Interview: 1983 World Rally Champion, Hannu Mikkola
At the 2003 Otago International Classic Rally, Finland’s Hannu Mikkola was the star attraction, with the then 60-year old contesting the event in a Ford Escort RS1800
While he led for much of the rally, a last day puncture eventually relegated him to fourth place.
Before the rally got underway, RallySport Magazine’s Peter Whitten interviewed his childhood hero – a man who was the 1983 World Rally Champion, and the first driver signed to drive the revolutionary Audi Quattro.
It was a sound like no other. A low growl – almost like a wild animal -but rising and lowering in pitch as it appeared closer, only to fade into the distance. Suddenly it appeared, blinding me as it roared towards me. The sound rose to fever pitch as the bright white lights quickly turned to red and the beast finally departed into the distance, spitting flames and throwing rocks the size of golf balls.
It’s mid-1984 and as a youngster I’d just been scarred for life – Hannu Mikkola and the awesome 5-cylinder Audi Quattro had just made a life-long impression on my life!
It was the Rally of New Zealand in 1984. A cold – no, freezing – night when the frost had already settled on the ground at 7pm. Just outside Rotorua, Mikkola had rolled the Quattro and was desperately trying to make up for lost time. Cutting the corner, he snapped the directional arrow on the inside of the corner, and with half the arrow now wedged into the grille of the world’s most impressive rally car, Mikkola disappeared into the distance.
A quick glance at my dad made me realise it wasn’t just me – we’d witnessed a piece of rallying history, and Hannu Mikkola instantly became my hero.
That he didn’t win the rally was of little consequence – Mikkola was the man and the Audi Quattro was my dream car.
19 years later, I was sitting in the lounge a hotel in Dunedin, about to interview Mikkola as he prepared for the Otago International Classic Rally – driving a Ford Escort RS1800.
As I soon got to know Mikkola the man, as opposed to Mikkola the rally driver, it was refreshing to know that he is one of the friendliest people you could ever meet. Our one-hour chat was filled with amazing stories and plenty of laughter as Hannu recalled the greatest moments of his long and illustrious career.
With a memory as good as you could find, the (then) almost 61 year-old Finn showed why he really is one of the legends of the sport.
Hannu Olavi Mikkola was born in Finland on May 24, 1942. He started rallying in 1963 and won the Finnish Championship in 1968 and 1974, and the British Championship in 1978.
After a successful stint in Escorts, where he finished second in the World Championship in 1979 and 1980, he finally won the title at the wheel of the pioneering Audi Quattro in 1983.
The winner of 18 World Championship rallies and with 44 podium finishes to his name, Hannu Mikkola is one of the icons of rallying.
In a career that spanned 40 years, Mikkola had factory drives for Volvo, Ford, Mercedes Benz, Toyota, Audi, Mazda, Opel and Subaru.
He retired from professional driving in 1993, but still competes occasionally when the urge gets the better of him. Competing in New Zealand in 2003 was one of those times, and Mikkola proved that he’d lost none of his touch.
Peter Whitten: Were your family interested in the sport, and did your interest stem from there?
Hannu Mikkola: No, nobody was interested. I had been driving cars since I was about 10 years old, so I was dreaming about it, but Finland had very hard times in the 50s and early 60s and you couldn’t buy cars.
My father was working for the company in charge of all the forests, to make sure all the paper mills were getting the wood in time. They had a lot of cars, but of course it was a tool for them, so it was very hard for my father to understand that you take a car to the roads and then drive flat out.
But there was rallying going on at this time in Finland?
Yes, and there were already successful Finns driving when I was following it. A near neighbour of ours named Osmo Kalpala had won the 1000 Lakes Rally three times in the 50s and he was a sort of role model for me.
It was a long story how I finally got started, but in any case I took the family car without them knowing and did a rally 200km from Helsinki .
I was fifth overall and won the junior class, and to my father’s surprise I brought the trophies home and he said “Who owns the car?”. I said I did, because he didn’t know that I’d changed the ownership into my name (laughs). It was a planned thing, and it all started from there.
