“Then in 1991, Hannu Mikkola helped me to get the Mazda works car, the 323, for the 1000 Lakes Rally. I had a good result so I got the car for the RAC. That was the last year of Mazda. Mazda retired and that was the moment where I made a mistake.
“I had good offers from many different teams at the time: Toyota, there was a possibility for Lancia, there was an offer from Subaru. And then there was Nissan.
“Nissan was a new team and we were thinking, ‘Okay, it’s good to go to a new team to learn…’ But we had an inexperienced driver with an inexperienced team. We thought that as a new team they would continue for a long time; we didn’t realise they would give up so quickly and during the first season they said, ‘Okay, we pull out’. That was bad.”
At the end of 1992, Nissan’s lack of commitment to its Sunny GTI-R programme meant Mäkinen found himself up rallying’s proverbial creek.
“At the time there was no teams, not so many possibilities any more. We were discussing already for ’93 with Mitsubishi but instead of me they chose Armin Schwarz.
“Luckily, I got the opportunity to do development work with Nissan, and a front-wheel-drive car. That was the year I grew up a lot. I understood much better after that.
“In ’94, the target was to rent a car in the 1000 Lakes Rally, then Ford asked me to drive a works car because Massimo Biasion wanted to come to Finland. I did a test rally in Finland, which I won, and then I did the 1000 Lakes Rally, which I won.”
The performance was a high point for the Escort Cosworth in the WRC, and made up in some small way for Tommi’s rotten year. More importantly, though, they impressed everyone on the WRC circuit. In particular, Andrew Cowen of Ralliart, the team behind Mitsubishi’s assault on the sport, and RAS Sport, the private outfit from Belgium that took Patrick Snijers to victory in the European Rally Championship, with Boreham-built Escort Cosworths. Both teams made approaches to the flying Finn.
“The Ford was brilliant to drive, better than the Mitsubishi”
“I drove on the Sanremo Rally with Mitsubishi and then we negotiated a contract for ’94 and onwards. We knew Mitsubishi was a works team, but they’d never done a full season and I didn’t like it a lot. There was also an offer from Ford. But it was a private team, RAS Sport, from Belgium, who ran the Boreham cars. But it was not so trustable to be there.
“But I loved far more the Ford. That was a brilliant car to drive, brilliant behaviour, a far better car compared to the Mitsubishi. I don’t know the difference performance-wise but it was a very easy car with a good feeling and I wanted to be there. But then we decided to go to Mitsubishi because it was a works team and the future was looking a bit better.”
So what was it about Mitsubishi’s Lancer that Mäkinen didn’t like, compared with the Escort Cosworth?
“You couldn’t feel so precise the wheels, and the front wheels when you’re into the steering, there was far less feedback. And then the transmission layout was really different. That makes the car have strange behaviour. Geometry-wise, the Ford was giving a lot of feedback and that makes the car easy and nice to control, and you could understand it’s turning in well, better than the Mitsubishi. The Mitsubishi was lazy and under-steering.
“But that was when Armin Schwarz was testing and he was driving on the Sanremo. They took me on for the second car, and I jumped in after the Schwarz car was tested and set up and said, ‘Hey! Come on. I cannot drive this car. It’s absolutely impossible to drive. I have no chance to do anything!’
“But they had a test driver, the Finn Lasse Lampi, and he had a very different set-up which was more neutral. They returned the car back to his set-up and straight away I felt ‘Now we start to be okay. I can drive the car!’”
He laughs loudly at the memory of really not having to do much ahead of the event, just borrowing Lampi’s set-up. The car retired but Mäkinen’s stage times spoke volumes about his potential.
“Straight away I did good stage times which they noticed and then they make a contract with me.”
He says he rated the Lancer Evo III as better than the Evo IV, but adds that continual development meant the Evo IV got better over time. “The nicest and best car to drive was the 6.5. That slowly got less trouble and the set-up was improving step by step.”
Mäkinen owns just one of his old Mitsubishis, an Evo III that he drove to first place on the 1996 1000 Lakes Rally, which is kept in Juha Kankkunen’s private collection of rally, race and road cars.
He ranks Colin McRae as his toughest adversary during his time in rallying, but says he respects all competitors at that level. “There was good times, with many big battles with Colin. Often when we had a fight together either he retired or I did, or sometimes both! It was more than 120 per cent flat out!”
Does he think about McRae, who perished in a helicopter accident in 2007? “It’s very unfortunate. I don’t know if it’s a reflection of his personality. This equipment [McRae was flying his helicopter] stays so dangerous, that whatever happens it is so sudden that you cannot do anything.”
How about the battle with Sainz in 1998? The storyline reads like a fanciful fable from a Hollywood studio. Mäkinen gets a terrible start to his season, Sainz doesn’t miss a beat. Then the Finn claws it back with three wins and the championship goes down to the wire at the last round, Rally GB.
During a special stage at the Millbrook proving ground, in Bedfordshire, the organisers had run a classic rally ahead of the main WRC event, and a Hillman Imp had lunched its engine, dropping oil on a right-hand bend that was lined with temporary concrete kerbstones. Sand was poured over the oil, but nobody thought to tell Tommi, who – running in P1 – was the first WRC driver to reach the corner. His Mitsubishi slid wide, the offside rear wheel caught a concrete kerbstone and was ripped clean off.
“It was one of the worst moments,” recalls Mäkinen. “We had no hurry to make the title; I just needed to drive and finish the rally, and that’s it. And it was looking easy.”
Mäkinen begged his team boss to let him go home. He couldn’t bear to stand by and feel powerless to do anything about Sainz’s inevitable championship victory.
And then… Sainz’s Toyota Corolla was as good as within sight of the finishing line when its engine suffered a catastrophic failure, 500 metres from victory. Famously, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Spaniard threw his helmet through the Corolla’s back windscreen.
“My brother phoned me. At first I thought it must be a bad joke and then he was shouting down the phone, and I finally realised Sainz must have had an accident. But it was not funny. It was not the way to end the season. I had a good lead before that. It was purely the organisers’ mistake. They didn’t inform us [about the oil spill].