“End of an era” – Vatanen’s tribute to Sutton and Mikkola

The 1981 WRC champion remembers his team boss and one of his closest rivals - two names the rallying world has lost in 2021

1980 Portugal Rallyecopyright: McKlein

When it comes to remembering Hannu Mikkola and David Sutton, few people are better placed to pay tribute than Finnish rally legend Ari Vatanen.

The rallying world lost Mikkola in February and the news of Sutton’s passing came on Saturday night.

Vatanen won his 1981 title driving a Sutton-built Ford Escort RS1800, but that association wouldn’t have come about without the help from Mikkola in his earlier years.

“Honestly, people talk about the end of an era,” Vatanen told DirtFish, “but this really is the end of an incredible era. They were fantastic people. Very different, but both fantastic. And I was on the receiving end of their kindness. I didn’t save anybody’s life, I was just a young Finn from Tuupovaara – this place is hidden close to the Russian border – trying to do the only thing that mattered to me.”

Vatanen remembers the first time he fought Mikkola on the stages. Fortunately for him, they were his home stages close to Joensuu in eastern Finland.

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The lasting memories Mikkola will leave behind

Earlier this year, the rallying world lost Hannu Mikkola, the 1983 World Rally Champion and a true flying Finn

“You have to remember, back in those days, Hannu and Timo [Mäkinen], they were the Lewis Hamiltons of the day in rallying. They were both given a factory Escort just to do what they wanted with, at home. So Hannu entered the Itäralli, close to my home. It was just a small event, not a [Finnish] championship round or anything like that.

“He came with Timo Putkonen, who was then the PR director at Ford Finland. But they entered the rally late, so they were at the back of the 50-car entry. I heard the story, that when they came to the end of the first stage, Timo asked the marshal: ‘Who was second fastest?’

“The marshal looked him straight to the eye and said: ‘You were! We have this guy Ari something and he can go around the corners very fast!’ Hannu was so good to me around then.”

A couple of years later, Vatanen swapped Opel Asconas for Ford Escorts and soon crossed paths with Sutton.

“Do you remember the year I was sponsored by Candy Brakes (1977), that was the first time I drove for David,” said Vatanen. “Straight away, he was easy to deal with and such a good guy.

“In a very good way, David was like an old school second-hand car salesman. He has this smile which could disarm you immediately. He was really a streetwise businessman, he didn’t take any qualifications in commerce, but he could surely make a deal.

“He was quite unconventional, but I can remember him in the garage in Acton. It was just a small place in the middle of London with a really small office and just a few mechanics. But he would come and smile and say: ‘Ari, I have to tell you about this deal I’ve done. This must stay between these four walls, but wait until you hear about this…’

“And always there was another event to do. ‘Ari, let’s go to Cork ’20. I’ve got Arne [Hertz] to co-drive. Let’s go.’ We would do these one-off events and every time it was an adventure with spirit and real ambiance. It was impossible to be angry with David, he was always somebody who could pour oil on the waves.

“David was such a generous person. One year, from the goodness of his heart, he gave an Escort for my brother Tatu to drive on the Castrol Rally. I remember this very well because my mother gave Tatu [bed] sheets to take to David’s house for when he stayed. This was a Karelian tradition, you didn’t want to make more work for the person you were staying with.

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Sutton with his team on Rally Portugal, 1980

“But David must have told Autosport and the journalist wrote in the magazine: ‘What on earth does he think we sleep on in Britain!”

Vatanen and Mikkola shared Sutton’s team until 1980 when the latter departed for Audi in time for the 1981 season – the year that would come to define both Vatanen and Sutton.

“That year was like my whole career,” said Vatanen. “We would have these steep downs and big ups. Remember Ivory Coast that year?”

How could I forget Ivory Coast that year?

You just have to savour the nonchalance with which he starts the next sentence: “… the lorry coming towards us and the crash we had. Never did I hear David [Richards, his co-driver] shout when things like this happened when things went wrong. He goes quiet and the smile would disappear for a short time, never a long time. His was a caring way, David never had a son, but the relationship we had was a little bit of the father-to-son. The next rally, he would say, would always be a better one.”

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Vatanen and Richards, 1981 Acropolis Rally

Richards remembers the ups and downs of 1981 as well as Sutton being involved in every aspect of the team.

“It really was the ultimate David and Goliath operation. I can’t emphasise enough what a small operation it was,” Richards said. “And David just had his arms around every element of it. It was seat of your pants and David managed to keep it all together somehow. He was a real character. He lived the whole story, it was his team, his name was over the door and every aspect of it reflected his enthusiasm and commitment.

“They were exciting times, not without their challenges, but Ari and I owe a great deal to David. It’s sad that he and Hannu should go within a month or so of each other, they were very close friends and I think it was that link with Hannu that pointed him in the direction of Audi at the end of 1981 – and, of course, he did very well with them as well.”

Another big part of the Sutton team was David’s ex-wife Jill.

“Jill gave him such balance,” Vatanen recalled. “She was very calming. They made a great team. And, of course, she made a great trifle. I think you know I have a sweet tooth – but I always loved to stay with them and eat this trifle. One night I had a big portion and then I finished it off for breakfast the next day.

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Obituary: David Sutton (1940-2021)

A snapshot of the life of the man who took Vatanen to the WRC title and consistently battled against the odds - and won

“I cannot tell you how much David did for me – it’s impossible to overstress this.”

Taking the title with second place in Chester, was a special memory for both – but not before Vatanen had been shouted at by Mikkola.

“Hannu was leading this rally [for Audi],” said Vatanen, “but he was running behind me on the road. I know Guy [Fréquelin] had gone off already, but if I didn’t finish then he would be champion.

“Hannu had seen some of my lines on the road and he was angry. He came to me and took me by the shoulders, he shook me and said: ‘Ari, come on, these tracks are not the world champion’s for this year…’ He was the closest guy to me, so fair and so reliable guy who you could always trust.

“Like I told you, this is the end of an era. No more do we get to have the conversation with the big wide smile: Ari, this story must stay in these four walls…”