How old were you then?
I was already 21, but the whole focus was just to get the chance to drive.
Was your aim to become a professional driver right from the start?
I never really hoped at the beginning that I could do so well, but from the beginning I had the speed, but there was a period of two years where I couldn’t find the money to do it and I was in engineer’s school.
But one of our family friends came to see my father and said to me, “Why don’t you drive?” I said “No money, no honey – I cannot do it”, but he had a Volvo at the time and asked if I could compete in that type of car.
When I said yes, he said I could use that car and could send the bills to him! After that it took just three rallies until the Volvo importer was paying, so it all happened very quickly.
Did you finish your schooling?
In 1968 I finished my studies, but I already had a contract to drive, so I never did any honest work. I drove with Volvo (444, 544 and 142 models) until the end of 1967, but then Ford gave me the chance to drive the 1000 Lakes Rally in an Escort. Ford finished fourth and fifth with the Lotus Cortina in Finland in 1967 and I was third in a Volvo, so they knew me from then.
Ove Andersson, Bengt Soderstrom and Roger Clark were already winning with the Escort, but Roger told Boreham that he didn’t like to do the 1000 Lakes because he was awful there, so they contacted me. I was lucky enough to win it, and it all started from there.
That then gave you the opportunity to rally outside Finland?
I had already had the chance to drive the ’67 Monte Carlo Rally in a Lancia, and we were lying in sixth place on the last night with two stages to go and the car broke, so it was heartbreaking. So I’d had a connection with Lancia before the Ford drive came along.
Bjorn Waldegard said last year that he remembered an unknown driver named Mikkola who was doing very well in the Monte Carlo that year.
I already knew who Bjorn was though! I did a rally for Volvo, the Swedish Rally in ’68, and Bjorn was there with the Porsche and at that time I thought they were using pacenotes, but I wasn’t sure.
I always remember on one long stage Bjorn started one minute behind me and he passed me and I thought “this is not possible without notes”. We met at that time and we have been friends since.
THE FORD YEARS
Two years later, in 1970, you did the World Cup Rally and won for Ford. Is that still one of the biggest wins of your career?
That was a very good win, you know. That was a hard rally. It had very long stages – the longest took 12 hours 21 minutes to drive. I think on that stage I had one boiled egg and one Coke on the way!
But it was not only one long stage, it was three or four of them: it was 280 kays and 400 kays and 450 kays, a 971km long stage.
How much did that win do for your career in the future?
It did a lot. Of course I’d already won ‘68, ‘69 and ‘70 1000 Lakes Rally and Austrian Alpine Rally. I made a lot of mistakes too, but I was able to win those rallies.
But you weren’t expected to win the World Cup Rally – from London to Mexico – because you were more of a sprint rally driver.
That’s right. I had a meeting with Ford boss Stuart Turner one morning when he came to my hotel room and offered me the drive. I don’t know why, because I was a young driver who was driving too fast and wouldn’t have done that rally otherwise, but in any case it worked out well.
Did the World Cup Rally win help you later when you became the first non-African driver to win the Safari Rally?
I don’t know if it helped. In ’71 we were there the first time with the Ford, but we had engine problems. It just happened, but I did have a lot of help from Gunnar Palm, my co-driver, because he had a lot of experience and was always trying to calm me down – he was like a broken record by the end of the rally!
Interestingly, you split up with Gunnar because, you said at the time, your personalities were quite different.
Yes, Gunnar is very much a PR oriented person and at that time I was very shy and I hated it.
To win the Safari back in 1972 was a much more important result then as the event lost some of its toughness over the years.
That was fantastic, and you know, London Mexico I didn’t really realise what I had done – I was happy that I’d won, but much later I realised the importance of that win. But then when I won Safari in ’72 I knew I’d done something very good.
You were a heavy drinker in your early days, but gave alcohol away as your career took off and your professionalism increased. Was that a major decision in your career?
