Finland grew famous as the homeland of professional rally superstars in the early 1960s. The French and Italians were fast on tarmac and the British were fast on gravel but the Finns were fast everywhere as they preached the gospel of left-foot braking and the Scandinavian flick, while the sport entered a new and exciting professional era.
After Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Makinen first shook up the establishment in their Mini-Coopers, Peter Ashcroft of Ford’s works rally management discovered a rapid youngster called Hannu Mikkola. With Ford behind him, Mikkola won the 1968 1,000 Lakes at the start of an unbroken three-year run of success on the event.
It also became apparent that Mikkola had an unusual degree of mechanical sympathy. In 1970, Ford entered a fleet of Escorts in the 16,000-mile (25,750km) World Cup Rally from London to Mexico and this became Mikkola’s first landmark victory.
It would be followed by another marathon win for Ford when, in 1972, Mikkola became the first international driver to win the Safari Rally. He remained part of Ford’s squad in the earliest seasons of the world championship, but then he and the team’s management grew tired of one another and they parted company at the end of 1974.
For the rest of the decade, Mikkola was a gun for hire – and a popular one at that. He scored more world championship wins for Peugeot and Toyota, became involved in Mercedes’ programme of long-distance events and would return sporadically to Ford, either in works cars or those of David Sutton, missing out on the inaugural drivers’ world championship title in 1979 by a solitary point – at which moment Jurgen Stockmar picked up the telephone. Soon, Mikkola was committed to making the Quattro a contender in rallying, with 60 days of testing in 1980 to sort its new and occasionally unnerving habits.
‘I could drive it faster than the Escort immediately on the wide roads, but when it was on the narrow road I never really knew within half a metre where it goes!’ he recalled. ‘It was pulling and it was very unstable, with the limited slip diffs and all that… We realised that the front wheels were moving and all that, and when we got that right we went to Portugal to the Algarve Rally as the Zero car.’
Mikkola’s legendary half-hour ‘victory’ in the course car set the tone for the Quattro’s early years, although so too did its mechanical frailties of which the Finn was forced to bear the brunt. Although frustrating for him at the time, today he recognises that the furious pace of developing the car and technology while in competition meant that the early Quattro was always exposed.
‘…It was partly that when we got something reliable on the car we were testing the next new part. It was too hectic and at times we were entering five cars in one rally, so sometimes I felt that quantity was more important than quality,’ he said.
Such has always been the conundrum facing motor sport programmes that are owned by marketing teams, with their need to win hearts and minds. Undoubtedly the teammate with whom Mikkola had the best relationship was Michele Mouton, although her marketability was a major factor in her signing.
Mikkola remembered: ‘The last question Michele asked when they were discussing about the contract was: “Are you hiring me as a rally driver or as a woman?” They were clever enough to say: “As a rally driver,” so Michele said: “Okay, I sign it.’”
Although Mikkola took responsibility for the setup of Mouton’s car alongside his own, his admiration for her speed and ability is undimmed. ‘She should have been world champion in ’82 but the team just blew it,’ he said.
Audi Sport closed ranks around Mikkola in 1983 to ensure that he achieved the recognition that all the hard work in developing the car -quite aside from his own formidable talent – so richly deserved. ‘It was satisfaction, because I’d already decided that after ’84 I wouldn’t do that kind of programme again.’
The Quattro continued to evolve and Mikkola remained at the forefront of the programme throughout the Group B era, culminating in the mighty bewinged S1 – a car of which Mikkola remains inordinately fond, despite its relatively modest success.
‘We did all the testing for suspension and wings and all that and on one test road there, at the same time they were doing a Formula 1 race and it was exactly the same length [of road] as this Formula 1 race,’ he beamed. ‘We were testing on this gravel road and we were just four seconds slower than their lap times so we said it’s really quite fast!’
Mikkola would remain with Audi in 1987 as it campaigned in Group A with the 80 quattro, coupe quattro and 200 quattro, with which he claimed Audi’s last win at world championship level on the Safari Rally. He then moved to Mazda in 1988 for four partial seasons but by then the sport was in a new era and eventually he stepped aside.
However, the old spirit never changes in rally drivers – and in 2005 the London-Mexico Rally was run again for historic cars, from which Mikkola emerged victorious in a Ford Escort, 35 years after his first win. He has also long made himself available for Audi whenever the old cars are wheeled out and journalists wish to be captivated by the Quattro once again. Once a rally driver: always a rally driver – and Mikkola was always one of the greatest.