Hannu Mikkola: the WRC champion and his taste for adventure
A serial winner for Ford and world champion with Audi, Hannu Mikkola was at the forefront of rallying’s golden age, when car control counted for more than your sponsor’s largesse
The road was fast and flowing, with good sight lines, so 125mph felt perfectly safe. “At that kind of speed,” Hannu Mikkola explains, “a rally car’s suspension vibrates a lot and you don’t see very much, but visibility was good enough to know where the road went. I came around one bend and saw a bridge… but as I got closer I sensed something was wrong. As we got closer I finally realised that the main part of the bridge was missing. I didn’t have much time to brake, but we were going fast enough that I felt we might just be able to clear the river. The front wheels just about made it across, but the rears didn’t. There was a bang, the car started to roll and went over quite a few times. This was a test, so I wasn’t wearing a helmet. The accident went on for quite a long time, but finally we came to rest the right way up. I was sitting there and [co-driver] Arne Hertz said, ‘See if it will start’. I said, ‘Maybe it will, but I don’t think we have any wheels’…”
You will forgive Mikkola for perceiving that rallying has lost a little of its essence since his day. This was the early 1980s, between Nairobi to Mombasa during a reconnaissance for the Safari Rally, and neither Mikkola nor Hertz was injured. The same, though, could not be said of their Audi Quattro. “Just afterwards,” Mikkola says, “a teacher came running from the local village and told us this was the best such accident he’d seen so far. Apparently three cars had gone off at the same place a few days beforehand. We were all using the previous year’s pace notes, but since then heavy rain had washed the bridge away.
“Modern drivers have no idea how things used to be. The Safari was less a rally than an adventure. To get through 6000 kilometres of rain, animals and everything… You needed stamina and real fighting spirit. You could lose 30 minutes somewhere but find yourself back in the lead two days later. That happened quite a lot and it was fantastic.”
Mikkola won the 1983 world rally title with Audi and nowadays, a fit 72, splits his time between his native Finland and America while still fulfilling an ambassadorial role for the German manufacturer.
Born in Joensuu, close to eastern Finland’s Russian border, Mikkola loved cars from an early age. “At six or seven I ran through the local forests and imagined I was driving,” he says. “That was always in my head, although I didn’t get behind the wheel until I was 10. I used to pinch my father’s car when he wasn’t around – it was some years before I confessed.
“One weekend, when I was 21, I drove off in my five-year-old Volvo PV444 and told my dad I was going to a summer house for the weekend, when in fact I was contesting my first rally. I came back with a few trophies and he wondered what the hell I’d been doing. I told him I’d been on a rally and he asked, ‘Where did you get the car?’ I just pointed at the Volvo. I’d borrowed some tyres, because I hadn’t enough money to buy my own, but finished fifth overall and realised straight away that I could be competitive.”
That was 1963, the dawn of a 30-year career that netted 18 WRC wins and one title, although he was of course competing long before there was a world championship to win. “I never really worked on my driving,” he says. “It just came from here [he points at his backside]. I was lucky with that. Why were Finns so successful at rallying? I think we are generally quite good at individual sports – we haven’t been so competitive at football, for instance. It’s true, though, that we had a lot of suitable roads on which to practise. And there were lots of good drivers, so when I started the national standard was high. If you could win in Finland, then you could win anywhere in the world. And when you have lots of successful drivers, it inspires future generations.
“The negative side nowadays is the cost. In small countries like mine you can’t really find money any more. In the 1970s the sport wasn’t so expensive. In future I don’t think there will be so many Finns at the top level, because there’s no support to push them through.”
Mikkola landed his first works drive in 1977, with Toyota – “More like a family than a works team, just Ove Andersson and a few mechanics from Sweden. There were about eight of us” – before moving on to Ford.
In 1979, the first season in which drivers had a world championship to chase (six years after the title for manufacturers was introduced), he missed the main prize by a point – not least because of a pledge he’d made to team-mate and close friend Björn Waldegård. “Björn and I were competing with both Ford and Mercedes,” he says, “and at the beginning of the season we agreed to do the same number of rallies. I was the unlucky one: I retired three times with technical problems. Ford called and said, ‘Look, your engine has gone again, so we’ll give you a chance on another rally’. I declined, though, because I’d promised Björn that I wouldn’t do any extra events and wanted to keep my word.”
Although he won his title with Audi, it is the Ford Escort – Mks 1 and 2 – with which he is most closely associated… and he is unhesitating when nominating it as the car he most enjoyed, partly for dynamic reasons and partly because of the era it represents.
“The concept was good,” he says. “The Escort was very simple and an easy car to build. Privateers could get the same parts that I got from the works team in Boreham and put together an identical car. It wasn’t just the factory developing the car, because privateers were, too, so the competition was very strong.