In rallying in those days it was a sort of life where you do your job, and then when that’s over you had maybe three or four weeks until the next event. When you came home you had all your friends wanting to go out and celebrate and it was really getting out of hand.
I had to decide if I was planning to become a full time drunk, or a good rally driver! It was a hard decision, not only for myself, but to convince my friends that I’m not drinking any more. I must say the first 10 years are hell, and it’s okay after that!
You don’t drink alcohol to this day?
No, some people get a nice feeling from drinking it, and some don’t. Walter Rohrl didn’t drink either, but he’s been quite a fanatic on everything he’s done: skiing, driving, biking…
You first came to New Zealand to compete in 1973. Was that a strange invitation to come to the other side of the world to compete?
It was. It was Stuart Turner’s idea because he was always sending his drivers around the world, and in 1973 I didn’t have a big program so I was happy that he was asking me to drive. Jim Porter was my co-driver at that time, but for a while it looked like Tony Mason would be coming with me.
Drivers and co-drivers seemed to swap around a lot more in those days though.
It wasn’t such a busy program. You didn’t have 12 or 13 rallies that you had to do. We did maybe four or five a year. They were not World Championship events back then, but they were the major events.
But at that time we’d always try to fit in the contract that they’d give a car to do the Finnish Championship, so I did those rallies on the side, which kept us busy. Then we did some extra rallies, like something in Jamaica, or something in New Zealand.
What are your memories of the New Zealand event in 1973?
It was a very hard rally. Seven days or eight days, I can’t remember, but every day doing more than 500km. The South Island was very tricky with icy roads. I remember we were leading quite well and I slowed down because it was important to make a result.
Were the Escort days ones that you fondly remember?
Yes, it suited my driving style. I’ve seen many drivers in Escorts and some were driving more sideways than others, but it’s very hard to get that car to understeer, and that I loved. I hated a car that understeered.
I had some great battles with Ari Vatanen, although he was very quick, but he crashed a lot! Bjorn was much more consistent.
In the first World Championship, in 1979, Bjorn beat you by just one point. That must have been an enjoyable championship.
We actually talked about it before the season and we decided that we’d do the same amount of rallies.
There was a time when Peter Ashcroft (Ford’s team manager) asked me, because I’d already had two engine failures, if I’d like to have an extra rally, but I was stupid enough to say “No, we’ve agreed at the start of the year”.
But where I really lost it was in Monte Carlo where they gave me a five minute penalty because they said I passed a car over yellow lines on a road section. But they never said where it happened.
You finished fifth after the penalty, and then won four times for the rest of the season.
Yes, and there I lost that one point! When I asked the police they told me it was on a 70km road section. It was a snow-covered road all the way, so we don’t know if there were yellow lines or not.
That was very unfair, and when you think that it was enough to take the World Championship away from me ….
You were with Ford from 1968-1974, and from 1978-1980, but in between you drove for Toyota, winning the 1975 1000 Lakes in a Corolla. What was behind that drive, in what was an unproven car and an unproven team?
I was doing something in South Africa and Fiat pulled out with their Abarth and I didn’t have a car to drive in the 1000 Lakes. I saw Ove Andersson in South Africa as he was doing the same rally, and I told him I didn’t have a car for 1000 Lakes.
Ove had the car but no money to run it, so I spoke to a dealer friend of mine in Finland and he put a package together to run the car. We had just four people to run the team, plus the co-driver and myself.
One of those people was Arne Hertz, who was driving a service car (and who eventually became Mikkola’s co-driver).
I got the car two days before the rally and went to test it. Although it didn’t have the power, it was a fantastic car to drive, so I thought maybe I had a chance. That year I don’t know why, but I was really practicing well – in two weeks I drove 10,000km over the stages, so I really learned them by heart.
We won the rally and then Ove came to Finland and he thought that we could get the 2-litre engine into that Corolla, which would make the car a winner, so I signed a contract with him.
But that wasn’t the case. I had to drive the Celica then and it was a big, big car and I had a lot of troubles. We were developing it, but in two years when I did the first rally in England I was one and a half seconds per kilometre slower than Ari Vatanen and Russell Brookes in Escorts.
