Archive: The first title of a Finnish WRC legend

Mitsubishi promised Tommi Makinen the 1996 World Rally Championship, and he delivered with two rounds to spare by winning Rally Australia. To mark the 25th anniversary of the four-time WRC champion's breakthrough year, we revisit the Finn's explanation of how that promise was kept from the 26 September 1996 issue.

Archive: The first title of a Finnish WRC legend

Tommi Makinen was wishing he'd not won the World Rally Championship.

"If this is what it means, then I think I'll give it back to Colin or Carlos," he grumbled.

What could he possibly mean? Could the Finn really mean he didn't want the sport's top prize, just a few hours after clinching it in Australia?

"When I woke this morning I thought I had died," he continued. "And this afternoon I wish that I had!"

Ah, now the penny drops. Makinen was suffering from a hangover - in Finnish, appropriately, that's a 'kankkunen' - and the simple act of putting one step in front of the other was testing the man who has outdriven everyone this season, barely putting a foot wrong in his Mitsubishi Lancer.

The party had been in full swing for several hours and when someone thrust a bottle of beer into his hand at Perth airport before he boarded the 747, he just looked at it in horror and shook his head.

Ahead lay a daunting journey, one that would take him via Singapore to London and on to Helsinki for a press conference, before Hannu Mikkola would collect him by helicopter and finally deliver him to his home in Jyvaskyla where he could sleep it off. Winning ain't easy.

Makinen clinched his first of four world titles in 1996 with two rounds to spare with his fifth victory of the season in Australia

Makinen clinched his first of four world titles in 1996 with two rounds to spare with his fifth victory of the season in Australia

Photo by: Motorsport Images

But this year Makinen has made winning look very easy indeed with five wins out of seven starts. Engine failure in Indonesia was the only time that the Mitsubishi let him down, and he had to give best to Colin McRae in Greece while he and his Ralliart team fought to take the blame.

"I made too many mistakes during the rally," insisted Makinen.

"We simply ran out of suitable tyres at the end," was team boss Andrew Cowan's admission. Gracious in victory, the pair of them…

"I told them that if they gave me the budget to sign Tommi and run him for the season, then I'd deliver the world championship. But in return, I told Tommi that I would want a second year with him to defend the title. I got exactly what I wanted and after that I had to deliver" Andrew Cowan

They could afford to be a little smug about life for, between them, they had promised and delivered Mitsubishi's first world crown. At the end of 1994, Makinen had been hot property despite having won but one World Rally event. He signed with Mitsubishi for 1995 and, mid-way through Catalunya last year, confirmed a further two years.

The significance of this commitment was not immediately apparent as Mitsubishi was not, at that time, noted for consistency in its level of support for the series. But Cowan admitted earlier this year that there had been some tough negotiations in Japan, where the deal was only clinched when he stuck his neck out and promised the Japanese the earth.

"I told them that if they gave me the budget to sign Tommi and run him for the season, then I'd deliver the world championship," he said. "But in return, I told Tommi that I would want a second year with him to defend the title. I got exactly what I wanted and after that I had to deliver."

And deliver he did. The Mitsubishi has proved to be the class of the field this year. Victories in Sweden and on the Safari got the ball rolling, while Argentina, 1000 Lakes and most recently Australia put the result beyond doubt. Makinen was never headed in the points race from start to finish and was hot favourite for the crown by the time the teams set off for the series' furthest outpost.

Victory in Sweden got the ball rolling on Makinen's season and he was never headed in the points thereafter

Victory in Sweden got the ball rolling on Makinen's season and he was never headed in the points thereafter

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"This has been my dream ever since I was a small kid," reflected the new champion. "I have spent the last five or six years trying to reach this moment and now I have finally made it. It is an unbelievable moment. It feels very good but, so soon after the victory, I don't really understand what has happened."

Makinen says he knew that he would win the rally in Australia, but would he add the crown to the event win?

"The last day was the biggest pressure," he said. "I had to keep everything in good condition, but at the same time drive fast enough to keep my concentration."

It's bad enough when just an event win is at stake, but when rallying's greatest prize is dangling tantalisingly before your eyes it gets tougher with every passing mile.

"I wasn't concentrating as much as I should on the final stage," he admitted. "I was thinking about other things!"

Winning the rally was never in doubt - having Carlos Sainz finish third was less simple to fix. The Spaniard had run in Kenneth Eriksson's shadow for most of the event but, as the finish approached, he launched a last ditch attack. The gap closed with every mile, but Eriksson hung on and the title race was decided in Australia by his four-second advantage over Sainz.

"That was a tense moment," admitted Makinen. "I wasn't sure if Carlos could take Kenneth. I think it would not have stopped me winning the championship in San Remo, but even so it was good to do it here.

