Most drivers lining up to start their first-ever rally at the tender age of 17 will likely be competing in a modest front-wheel-drive machine with a class podium or possibly even a win as a sensible target.
But when a baby-faced Andreas Mikkelsen entered his first event, the Quinton Stages in Wales (now Nicky Grist Stages) back in 2006, he did so in an ex-Colin McRae Ford Focus RS WRC ’02.
He won. In fact, scratch that: Mikkelsen dominated – winning all seven of the rally’s stages to beat that year’s BTRDA Gold Star champion in the UK, Shaun Gardner, by some 59 seconds.
Mikkelsen made such an impact on that day that, at 17 years and 16 days old, he became the youngest ever winner of a UK national rally and had an award named after him for future years on that event.
Strange then that Mikkelsen’s early sporting life had nothing to do with rally cars, or even four wheels.
“It was alpine skiing in the beginning for me, together with motocross riding. But mostly skiing,” he tells DirtFish.
“However my knees couldn’t take it anymore [so I had to stop]. I was going to the ski scholarship up in the mountains and I couldn’t ski but there was a frozen lake where they race cars, so I decided to join them when I couldn’t go skiing and the other guys went skiing. So that’s how it all started.”
Andreas’ father, Steinar, had done some rallies and hillclimbs in Norway “but nothing major”. However, the two Mikkelsens soon discovered that Andreas had a talent for driving.
I was very fortunate in the beginning. I had my father who could really help me and support me.Andreas Mikkelsen
“It felt very natural from the beginning because at that time I was 16, I hadn’t done any types of driving before except on PlayStation but straightaway on this ice lake, sliding the car, I got to grips with it very, very quickly and I think it’s because of my skiing.
“There’s quite a lot of similar aspects of things, going from A to B as quickly as possible, making the lines as clean as possible and not sliding too much and just finding the perfect balance, it’s the same in skiing.”
Mikkelsen’s first rallying foray was on the other side of the car though as a co-driver in a Group N machine before he traveled to the UK and began his driving career.
“I was very fortunate in the beginning,” Mikkelsen says. “I had my father who could really help me and support me.
“When we started driving up on the lake first it was in BMWs and Nissan Almeras around the lake, then we bought a Mitsubishi Group N car and drove with that for quite some time, also a Subaru Group N car. These were the cars I was co-driving in as well when I was 16.
“And then eventually we bought Henning Solberg’s Ford Focus WRC car and that’s the one I did my first rallies in the UK.
“In Norway, at that time you had to be 18 to have driving lessons and everything, so that was the main reason we went to the UK.”
His impact didn’t just stop after that epic first win on his rallying debut either. There were a few accidents as you’d perhaps expect but Mikkelsen won four more rallies throughout 2006 and stepped up to a newer Focus WRC the following season.
Mikkelsen’s 2007 campaign was a mixed bag of British, Norwegian and world championship rallies. By 2008 he was becoming something of a WRC regular, bagging a standout fifth on Rally Sweden and securing his first stage win that season too.
It was a polarizing approach given how different it was from the standard path for young drivers, working their way up the ranks before landing in a top car. Mikkelsen started at the top from day dot.
Does he believe this was, retrospectively, the correct approach?
“It’s a good question, but I think at that age you learn so quickly,” he explains.
“I remember we were having Marcus Grönholm on our tests in 2007, and we were testing and having similar times. He was a world champion and I had just been driving for a year.
“It just says how much you learn at a young age. That was a little bit our thinking as well; if we can get me into a rally car I won’t have this huge respect for the car and I would gel with it quite quickly, which I actually did.
“The problem was in rallying it’s not only about the car, there’s so many other factors as well which take such a long time to build. So in testing, when I was on a road that I knew I could be as fast as Marcus, that was not a problem. But it was more when we wrote pacenotes, understanding how much you can push the tires on a full rally, staying away from danger and all this – this takes time to learn, especially before when we didn’t have WRC+ because now it’s much easier.
“Now the kids can learn all the stages, they can see which corners are flat but before we had nothing to prepare ourselves with. So in this part, then being in a World Rally Car at that age didn’t really make so much sense if I look back now.
“But to do testing and to learn how to drive a World Rally Car it was very useful because I was very, very fast very quickly.”
Despite his obvious promise, given he was still only 19 by the end of 2008 with two and a half seasons of World Rally Car experience beneath him, Mikkelsen’s career hit a severe bump in the road for 2009.
His father was no longer able to support his rallying effort, so it looked like Mikkelsen’s rallying journey was over before it had even truly begun.
“At the end of 2008 my father told me that I have to stop, I have to stop doing rallies, go back to school, go to the military and try another career,” he remembers.
“Of course it hits you in the face, that you had your chance, that’s it, it was a short time in rallying. But in my mind, I was not finished at all.
“I felt I had something special and something to deliver in that sport. I didn’t want to give up just because he didn’t have the possibilities to help me anymore. So I wanted to try and continue and make it without his help.”
And that’s exactly what Mikkelsen managed. The program was radically different – predominantly in Norway with a Group N Subaru instead of a WRC Focus, but it was arguably the making of Mikkelsen.