But I nearly won the RAC Rally in 1977 when Bjorn won in the Escort – I had a puncture in Keilder Forest and that dropped us down, but by then the car was much better.
Was that the right car, or should Toyota have stuck with the Corolla?
They should have been in the Corolla. The Celica needed so much room when it was going sideways and we never got it sorted properly.
But when you drove a Celica in 1980 you later said it was good grounding for the Audi Quattro, because you couldn’t drive it too sideways, otherwise you’d lose too much time.
Yes, and with the Escort too, because I’ve never really driven very much sideways because I feel that you lose the speed. It’s good looking, but I try to keep the car a little bit straight.
The Celica didn’t have very much grip at all, and it went so easily sideways, so you had to try and keep it straight.
I was also with Mercedes in 1979 and 1980 as well. They were trying to offer a contract for the next year and I also remember it was one of the highlights of my career, I was having lunch with the Development Chief of Mercedes Benz and he said he’d heard I was moving to Audi.
“We sold that company,” he told me, “do I have to buy it back?”
Was the Mercedes a frustrating car to drive?
It was, but when you got the speed up it was a very strong car. I won the Ivory Coast Rally in it, and I very nearly won the Safari.
When you and Bjorn signed contracts with Mercedes you were being paid big money and really revolutionised the pay structure for rally drivers.
We are very good friends, Bjorn and I, and we played it together. We knew that they would call him and that they would call me, so we agreed what we were going to say.
History has it that when the pair came out of discussions with Mercedes, Mikkola told Waldegard that he thought it was a good salary for the season. “No Hannu,” Waldegard said, “that’s the salary per rally!”
Similarly, by signing with Audi, you’ve had a fair impact on where the sport is today, and in what cars are being used the world over.
I’m sure Audi was the step that was very important for my career. Of course we didn’t know how it would turn out to be. The first six months was a lot of work.
What happened was that Bjorn and I were on top of the world with the contracts we had and I got a call from Audi. I had seen them, but it was with a very small team, front-wheel drive cars – a sort of third grade team.
There was a guy called Stockmar, and he said they had this four-wheel drive car that they’d like me to come down to see and sign with them for next year.
I thought it’s a waste of time to go down to Ingolstadt, but I had three or four days at home and just to be polite, I will fly down there and have a look.
Stockmar was waiting for me at the airport and he kept saying “And when we are doing this together” and I said “No, no, no, don’t count on it”.
And then they brought this first Quattro out in the forest, and it was under cover, and I had a drive of it. It was just a normal road Quattro, so it wasn’t a rally car or anything, and I drove maybe half an hour.
So I said I’d like to have a few hours to think, and their idea was that I would drive half a year in the front-wheel drive Audi 200, and when the four-wheel drive car is ready I would drive that. But I said, even without committing to anything, you can’t do it this way and you have to throw out this idea right now. Just concentrate on the four-wheel drive car.
I said I wasn’t so sure, but they had a list of the drivers who they thought could drive the car and they said I was the only one. They’d been following my career at Ford and discovered that I drove less sideways, and said it had to be me.
I even called Arne (Hertz) and spoke to him about it, then I stayed overnight in Ingolstadt and had breakfast with Stockmar the next morning. I said: “Okay, if we can do it so that I can drive 1980 with which car I want (not an Audi), but I do 60 days testing and you have somebody who is doing the long distance testing.
“In September or October we sit down and decide if it’s going to work or not.
Just to show that I’m not just taking testing money and walk away, I’ll sign the contract for ’81 to drive it. But September/October, if we both think that it’s not going to work, I’m out of the contract.”
Did you initially think that it was a very big car to go rallying in?
Yes, that was a concern, and of course the turbo engine, as we’d never had a turbo engine in a rally car. Everything was new – the company BOGE (who made shock absorbers), Kleber tyres, four-wheel drive, the team.
So when did you start to think that the car had real potential?
I knew, because we were in Greece, it was May…. no, the beginning of June, and we did a lot of testing. 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!
