Finland’s Hannu Mikkola, who died on 26 February aged 78, was one of the most successful and versatile international rally drivers during a 31-year career in a variety of cars from Volvo PV544 to state-of-the-art Group B Audi S1 and a few others in between, writes Ken Davies.
Born 24 May 1942 at Joensuu, Finland, like many Scandinavian drivers of his period, Hannu started competing in a Volvo PV544 but by the 1970s became associated with Ford, clinching the 1972 East African Safari Rally, not yet a WRC event, in an Escort RS.
In 1974 he won his first championship rally, the daunting 1000 Lakes, again in an Escort. In 1975 he triumphed in Morocco, co-driven by current FIA president Jean Todt, in a Peugeot 504, before winning another 1000 Lakes, this time at the wheel of his Toyota Corolla.
In 1977 Hannu hooked-up with Swedish co-driver Arne Hertz and the duo was immediately successful in a partnership that would endure for 13 years, initially with his own team using Toyotas and Peugeots, and then in 1978 as a Ford works crew, winning the British Rally Championship in an Escort.
In 1979 he made a serious challenge for the World Rally Championship title, ultimately finishing runner-up, just one point behind Ford team-mate Björn Waldegård and in 1980 was runner-up with Ford again to Röhrl’s Fiat. For the 1981 season Hannu then switched to Audi’s new factory team.
At Audi, armed with the Quattro 4WD, the Mikkola/Audi alliance was immediately successful and the combo led the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally, Audi’s first event, until an accident put Hannu out. He then won the Swedish Rally, but the early Quattro was blighted by poor reliability and despite winning the RAC Rally, he managed only third in the championship. The following year he won the 1000 Lakes and RAC rallies but did not improve on third position, behind Opel’s Walter Röhrl and his own Audi teammate Michèle Mouton.
While he was in the works Ford team, Hannu visited the Bridgend Engine plant and stayed at the Coed y Mwstwr hotel, recalls Robin Roberts.
Ford laid on a press reception and a very special trip alongside Hannu as he stretched his Escort up and down the winding drive to the hotel north of the engine plant.
I was lucky enough to enjoy a passenger ride with the master and marvelled at his car control on the narrow track between unforgiving trees at close to 90mph. It’s a memory which has lasted over 40 years.
It all came together in 1983 with four wins and three second places enabling Hannu and Arne to finally take the World Championship title. In doing so, Hannu became to this day the oldest driver to win the world championship.
In 1984 he was second in the championship behind teammate Stig Blomqvist and 1985 saw him compete in only four world rallies, scoring one fourth place and 3 retirements to finish 22nd in the final championship standings after the Audi team was overwhelmed by Peugeot and Lancia’s Group B blitzkrieg.
Hannu remained at Audi until 1987 where his final championship triumph came in that year’s Safari Rally in the unlikely shape of an Audi 200 Quattro.
Hannu switched to Mazda 1988 – 1991, driving the 323 4-WD and in 1993 he competed in just the Swedish and Finnish championship rallies for Toyota and Subaru respectively before retiring from motorsport.
|International Welsh Rally winner and fellow Finnish rallying legend Ari Vatanen said in tribute, “Painful and sad news, Hannu Mikkola is not with us anymore. Very few, if any, can touch Hannu’s greatness as a driver. He is a Legend and a real Champion.
“A gentleman, devoted family man, respected and appreciated by everybody. He left a legacy in the rallying world. He was a true Flying Finn. He had a big impact on my life. He inspired me, he guided me, he took brothely care of me even when we were competing against each other. I could always count on him.”
His 123 world championship starts yielded enviable statistics including 18 wins and 44 podiums, including seven 1000 Lakes Rally victories in his native Finlandand four on the RAC Rally of Great Britain. Hannu’s 18 victories keep him in the Top 10 of most successful rally drivers in history.
He was also adept at nursing a car on endurance type events and won the grueling Safari rally twice. But perhaps his most high-profile career victory came in the arduous 16,000-mile 1970 London to Mexico City World Cup Rally driving a 1600 Ford Escort with Gunner Palm, and this victory in what was considered to be the toughest rally ever run would spawn Ford’s iconic Escort Mexico model.
Since retiring, Hannu continued to make appearances as Rallying Royalty, including the Goodwood Festival of Speed where he also designed its famous rally stage. He was re-united with Gunnar Palm in 1995 for the 25th anniversary run of the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally– which he won for the second time, and in 2000 he competed in the London-Sydney Marathon Rally in his 1968 1000 Lakes Rally winning Escort RS1600, co-driven by his oldest son, Juha Mikkola.
It is impossible to do justice to the many achievements of such a remarkable competitor and driver in this brief appreciation and we offer our condolence to Hannu’s family and his many friends.
© Words Ken Davies & pictures by Jeff Bloxham and Hannu Mikkola Archive