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Sweden’s Kenneth Eriksson was a fan favourite on both sides of the Tasman, having taken victory at Rally Australia in 1995, and Rally New Zealand in 1997. The man from Appelbo is now 64 years old. He retired after the 2002 WRC season, having won six of his 138 rallies, and having been a factory driver for six manufacturers: Volkswagen, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Hyundai and Skoda. During 1999, Martin Holmes sat down with the likeable Swede and recorded this interview. * * * * *

Three world champions: Kenneth Eriksson (Group A 1986), Stig Blomqvist (WRC 1984) and Denny Hulme (Formula 1 1967). Photo: Maurice Selden

Kenneth Eriksson became the seventh rally driver to enter his 100th rally in the world championship, the first time a driver from Sweden, one of rallying's greatest nations, has achieved this level. He is currently 43 years old, the oldest of the professional world championship drivers, and leader of the Hyundai Formula 2 world championship team. And with still one more season in his present contract to run with the promise of driving World Rally Cars, he is in no mood to give up! His youthful face belies his age, but not his enthusiasm for rallying for all sorts of motoring, which has been with him for as long as he can recall. KE: Even when I was eight or nine years old I felt I should try to be a rally driver. My father took me to watch the Swedish Rally when I was young, spending all night waiting for the cars. This gave me the drug for rallying. The sight of Stig Blomqvist flying through the snow in his Saab in those days stuck in my mind and was worth the waiting. For me he was always number one; at that time he was very good. Then when I was able to take up rallying for myself I was lucky. I was able to get the results at the right time, meeting the right people who could help me, even if I never had a big sponsor behind me. The more I got into rallying the more I felt this was where I ought to be, the more I had the feeling I could stay there.

The Swede was third in Group A and 10th outright on the 1985 Swedish Rally in an Opel Kadett GSi. Photo: Martin Holmes

MH: Was it an advantage to be a Scandinavian? KE: Not in the way you might think. Sweden is not like Finland, for example. In Finland rallying is one of the country's top three sports and attracts corresponding support from media, sponsors and so on. Norway is such a small country there is a lot of support for any people who are good in their field. In Sweden, rallying is only 12th or 15th in popularity. It is very difficult for young Swedish people to get started professionally. Finnish people are the toughest people in Scandinavia, but they are great individualists, like in individual sports. They never seem to work very well as a team. Swedes are better in that way. MH: Was Stig Blomqvist your personal inspiration? KE: I worked a lot with Bjorn Waldegard, he taught me a great amount, he was also one of the greatest of our drivers. He is a fantastic guy, but he didn't hold quite the same magic for me as Stig. I had a lot of inspiration from the people living near me. I come from the Dalarna region which is close to Varmland, the centre area for Swedish rallying. Living in a small country place like Appelbo, I got to drive a lot in the forests, but I realised quickly if you wanted to be a professional rally driver you couldn't stay in Sweden, you needed to be away. My first foreign events were in Germany. I was lucky because I had a sponsor who was an Opel dealer and he made it possible for me to go to Germany. It is a big thing for a Swedish person to go abroad. When you live in Sweden everywhere is a long way away. It wasn't the fact that I had a wish to go travelling, but to go abroad is the first step to be a factory driver.

Kenneth was the Group A World Rally Champion in 1986 in the deceptively quick VW Golf GTi. Photo: Martin Holmes

MH: How did you get to meet this Opel guy? KE: This is a story about my good luck! One of my mechanics on the 1982 Swedish Rally forgot to tighten a wheel nut on my Saab and this caused me to lose five minutes and dropped me down the running order. I was then running in front of an Ascona B, which in those days was a faster car than my Saab. The co-driver was the manager of the dealership and was so impressed at the way we kept beating the Ascona that he telephoned to ask if I would like to drive for them the next year. If he had not rung I think my career would have ended there and then. And if I had not lost the wheel this would never have happened! MH: Volkswagen was Kenneth's first big team. His introduction to them was another strange story. KE: In 1985 I made four rallies in Germany for Irmscher with an Opel Kadett. At the end of the season I was back home hunting elk when Kalle Grundel telephoned me from Germany. He said come quickly, tomorrow, to Germany, he had been offered a drive he could not accept and was offering this to me instead. I was nervous because this looked like being in conflict with plans my Opel friends at Bjorbobil had for me, but they told me not to worry about their team. I had to go to Germany to seek my fortune! On this event I was making equal times with Lars Erik Torph in the official VW car. Andy Hansch was then the manager of VW team and invited me to go to see him immediately after the event. He explained that the team were about to lose Lars-Erik to Toyota, would I be interested to drive for VW? It had been quite a matter of luck that I even heard the telephone ring in my car... That was a good day for the elks as well as my career!