Sainz was Makinen's closest challenger for much of the year, but two late season wins for McRae (right) put him a distant second in the points

Sainz was Makinen's closest challenger for much of the year, but two late season wins for McRae (right) put him a distant second in the points

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"The end of the last stage was the most exciting moment of the whole rally. It was quite tight when we saw that Carlos was so close to Kenneth! But now there is no pressure anymore and we can concentrate on enjoying life. It was a very good rally for us in Australia."

Co-driver Seppo Harjanne has now taken two world championships, the first with Timo Salonen in 1985. His experience was crucial to the young Makinen, filing off the rough edges and honing him into the champion he is today.

"I think my work is done with him now," says Harjanne, although that is not to suggest that he is about to hand over the cards to someone else. "There's nothing much to give him now except perhaps teach him to keep his feet on the ground. That will be the hard part for him."

"It has been just unbelievable this year. Only once has it broken down and any problems were from my own mistakes. If I hadn't broken two steering arms in Acropolis, we should have won that rally" Tommi Makinen

For Makinen, his journey home was punctuated with questions as he was sharing the flight with the media. But his mind was now clear of the alcoholic haze and the realisation that he had achieved his childhood dream was sinking in. So what has made the difference this season? Why has he seemed so much in control, so free of pressure?

"It's been quite an easy year for me," he explains. "It was clear from the start that we had a full championship programme and so we knew what was possible. I had more experience than last year when so many things were new and now I know the car as well as my hand. It is a very good car, probably the best, and only two events have been new to me."

But those two new events - Safari and Argentina - fell to the flying Finn and he reckons that was good luck.

"OK, not just luck, but we were fortunate to have the right car," he says. "It has been just unbelievable this year. Only once has it broken down and any problems were from my own mistakes. If I hadn't broken two steering arms in Acropolis, we should have won that rally."

The Acropolis was one of only two rallies in 1996 where Makinen finished and didn't win. Here, he took second to McRae

The Acropolis was one of only two rallies in 1996 where Makinen finished and didn't win. Here, he took second to McRae

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Makinen's tactic this season has been to target specific stages and really attack, often opening up big gaps to the opposition.

"It was a good plan for me to think about the hardest stages and go flat out when the others might decide to be slower," he says. "You have to drive flat out from start to finish, of course, but sometimes you need to choose a stage to make one hell of a good time. It has worked every time."

On the face of it, Makinen has had it easy. Even winning the 1000 Lakes Rally - his home event where the pressure to succeed is high for any Finn, let alone one chasing the world title - never looked in doubt.

"That was the hardest rally of the year," he insists. "Juha [Kankkunen] was always putting pressure on me and I had to give absolutely 120% effort from the first stage to the last. In Australia I was able to drive at just 100% and take no more risk than necessary. It was easier than I thought."

When he looks back on the season in his quieter moments, Makinen will cite the Safari win as a highlight. And while he says that winning the 1994 1000 Lakes was a turning point in his career, the Mitsubishi team points to his Safari recce as the point where his championship campaign really hit the road.

"Tommi had damaged the recce car," says Cowan, "and we told him that he would have to stop driving the event his way and do it ours if he was to have any hope of even finishing, let alone winning. The penny dropped and he started to listen. From that moment on, he got his head around the problem."

Makinen agrees. "There was a lot to learn in Kenya, but thanks to the strength of our car we were able to drive a very fast recce. It taught me how strong the car was and I knew all along how fast I could drive the rally. The others were not so sure …"

Unconventional plan of attack for Safari paid off

Unconventional plan of attack for Safari paid off

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Had Makinen not driven so brilliantly this year, and had Mitsubishi not been able to field such a reliable car, the title race could have gone on for longer. But that would have taken the team into the relative unknown of San Remo and Catalunya. The mixed surface Italian event might not have been a problem, but it is no secret that the team was hardly relishing having to fight for the world title on the Catalan asphalt.

"Now we can relax," says Makinen. "We can go flat out to see if we can win. Of course Carlos will be very fast in Catalunya and so will Subaru. We had planned an extra test for Spain but there is no point as next year's car is completely different. I will drive only to make the best times."

Winning the title once is one thing. Makinen can now start focusing on Kankkunen's four titles. Can he retain the title in 1997?

"[The 1997 car] is already faster than the current car, especially on asphalt because of its different rear suspension. You can really drive it hard and it handles very well indeed" Tommi Makinen

"I think we have a good chance," he says. "We have a very good car, even though it's not a World Rally Car. It's a fourth evolution of the Lancer and the Japanese have worked very hard on it.

"I think it is already very promising. It is already faster than the current car, especially on asphalt because of its different rear suspension. You can really drive it hard and it handles very well indeed."

Did Makinen really believe Cowan when he promised him the title in return for his signature?

"That's a hell of a difficult question to answer!" he says. "I don't really know. But in the end it has been a fantastic year.

"We have absolutely the best car for gravel and we don't have to do anything. We almost didn't need to test the car, just put numbers on the doors and go out to win the rally."

