A ride with Juha Kankkunenby Andrew Frankel on 13th December 2011
Over the years I have learned for the most part not to turn into a gibbering idiot in the presence of famous people.
There are quite a few floating around the peripheries of what I do and inevitably paths cross. Most are more normal than you think and many are unrecognisable from their public persona. I have, for instance, yet to meet anyone who has worked with and got to know Michael Schumacher on a personal level who does not like him.
But once every decade or so I’ll meet someone and the usual journalistic instinct to start asking questions and not stop until my subject is dragged away by some irate PR person, deserts me. The incident I remember most clearly was with Senna 20 years ago. One of my keenest memories of the few short hours I spent with him was watching him walk down the steps from the McLaren motorhome at a soaking wet Silverstone tyre test and simultaneously realising I had lost the power of speech.
It happened again last week. Once more the venue was Silverstone and this time the man for whom I had no words was Juha Kankkunen. This struck me as curious, for while I have the full measure of appropriately awestruck respect for the four times WRC champion, rallying is not my world and Kankkunen not the only hero I ever had.
I think it was the context. We were both there at the behest of Bentley, he in his role as brand ambassador, me as a hack lured by the promise of new product to sample. I can’t yet tell you what the product was though anyone keeping an eye on what Bentley is up to at the moment will have no trouble guessing. Happily what we were in is not relevant to this story.
What is relevant is that Kankkunen was going to drive me around Silverstone in this car, which I looked forward to very much. ‘And then,’ I was told, ‘you will drive Juha.’ Imagine knocking up a quick self-portrait with Lucien Freud sitting over your shoulder, or sitting down at the old joanna to play your latest ditty to an audience restricted entirely to Paul McCartney. You now have some idea how I felt.
He drove. Fast and far smoother than I’d anticipated, Kankkunen exhibited that strange and surreal ability to stretch time that belongs to all world class competitive drivers. Events that occur in an instant to you and me and need to be addressed in the instant that follows happen in slow motion to them. It’s always the same: what impresses is not how hard these people work behind the wheel, but quite the reverse. They appear to be making no effort at all, the drama outside the car striking an extreme contrast with the tranquillity in it.
I drove. But not before first feeling utterly absurd as I sat down, looked across to the passenger seat of the Bentley and saw Juha Kankkunen doing up his seat belt. A few other journos had already been out with him and reported this usually taciturn Finn had become quite animated as he enthusiastically advised and instructed them. As one put it, ‘I was holding the wheel, but Juha was driving.’ With me? Nothing. I drove my allocated number of laps and slunk back into the pits. ‘Was that ok?’ I timidly ventured as we rolled to a halt. ‘Ja, fine’ he replied, smiling slightly but quite possibly only with relief at being alive.
Out of the car and now we had a shared experience my diffidence finally left me, he actually became quite chatty and we had a good conversation in which he said some interesting things about the car that I’ll share with you at the appropriate juncture. But at no stage did he feel the slightest inclination to elaborate further on my driving.
Was he bored, impressed or horrified? I can’t believe any mere mortal is capable of impressing Juha Kankkunen with his driving, which leaves the two rather less edifying options. And I rather fear he was just bored, as would I have been in his position. Oh well: ‘I bored Juha Kankkunen with my driving’ is not exactly what I would have hoped for from this unique opportunity but, on reflection, it was probably the best possible outcome that could realistically have been achieved.