Eriksson moved from VW to Mitsubishi and piloted the Galant VR4 with great speed.

MH: VW brought you to the World Championship for first time. KE: We had a fantastic time with them. We did a lot of rallies, it helped me learn English. The team had a family feeling, my two years there still give me one of my warmest memories of rallies. It was the first real drive in my professional career. The cars we drove then were Formula 2, and of course at Hyundai I am now back driving Formula 2 cars again. What is interesting is that there is not so huge a difference between the F2 cars of 12-15 years ago and the Kit Cars of today. For sure the cars have the benefit of over a decade of development and are a lot faster, but today's Kit Car is still basically the same type of car. The driving technique is the same. MH: You went from VW to Toyota, but this was not the happy experience you had hoped for? KE: Toyota got me into the four-wheel drive scene. Ove Andersson gave me a three years' contract, but in fact we parted after only two. I don't know why we never really worked well together. They were difficult days for TTE as they struggled to learn four-wheel drive technology. It may have been lack of results, but I was getting frustrated. I felt I was not doing the rallies I wanted to do, I felt I was becoming more of a test driver than a rally driver. And of course my teammate Juha Kankkunen was faster at that time!

Eriksson was always fast on his home Swedish Rally. Photo: Martin Holmes

MH: Then on to happier days with Mitsubishi? KE: My time at Mitsubishi started in 1990 and lasted for six years. I was asked to go to see Andrew Cowan at Maldon, we agreed terms and it started. I had many happy years with them, but here again it was not all straightforward. Every year the team spoke a lot about the bigger programme we would have for the next year, which always seemed to get deferred. The full programme never seemed to come, and what really hurt me was when I was not able to stay with Mitsubishi for the 1996 season, the year when finally they did get the big programme. The Lancer Evolution was by then so good. I had in fact been offered a fantastic contract with Subaru for that year, but I would dearly have loved to have been with the Lancer when it really came good. People think I was unhappy because Tommi Makinen came along and took my place, but it wasn't that. If you look at the results in 1995, you will see Tommi only beat me once. Mitsubishi could not offer me the full season in 1996 and that still hurt, even though I had a new team to go to.

Kenneth (centre) checks his pace notes with his brother and gravel note driver, Hakan Eriksson.

MH: Changing cars was not as easy as it seemed? KE: The Subaru Impreza was a different type of car to the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Richard Burns also took a long time to get the best out of the Impreza. It took me a half a year before I was really going fast. The feeling of driving the Subaru is unusual. Maybe I am a bit like Didier Auriol, perhaps my style makes me want to feel I am always in control of the car all the time? It took a long time to tune the car in to my style of driving. When we got to this level then I was very fast. When a car does things I do not expect, then I cannot go fast. My best memory with Subaru was of course winning the Swedish Rally with them, and also with Pirelli tyres which was a breakthrough for them as well. I won two rallies for them in 1997, but we were then in the middle of the camshaft crisis and Colin and I retired on three rallies with this trouble. We won in Sweden and New Zealand, we had been leading in Greece before we had a strange steering problem. This was another team where I really wanted to stay, but in the end it did not happen. It was difficult to put a finger on why. Maybe this was a team in which commercial pressures are very significant, and I never had the strength of support behind me that other drivers have. Essentially, however, it was a matter of not being offered as many rallies as I had wanted to do. It was difficult to know whether I was too much of a specialist driver. I admit that I have never been fast on tarmac, I am someone who is born on gravel, but I felt I had done well on all the other rallies with Subaru to have the chance of a bigger programme with them.

Pushing hard on Rally Australia in the 555 Subaru Impreza WRX. Photo: Neil Blackbourn

MH: Finally came the call to Korea! KE: My first introduction with Hyundai came when Wayne Bell asked me in 1996 if I would be interested to work with them. It started off as a quick enquiry, but then it became more serious. My contract with Subaru in fact extended until the end of 1998, for a few rallies and a lot of testing. It took a long time for the company in Korea to define its position. Then in the middle of January they came up with a definite proposal to start straight away! Subaru were happy to let this happen: David Richards was very fair and let me go without conditions. So the Swedish Rally in 1998 was my final rally with Subaru. For the entry to Hyundai it was like going back one level in my career. For me I felt that my career needed another kick-start. It was like being afraid to jump over a chasm. I needed to go back a few paces and get some speed up before I took a jump. That was what went through my mind. It was in a way a chance to start off again, like we had done at Mitsubishi, with a developing team. It was when they promised me they would run a World Rally Car that I accepted their proposal. If they had not made that promise, I would have stayed at Subaru. My contract with Hyundai continues until the end of year 2000, then who knows? Obviously the promise of being involved in the Hyundai World Rally Car was a large factor in persuading me to join the team. Originally, they hoped to have this car available at the start of 1999 to give some time to sort it out ready for 2000, which would have been perfect, but we are a little bit late, but it is coming.