Makinen's confidence in the Mitsubishi package for 1997 was vindicated - although Subaru pushed him hard

Makinen's confidence in the Mitsubishi package for 1997 was vindicated - although Subaru pushed him hard

Photo by: Motorsport Images

What happened next

When the new World Rally Car era of the WRC began in 1997, Mitsubishi stuck to its guns with a variant of its Group A ethos and was rewarded with Tommi Makinen taking his second title. But whereas 1996 was a comfortable cruise and collect for Makinen, 1997 was far closer and he only clinched it by a single point over Colin McRae courtesy of a flu-ridden drive to sixth on the RAC Rally.

McRae left to rue recurring cambelt failures in Portugal, New Zealand and Finland, plus an accident in Indonesia that still could have swung the balance in his favour. A late season spurt, winning three on the trot, meant the Scot ended the year with five wins to Makinen's four, but having retired more frequently too.

All three Subaru drivers won rallies in 1997 - Piero Liatti, Kenneth Eriksson and McRae locked out the first three rounds - while Makinen took until round four in Portugal to score the Lancer Evo 4's first win. But he followed it up in fine style with Mitsubishi's first win on tarmac in Catalunya, benefitting from revised rear suspension, demonstrating that his performance in leading the second leg of the Monte Carlo season opener was no fluke.

Further wins in Argentina and Finland, again beating Kankkunen (signed by Ford mid-year to replace Armin Schwarz) proved crucial in tipping the balance for Makinen, who was once again the only Mitsubishi driver to win - although Richard Burns demonstrated his star potential with second in Kenya and pushed McRae most of the way on the RAC before a late puncture.

Now partnered by Risto Mannisenmaki after Seppo Harjanne's retirement, Makinen made it three on the trot in 1998 but required a huge stroke of luck to do so. Ruled out of the RAC when he plucked the right-rear wheel off on a concrete block, title rival Carlos Sainz only needed to finish fourth to secure his third world title. The Spaniard looked set to do so, only for his Toyota Corolla's engine to fail on the final stage of the rally, agonisingly within sight of the finish.

By contrast with Sainz's ultra-consistent campaign, Makinen's season had more in common with McRae's 1997 with three retirements from the first four rallies either side of victory in Sweden. Two more DNFs in Corsica and Greece required a hat-trick of victories across Finland (his fifth in a row at the 1000 Lakes), Sanremo and Australia to keep him in the hunt.

An unconventional way of winning a third world title - Makinen believed he was down and out after losing a wheel and being pulled over by police, only for Toyota engine trouble to deny Sainz

An unconventional way of winning a third world title - Makinen believed he was down and out after losing a wheel and being pulled over by police, only for Toyota engine trouble to deny Sainz

Photo by: Motorsport Images

After the drama of 1998, Makinen sealed his fourth consecutive title with a round to spare in 1999, another Toyota engine failure - this time for Didier Auriol - ruling his closest rival out of the hunt in Australia.

He began a streak of four consecutive Monte Carlo Rally wins and claimed a season-high tally of four, as back-to-back wins to end the campaign elevated Burns - now with Subaru - into second, overhauling Auriol.

Makinen's spell of dominance was finally ended in 2000 by Marcus Gronholm and Peugeot. His only win came on the Monte Carlo season opener as he slumped to fifth in points, but 2001 looked set to yield a record fifth title when victory on the Safari gave him a 10-point cushion over Ford's McRae.

However a run of four rallies without scoring, including a stage one exit from Finland, and a heavy back-injuring crash at Corsica which ruled co-driver Mannisenmaki out for the rest of the season, opened the door for a late charge from Burns. The top three were split by just two points heading to the finale in Wales, where Makinen again crashed early, as the Englishman claimed his only world title.

Dominant on the 2002 Rally Argentina, he crashed out on the final stage and only mustered two more podium finishes that year

After so many triumphs together, the Makinen-Mitsubishi axis was split for 2002 as the Finn headed to Subaru to replace Peugeot-bound Burns. But success was fleeting - aside from his now-traditional Monte victory, earned with the help of a penalty for young upstart Sebastien Loeb - and he was usurped as team leader by Petter Solberg, who scored his first win in the Wales finale. Dominant on the 2002 Rally Argentina, he crashed out on the final stage and only mustered two more podium finishes that year.

He retired at the end of a 2003 season that crowned Solberg as champion by beating fellow old-hand McRae's Citroen to the final step on the podium, while Mitsubishi never came close to another WRC win after the 2001 Safari.

Following a disastrous 2002, Mitsubishi skipped 2003 and then withdrew part-way through 2004, returning to score only two more podiums in 2005 courtesy of Gilles Panizzi (Monte Carlo) and Harri Rovanpera (Australia) before departing for good at that season's end (although privateer Daniel Carlsson took third on the 2006 Rally Sweden).

The final win for the Makinen and Mitsubishi axis came on the 2001 Safari before his title campaign collapsed

The final win for the Makinen and Mitsubishi axis came on the 2001 Safari before his title campaign collapsed

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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