A Fistful Of Aces

Overnight success for Mitsubishi is the result of years of experience, says David Williams

Andrew Cowan and Phil Short, the men who run RaIliart Europe, are cautious, sober-sided characters, no more likely to take a wild gamble than make a joint entry for the Eurovision Song Contest; which may explain why Cowan seemed almost taken aback by Tommi Makinen’s crushing victory in this year’s World Rally Championship. Clinching the title with five wins in seven starts two on rallies that neither team nor driver had attempted before exceeded Mitsubishi’s wildest dreams, not to mention every promise that the wary Scot had made to his masters in Japan and to his lead driver.

“It’s unbelievable, even to me, how easy he makes it,” reflected a beaming Cowan al the finish of the Rally Australia. The Asia-Pacific title that is ostensibly Mitsubishi’s chief target may have gone to Kenneth Eriksson after his defection to Subaru, but every other gamble the team had taken had paid off. Makinen’s three accidents (that’s as many as Colin McRae this year) were understandably, even rightly buried in a wave of title-winning euphoria. Most of them had been on rallies that didn’t count not in Tommi’s eyes, at any rate.

More remarkable still, this was the first time that either Mitsubishi or Makinen had contested the World Championship in full. Probing deeper uncovers the old truth that statistics are apt to mislead, because success wasn’t quite instananeous. Ralliart Europe has been a major World Championship player since 1989, a year in which it won more World Championshp rallies than Toyota, and Makinen first made an impact on the world scene as long ago as 1990, driving a Group N Galant. While the latter has struggled long and hard to get a plum works drive, Mitsubishi’s problem (as opposed to Ralliart’s) has been one of focus and commitment. Put simply, one stands a much better chance of winning a championship by turning up for every round of it, sometimes, success is just a question of mathematics.

It is also a matter of experience, The Lancer E3 was the team’s mainstay in 1995 and Makinen one of its drivers, yet neither showed this degree of dominance. The car is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch its motorcycle-derived Ohlins shock absorbers are almost infinitely adjustabie and their independent reservoirs give them an unrivalled ability to ride bumps and enhance traction. The latest turbo rules have played into Mitsubishi’s hands, because the smaller 34mm turbo restrictor has magnified the importance of low-rev torque and, alone of the top four-wheel drive cars, the Lancer has an unfashionable long-stroke engine. Rival teams have been gloomily contemplating that suspension travel and encroaching chassis rails won’t let them change the bore and stroke ratios of their 1997 cars, which indicates the extent of the advantage. The Lancer also has the biggest intercooler and cooling apertures.

All this applied last year. The biggest change has come within Makinen himself. In 1995, his natural amiability was often submerged in squabbling with his team-mate or team management and his desperation to succeed led to a string of accidents. This season, he has been positively serene. His confidence has grown with each victory, to the point where he seems as invincible as Hannu Mikkola or Miki Biasion in their prime.

“Last year I was nearly everywhere first time and it is so much easier this year. I can do it easily without any bigger risk,” he explained. His coolness under pressure has astonished his team, but the remarkable switch in his fortunes also highlights the significance of the recce restrictions which now limit drivers to three runs over most stages. It’s a fraction of the mileage covered by newcomers and established stars alike in the past.

As he acknowledges, Makinen’s title is also the product of failure or absence elsewhere. The ban on Toyota Team Europe ensured that several of the world’s finest drivers, notably Didier Aunol and Juha Kankkunen, have spent much of the year on the sidelines. It has also prompted Michelin to devote much more attention to Mitsubishi. However, Colin McRae has conspicuously failed to withstand the weight of expectation of being World Champion, or come to terms with fighting a superior car. Instead, he has wrecked three Imprezas and Prodrive’s exasperation will lead to a co-driver swap from Derek Ringer to Kankkunen’s partner, Nicky Grist, in 1997. Meanwhile, Carlos Sainz (probably still the finest all-round driver) has been hampered by Ford’s uneven performance and lamentable unreliability.

The rotation system has also played its part, Makinen is at his weakest on asphalt, but the demotion of the Monte Carlo Rally and the Tour of Corsica to two-wheel drive status this year meant that he had buttoned up the title before tar entered the equation. He expects 1997 to be more difficult.

It has been the most one-sided championship since Lancia used to run rings round the Japanese, for which some credit should go to the FIA. That isn’t a back-handed compliment. By insisting that participants should contest the World Rally Championship in full, as they do in Formula One, the FIA forced Mitsubishi to take the championship seriously for the first time, even if it did take some ingenious re-negotiating of Ralliart’s brief from Cowan and Short. Neither the lesson nor the opportunity will be lost on manufacturers contemplating their prospects under the forthcoming World Rally Car rules.