You know how it is – or maybe how it was – when you’re sitting at home, pondering a round of golf when the telephone rings. One June morning in 1993, that was precisely the position Nicky Grist found himself in.
At that time, the Welshman had moved from co-driving Malcolm Wilson at Q8 Team Ford to join Toyota, where he navigated Mikael Ericsson to fourth on the Safari, but spent much of 1992 working on the co-ordination side with Toyota Team Europe. A move to Mitsubishi Ralliart the following season meant a seat alongside Armin Schwarz for seven rallies.
Then the phone rang and his life changed.
Grist picks the story up from here.
It was my manager Mike Greasley. It was nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning and Mike said: “Listen Nick, would you like to go and do Argentina?
Yeah I would Mike. But, hang on, hasn’t the recce already started?
Turns out Juha Kankkunen’s co-driver Juha Piironen had had a brain haemorrhage.
Mike said: “Piiro’s gone to hospital and Kankkunen wants you to go out and do the recce and the rally with him.”
I asked about my Mitsubishi contract and Mike said he’d spoken to Andrew [Cowan] and got me six weeks off to do Argentina and then straight off the back of that go over and do New Zealand As well.
He told me: “You need to pack your bags and be ready. Toyota’s already looking at flight options.”
I was pretty stunned. Shaz, my wife, was in work.
I called her and said: “Christ darling, you’ll never believe it: poor Juha Piironen’s had a brain haemorrhage and is in hospital, but Juha wants me to go and co-drive for him!
She said: “Oh, that’s fantastic news.”
Mike called back at 10 past 10 and said: “Nick the job’s sorted. You’ve got agreement to go to Argentina and New Zealand. TTE have booked your flights – you leave Heathrow at 2.15 for Paris, then on to Buenos Aires and up to Cordoba where somebody will meet you.””
What about the tickets, Mike?
“Go to the BA desk, they will issue your tickets.”
I called Shaz and said I wanted to come and see her at work.
My bags were packed so I jumped in the car and went down there, met her in the car park, kiss and a cuddle and that was it. I was away for six weeks.
I got to the airport picked up my tickets and was just looking at them: “Yeah, London to Paris, OK and Paris to Buenos Aires on Aerolineas Argentinas… first class!” Christ! I’d been used to flying around the place in economy and now suddenly here I was with a first class ticket. I couldn’t believe it.
I didn’t really sleep much on that flight I was so excited. Somebody picked me up off the Córdoba flight early in the morning and drove me to the hotel, the wooden one by the lake – what’s it called? Portal del Lago. I walked in and there’s Juha sat in the bar and reception area with the table full of espresso cups and an ashtray full of cigar butts. Next to them was a pile of roadbooks and pacenote books.
“Right,” he said, “go and get ready, we’ve got to go…”
I went and had a quick shower, put my kit on, threw my bits in the bag and jumped into the recce car. I looked at the map and Juha said: “I’ve had a look at this and we reckon we can do everything, every stage twice.”
That’s what we did.
I’d been to the event in 1992, when I was working on the service schedule with Toyota, so I had a rough idea of the geography. But there were bits I didn’t know. The start of the rally [in 1993] was up in Tucumán, where we had a superspecial. They flew us up to Tucumán for the first stage, we got in and we were fastest.
“Jesus Christ!” I thought, “now I’m leading my first world championship event!” A week earlier, I’d been sat at home thinking about playing golf because I didn’t have another rally to do for a couple of months.
After that we drove about 400 kilometres and did a couple of stages on the way back into Carlos Paz. But we never lost the lead. The pacenotes were working and they were OK for me, they were like the old road rally, descriptive-style of notes with: “Easy, medium and Ks and 90s,” things like that. I fell straight into it and never missed a beat for the whole rally.
I always remember being really wound up and completely taken in by all of these b******s in the team. On the last day George [Donaldson, Toyota team manager] picked us up to drive us to the parc ferme in Córdoba (a journey of around 25 miles) and the petrol gauge was completely empty in the van. I said to George: “I think we’d better get some fuel before we leave.”
George said: “Nah, be fine Nick. No problem.”
It was empty. The needle was on empty. Honestly, I spent the whole journey panicking like mad. When we got to parc fermé, I told George how lucky we were.
He laughed and said: “Fuel gauge hasn’t worked since I picked it up. I filled her up last night!” You b*****d! And they were all in on it, Didier [Auriol], everybody.
Juha looked over and grinned: “Boyo, I told you it would be OK!”
Anyway we went on and finished the day and won the event. The finish was at the football stadium on the outskirts of Cordoba. The place was packed and I got the biggest trophy I’d ever seen in my life.
We had a party in Carlos Paz that night and that’s when I discovered that the Finns really can drink! There were no holds barred. He’d been banned from drinking before the rally, but afterwards there was some drinking done.
The next day we flew to Buenos Aires, where we were staying for one night before we flew off over the south pole to New Zealand. We were staying in this really nice hotel in the middle of Buenos Aires, there was me, Juha and his brother Timo, who was doing our gravel notes. Anyway, we checked in and went out to get something to eat in this great restaurant. It was fantastic. Juha told me I had to have the baby beef. This ‘baby’ beef came and it might as well have been the leg of a cow. It was massive! Him and his brother had a bottle of red, then another, then another and then the Fernet-Branca (and Italian liqueur popular in Argentina) came out. Well, I wasn’t used to this. I didn’t really drink.
We eventually got back to the hotel and I told Juha we were leaving at 10 in the morning.
“No problem boyo,” he said. “Hyvää yötä (goodnight).”
Next morning, I’m just checking out and in walks Juha. He looked OK.
“Hyvää huomenta (good morning).”
He turned to the receptionist and said: “I want to check out, please. Name Kankkunen.”
“No problem Mr Kankkunen. Any drinks from the minibar?”
“OK, sir. What did you have?”
There was a pause.
“I have left you the lightbulb.”
There was a longer pause.
“I’ve left you the light.”
“You’ve drunk everything?”
Timo and Juha had emptied their minibars and celebrated properly. A few hours later, we were off to Auckland.