It was pulling and it was very unstable, with the limited slip diffs and how to have them and all that. I did the testing just after 1980 1000 Lakes on similar roads and still it was the same thing.
We realised that the front wheels were moving and all that, and when we got that right we went to Portugal to Algarve Rally as the zero car. I had been there the year before to drive David Sutton’s Escort.
The first stage was uphill, I think 24 kays or something, and we knew our times from the last year. Arne was with me and we went up the stage and we were one minute faster than in the Escort. We knew then that it was a good car, and it was quite easy to drive, so I could see that maybe this was the way to go.
Despite the successes, you endured a lot of unreliability from the car and frustrations from the team’s performance. Was this something that was inbred into the team?
It was partly, and it was partly that when we got something reliable in the car we were testing the next new part. It was too hectic and at times we were entering five cars in the one rally, so sometimes I felt that quantity was more important than quality.
Actually, I lost a lot of rallies because of technical problems, engine problems at the beginning and simple things that went wrong. In New Zealand one year we lasted just 2km into the first stage when the timing belt jumped!
There’s some famous footage of you at a service break in the 1983 1000 Lakes when you’re prancing around the car and looking at your watch as one problem after another surfaced.
That was a rally I will never forget.
That was the year Michele Mouton drove her car into the lake as well?
(laughter) Yes, she said “It’s burning”. I said to her “Is it still running?” She said yes.
I said is there a lake next to you? She said yes, so I said “Drive into it!” because I knew that you couldn’t stop the fire.
That was a rally, you know. First stage we landed after a jump – gearbox. We changed that, two and a half minutes I was behind. I drove flat out all night, next day, just as it was coming dark I was leading again.
And then the next stage, jump – turbo pipe. Lost 50 seconds and noticed that the engine mounting was broken, so the engine had moved.
I always remember it was an 85km road section and I knew it takes 40 minutes and I knew there would be a lot of police. So I said to Arne “Give me the map” and I looked at another road on the side and I went flat out. I got there on time and they changed the engine mount.
I went and drove that night and could not understand why I’m not fastest – I was just there, but couldn’t get the times. I was 30 seconds behind in the morning and I went to my favourite mechanic and said that I could see I had turbo pressure, but it just doesn’t feel right.
So he went and opened the bonnet, and there’s a long turbo pipe, and he put his face right down over it and he found a small hole in the turbo pipe. He changed that, and then we were off!
We passed Stig two stages before the end and won the rally. It was my hardest win.
When you won the championship in 1983, was it satisfaction, or were you just relieved because you’d come so close in the past?
It was satisfaction, because I’d already decided that after ’84 I wouldn’t do that kind of program again. By then I’d been doing British Championships and World Championships – 17 or 18 rallies a year – and it was too much.
I had already told Audi that I would slow down, so it was almost the last chance to get the name on the books. I had two years where the end of the season went well, the start of the season went well, but the middle was no good.
If I could have turned the clock half way, I would have been winning the championship more.
TEAM-MATES AND RIVALS
The media of the time built up a real rivalry between you and your team-mate, Stig Blomqvist. Was that real, or just media hype?
Stig is a completely different kind of person than I am and I think he was used to working alone, so it was much harder for him – in my mind, maybe not in his – to do the team work.
With Bjorn, when we did the testing we worked together as that was the best way to do it, but with Stig he tended to work more for himself. I think it comes from the time when he was at Saab, but he’s a fantastic driver.
Was Walter Rohrl a bit like that too? And what about Michele?
Walter was very difficult to work with, you never really knew what he was going to do, or say, or think.
Michele was fantastic – she was something I don’t think very often we will see, she was so good!
There’s a small story: when she came to Audi they were trying to get Walter. Walter got all the times in testing and knew everything, but he didn’t dare to do it. They thought it was a good idea to have a woman in the team when they were starting, so they asked Michele.
The last question Michele asked when they were discussing about the contract was: “Are you employing 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”.
Did she adapt to the car instantly, or did it take time?