“Nowadays the WRC service parks are a bit like F1, but in my day rallying was still an everyman’s sport and spectators could come and talk to us. Everybody could follow it easily and it didn’t cost anything to go and watch the stages. Huge numbers of people were interested and I think a part of that was being able to talk to us and see what we were doing. The cars we drove bore some relation to theirs, too. There were also night stages – and people still talk about that. They could hear us coming through the forest from five kilometres away, then the lights would appear and the brake discs would glow red-hot. That was all part of the excitement and you could never really predict the result. If you were leading by three minutes you might get a puncture, or hit a technical problem. Contemporary cars rarely break down and teams replace all the parts every six stages or so. Often, nothing much changes during a modern rally and fans can’t really get to see the drivers – you have to have the right pass, there’s an admission charge to watch the stages and I think it’s become too clinical.”
Attitudes were already shifting during Mikkola’s heyday. Some successful 1950s Grand Prix drivers were fairly corpulent, because car control was perceived to matter more than diet. By the 1970s, however, athleticism was starting to creep in and rally drivers seemed not to have noticed. Or at least, some hadn’t. “I gave up smoking in 1969,” Mikkola says, “and stopped drinking in 1976 – I’m teetotal to this day. You expected your career to last until you were about 35, so if I wanted to continue I knew I had to improve my condition. I began to run, started to look after myself and tried to keep myself at the same level as the young drivers, because guys like Henri Toivonen had started to appear on the scene. They were all in very good physical condition, but my generation didn’t care so much.”
Was it a huge leap of faith to switch from a car that fitted like a glove to Audi’s unproven Quattro?
“I knew nearly everything about rear-wheel drive,” Mikkola says, “but Audi gave me a chance and I felt I’d kick myself if I didn’t try something completely new. I didn’t initially feel there was too much benefit from four-wheel drive, if I’m honest. The car was big and looked heavy, but I had a contract to test in 1980 and promised to drive in 1981. Perhaps I just had a hunch it might work. Lots of people were talking as though they expected the car to look like a Land Rover or something, but luckily for me I took the chance.
“I’ll never forget the first stage I did in that car, on the Monte Carlo in 1981. Bernard Darniche set off one minute ahead of me in his Lancia Stratos. It was a 14km stage, with ice and snow covering the first part. After about six kilometres I passed him on a long straight. I was maybe 100kph faster than him when I overtook – I don’t think he knew what had hit him. Then people started saying the car would be good only on snow, but they soon had to admit it worked on gravel, too.”
Mikkola ended his factory career as it had started, with Toyota. In 1993 he and Hertz took their Celica to seventh on the 1000 Lakes, Mikkola’s 123rd and final WRC event. Appropriately he drew a line under his career at one of his favourite events: he cites the Safari, RAC and 1000 Lakes as the rallies he most enjoyed, because they were longer, faster or more challenging than the rest.
“We didn’t have a chance to practise on the RAC,” he says, “which put more onus on the driver. The 1000 Lakes is very fast and requires precision, but I learned those 500 kilometres by heart. I knew virtually every bend.”
And if he could draft his own set of rules for the modern WRC?
“We need to cut costs and make factory-spec parts available to private teams at a fair cost,” he says. “We need to make it as open as it used to be. Unless you have a good sponsor there are very limited chances available. There used to be 10 or 12 drivers who could win on every event, but now there are just a couple…”
Friends and foes
What Hannu Mikkola thinks about…
“A very nice guy. Everybody thought he didn’t mind how his car was set up, but he was very precise about how he wanted it to handle. He always liked to make out that it was easy, though.”
“A very Italian Finn. He fitted in very well at Fiat, because he had a bit of a Latin temperament. He spoke the same way, with his arms, kicked the mechanics and all that kind of thing. He was a very good driver.”
“Henri was brilliant. He could have raced or rallied. I knew his father Pauli very well and one day we had a talk about Henri’s options. I felt he should focus on rallying, because I thought it was safer, but we all know what happened… That was incredibly sad. I’d known him since he was a small boy and he was very, very quick.”
“He was a little bit before my time and had perhaps passed his peak when I arrived on the scene, but he was the best British driver of his day.”
“I knew him before he was a rally driver. He was very good, but always used to go his own way on set-up and wasn’t always right. He could have achieved better results than he did.”
“When he was in the right mood he was incredibly quick, but you were never sure whether he’d finish the rally. I felt he always took too many chances.”
“Absolutely brilliant – very quick on asphalt and a good racer, as well as a fine rally driver. He was a little bit strange, though. It was always hard to know what he really thought.”
“A great driver and a very good friend. We were in the same team together for three years and there were never any secrets. If we went testing, we’d phone each other with all the development news. We’d fight hard during the rallies, of course, but we were absolutely honest with each other and I really respected him.”
“He was very naturally gifted and didn’t make many mistakes – wonderfully consistent.”
“He was very good on asphalt, but never really had a chance in a truly competitive car.”
“He wasn’t the quickest, but he was ultra-consistent and perfectly suited to the longer-distance events, such as the Safari and the Bandama. He almost always drove at exactly the right speed for the car and conditions. “
“She was brilliant – and I don’t mean she was ‘a brilliant woman driver’, I mean brilliant, full stop. She regarded herself as just one of us and learned incredibly quickly to drive a Quattro. In Portugal she sat with me during a recce and afterwards said, ‘I’ll never be able to match that speed’. By the time we got to Greece later that season, I was looking at her times and she was already pretty close.”