style? 

“That’s the interesting area. I noticed that now we have two drivers [whose] driving style is very, very smooth. Juho is braking very smooth. He’s accelerating very smooth. Jari-Matti is more on-off and his braking is pretty aggressive in to the corner and when it opens, immediately he wants a completely different response from the engine. That’s very, very different. 

“I did quite a lot of set-up last autumn on gravel when we tried something new on the car. I was working very well because I have some knowledge. But Juho didn’t like that very much, because his driving style was different. He was going far softer and it didn’t really satisfy my set-up. Jari-Matti came to drive the first time and he did the first snow test and the set-up was from Juho and he was thinking and thinking and thinking and thinking and looking what I could do different. I went to look when they tested it and I said to Jari-Matti, ‘Try that. I remember I did something and I’m pretty sure that would be suitable to your driving style.’ They did the changes and straightaway he was clearly faster. Of course, they are not such massive changes, but different driving style, you need a different kind of set-up.”

Tommi goes on to explain that his ideal car set-up fits somewhere between his two drivers. “My suspension and transmission set-up is very similar to Jari-Matti, but I have similar engine mapping to Juho because I’m not doing that much on-off [the throttle]. I want to control without trouble.”

In that respect, has Tommi identified differing levels of component wear on his drivers’ cars? “Yes. Big, big, big. Juho is far more gentle for tyre wearing. Jari-Matti’s style is more aggressive and he is wearing the tyres and it’s a question of distance performance. I had a style on tarmac that was always very, very smooth and not wearing the tyres too much. I could just drive the car on the limit of the tyre performance, which was not wearing them. 

“I have spoken with drivers about that; when you are driving, learn your car. You need to understand the way the car wants to go fastest. It’s not a question that one car is built for him. That is not true. A car has so many possibilities. You can do whatever you like to do. If the driver is clever enough, he understands the car and how it wants to go fast. It is drivers who are clever enough, have the knowledge and understand; they keep winning the titles.” Without a shred of self-awareness, it’s clear that Tommi is describing himself with this comment. 

With that, Mäkinen heads back to the service area. He’s always surrounded by fans and selfie-hunters, but is confident and open in a crowd. Indeed he is excited and encouraging of a new fan zone created alongside the team gazebos in the service park. 

He’s a rare breed in motor racing, displaying confidence without arrogance and self-reflection without ego. And perhaps rightly so. Perhaps he knew that he had done everything possible to turn the Toyota (and its drivers) into winners. For at the very next rally, in Sweden, Jari-Matti Latvala won outright for Toyota in only the car’s second rally.