Eriksson's debut with Hyundai's Coupe Kit Car came on the 1998 Rally of Portugal. Photo: Maurice Selden

MH: You have worked with most of the top drivers in the sport, but have any made a special impression on you in recent times? KE: I have worked with Colin McRae and now I am working with his brother Alister. They are quite different people! I have never had problems with the McRaes! We are working in our own ways, setting up the cars as we want, no tensions with either of them. It has been good fun working with both of them. They are two different people, Alister is maybe more open minded in everything, Colin is more 'focussed' on what he is doing. Alister is easier to talk with on matters outside rallying, with wider interests. Both of them are fantastic guys. One of my special associations is with Staffan Parmander, my co-driver. I still cannot get used to the way I can absolutely trust Staffan, with whom I have now been working for 11 years. On every corner he is incredible. Absolutely the instant I think he is going to be late with his instruction he tells me exactly what I need to know. He really keeps me giving my best!

Kenneth Eriksson during his stint with Hyundai in the WRC.

MH: So, what comes afterwards? KE: The day will come when I will stop rallying and of course I will be able to live without rallying. When, I do not know, but I am prepared for this! I will miss it of course, but I have plans for the future. I am now doing a lot of aircraft work, for example. With a friend we are developing some new business ideas in that direction. Then of course I enjoy so much fishing, hunting and outdoor things. I have been interested in aviation a long time, but until now I have never been able to develop this. Until now I have put all my own money into rallying! Sweden is very good for flying, not so many people there, a lot of free air space, you are very free to land on lakes in winter and summer, a lot of freedom. In the old days I would have enjoyed working with animals and I still enjoy that, I have three dogs at the moment and I will always enjoy keeping them. That is for pleasure, not business. My dream was to have been a vet, but I am too old for that now! I still live at home in Sweden. My companion, Virpi, is Finnish and enjoys the life in the forests as much as I do. Her life with our dogs at home prevents her from following the rallies as much as she used to do, and she is happy of course when we are back home together. She has been able to see the world I work in, see the extremes of conditions. When I first got involved in Asia-Pacific, that was a big shock. Live animals were in our rooms, things like scorpions... You get used to things like that, but in the early days when I was in the Far East with Mitsubishi things were quite dangerous. It has been fascinating to see how the sport has developed in these countries, for example, the last time we went to Indonesia the rally was really good. It seems strange that I come from a cold country, but my first big win was in Ivory Coast, then I was Asia-Pacific champion three times! Maybe competition on those events may not have been so hard, but to be champion you need the experience of winning rallies everywhere.

Kenneth Eriksson (right) and Staffan Parmander were a formidable pair in the WRC. Photo: Martin Holmes

I am one of few people who have been at the top, come back and are now going back up to the top of the sport again. For me this is not the challenge. I know that I am still capable of driving fast. I still feel I can win the world championship title and this means having a good car. I can still do this if the car is good. I am still full of ambition to do what is necessary whatever testing has to be done, and so forth. And I need the luck, I need to have at least one full season to do this, it will either work or it won't. The future? My dream is to have a full season in a good car before I finish this sport. I enjoy all the rallies, the only time I feel uneasy is when spectators are allowed to be too close to the road. Obviously rallies which are well organised are especially enjoyable, especially when it is safe. We have had good and bad emotions in our career. It is a sport which you are always thinking about even when we are back home, relaxing, your mind is never far away from the special stages. It is hard for me to drive an F2 car because you cannot help wondering if this is because I am getting older, but I feel I am still fast enough to win with a World Rally Car. The past two years have been hard, but I have been able to take part on a lot of rallies and gain experience for the next year's rallies, which I could never have done if I had stayed at home. Things are promising so well for next year. If the car is good I have a good chance to succeed. If it isn't - then I'll go flying in my plane instead of my car!

Eriksson won the 1995 Rally of Malaysia for the factory Mitsubishi team. Photo: Martin Holmes

Kenneth Eriksson was a popular driver in Australia and New Zealand.

Eriksson's final WRC victory came on his home event, Rally Sweden, in 1997, driving a Subaru Impreza. Photo: Maurice Selden

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