It took her six months to learn it and then the rest is history! She should have been World Champion in ’82, but the team just blew it. They blew it completely.
You had a big input into her car set-up, didn’t you?
Yes I did her lights, her suspension, I did everything. When we were driving it was always “Hannu, Hannu, it’s pulling to the left” or “It’s pulling to the right”. But she still had to drive it and she did a fantastic job.
The last of the Quattros, the S1, had all the wings and spoilers and was the most awesome of all the Group B cars. What was it like to drive?
You know with the long Quattro, the old one, it was very difficult to get through the narrow roads of Corsica.
The whole short Quattro was done – I don’t know when, because I didn’t do any testing for it – it was very much a quick, quick, quick job, but then they started to test it and they noticed it was too short.
It was very, very difficult to find the balance: the most difficult when you are in a bend and you have 400 horsepower in that car already and you put the foot down it sits down and starts to understeer, and when you lift the back end comes around. You couldn’t get around the bend nicely. It was a very nervous car.
When you were doing 240 or 250 km/h the front would start to lift and you’d lose the steering.
Then we got a new engineer – an ex-racing car engineer – he saw what we have to do to try to save the car, and that was the wings and to get the aerodynamics right, and we did a lot of work with that.
Then, of course, we increased the power and, finally, we had 550 horsepower in it. Actually I owned an S1, but I sold it one year ago to Juha Kankkunen because he’s got a museum and he likes to have it there, but it’s a beast to drive.
Was it literally a car you drove by the seat of your pants?
It took 2.7 seconds to 100km/h, and 9.4 seconds to 200!
I did testing for the last car in Greece, when we pulled out in 1986, and at that time we had already this PKVW gearbox with the two clutches and 600 horsepower.
It’s funny, in the morning when I tested it I thought it had absolutely too much power, but in the afternoon I thought maybe it could have a little bit more! (laughs)
Walter Rohrl said that it was a car that you had to drive on your instinct – that if you had to think about what you were doing you’d be off the road.
We did quite well with it, like in Monte Carlo, but the whole thing then with the Audi was that it had a front engine and the whole engine was hanging out from the front wheels.
At the time it was Audi’s idea that we should use the same layout for the production cars as for the rally cars, but they had already built a mid-engined car that is now in the museum in Ingolstadt. It’s a very good looking rally car, but I never had the chance to test drive it or anything.
Were those days, the Group B era, just too crazy?
Oh it was. But it was fun! Actually when you have a lot of power it’s easy to drive because you can correct everything with the power – you haven’t got the situation that when you come to a bend and put the foot down there’s nothing there.
But I have one stage that I will never forget with the S1. I had some problems in the 1000 Lakes Rally and I came to one of the legendary stages – it’s 26km long, over the crests and very difficult. I did the stage in the early days in an Escort and the time was 12m52s or 12m58s – that was a good time. With the S1 I did the stage in 11m32s.
That was the only time I had the feeling that for part of the stage I wasn’t sitting in the car, I was sitting somewhere else.
The wings just made the car that when you go into a bend it was pushing down and down and you don’t find the limits really – you just go around the bends and the car’s going faster and faster.
Still people in Finland come to me and say that they were there: “When we could hear you coming 3km before, we knew you were trying”.
Over all those years, is there a favourite car – one that stands out more than the rest?
Escort, that is my favourite car. Audis and the other four-wheel drive cars, they were a little bit beasts to drive with their understeer – especially with the Audi as it comes from a front-wheel drive car.
In slippery conditions it was very difficult, and that was where Stig was so good. If you had ice or snow, you knew you couldn’t beat him because he had the experience from the Saab.
I still had in mind the Escort driving, and over the seven or eight years of four-wheel drive I never really thought that I mastered it.
Of your rivals, who were the toughest to beat over the years?
Markku Alen was very hard to beat – he was always “maximum attack”. Timo Makinen was one of the best also, he never really put a foot wrong and he was very consistent and very quick.
– Peter Whitten
- Originally published in RallySport Magazine (2003)