Finding a group of investors, led by Erik Veiby – father to Ole Christian Veiby – kept Mikkelsen in the game and he focused on rebuilding his career and returning to the WRC.
This ultimately led to him earning some Intercontinental Rally Challenge opportunities with Hankook in a Ford Fiesta S2000, as well as some drives with Škoda – peaking with 10th overall and first in the SWRC class on Rally GB 2010.
That result, as well as second on Rally of Scotland, meant that heading into 2011, Mikkelsen had impressed the right people to become a paid factory driver for the first time in his career. A deal was agreed with Škoda UK – somewhat controversially given he was a Norwegian driver competing for a UK importer.
“If I remember correctly this came a little bit out of the blue because it was nothing we really targeted,” Mikkelsen admits.
“We did some rallies with Škoda and after Rally of Scotland I remember I was speaking to Cathy Sleigh, who at that time was controlling the Škoda UK program for motorsport. We had a great chat but it was nothing I thought about too much, really, until we got a phone call from Pavel [Hortek] at Škoda Motorsport, who told us Škoda UK was looking for a driver; would that be interesting for you guys? So we all sat down together.
“I was of course hoping for something with Škoda but that it would actually lead to Škoda UK, that was a bit surprising for us as well.”
That 2011 season in the IRC ultimately proved to be a real turning point in Mikkelsen’s career. He wound up champion against a seriously competitive field including the likes of Thierry Neuville, Juho Hänninen, Jan Kopecký and Freddy Loix, so naturally it’s viewed as the most important year Mikkelsen’s ever had.
“Absolutely,” he agrees. “[But] it was a disaster at the beginning. Škoda UK almost wanted to shut down the program.
“I had nine or 10 days of testing before the first round, so they spent so much money getting me up to speed and getting me fit for the season, and then I crashed on the first stage 200 meters in.
“If I remember correctly I think Škoda UK had 50 guests or something so it was a nightmare. Cathy was crying, it was terrible. And then Canary Islands was the next rally; we tried to build up but none of the rallies were particularly great until Azores.
“We were fighting for the win. At the end, we had team orders from Škoda that I couldn’t fight with Juho [Hänninen] so in the end we were second, which was a big turnaround then as this was our first podium, first great result, and since then the second half of the season was really nice.”
From there Mikkelsen was a contender on every single rally and never off the podium, but that bad start to the season was sure to cost him. It probably would’ve in most other championships, but an adjusted points coefficient for the final two rounds – 1.5 in Scotland and double in Cyprus – kept Mikkelsen in the hunt.
Even winning my first WRC rally, I didn't feel as nice as I did after Cyprus.Andreas Mikkelsen
“There was no question that this coefficient was in our favor for the last couple of rallies with the 1.5 points score in Scotland and then double points in Cyprus,” Mikkelsen says candidly.
“So absolutely that made a big difference for us. We were in the fight for the win in Sanremo and then Thierry won and we were second, I remember asking our team coordinator ‘can we still win the championship?’
“And he said ‘ahh, everything needs to go properly.’ And I said ‘it’s not over before it’s over’ and we’re laughing about that still now because the chances were so small, everything had to fall into place but it did.
“We just had to go out and try to win everything and yeah, that was an incredible end of the season and there were some scenes of enjoyment I have never felt before. Even winning my first WRC rally, I didn’t feel as nice as I did after Cyprus.
“This has been my biggest feeling of success inside my body in my whole life. It’s strange because it’s IRC, not WRC, but that still gives me more enjoyment. It’s the whole season how everything played out, and I don’t think I can top that unless I win the WRC.”
It was a feeling of huge satisfaction that also presented a huge opportunity. By now, Mikkelsen was hot property and was courted by two WRC teams – Citroën and Volkswagen – for the upcoming 2012 season. Mikkelsen ultimately took up VW’s offer, but not before a conversation with one of his great rivals and friends.
“[Conversations] started after 2011 when I won the IRC. We were approached by Citroën, we were approached by Volkswagen and, funny story, I was sitting down with my mate Thierry Neuville and we spoke,” Mikkelsen reveals.
“He got the exact same offers, either to go Volkswagen or to go Citroën. I was talking to Thierry and we talked about if we both go in one direction, only one of us will make it.
“We decided together that it’s probably more clever that we each go our different directions because there were two ways of going: one to go to Citroën, be a part of the WRC team there straightaway in 2012, or in 2012 do some rallies in S2000 and then being a part of the championship in 2013.
“So we decided with Thierry since he already had ties with Citroën and Peugeot that he would go that direction, I would stay with Škoda with one more year in IRC and we would both see each other in WRC in 2013.
“That’s actually how we made that decision. Not a lot of people know about that story but it’s actually quite cool.”
History proves that Mikkelsen got the better deal, given how dominant the Polo R WRC was. But it did mean he had to do an extra year in S2000 machinery in 2012 while Neuville got his hands on a DS3 WRC.
His mission was to win the IRC title once again – which he did – while also contesting some WRC rounds in a Fabia S2000 run by Volkswagen Motorsport as it readied its World Rally Car for the following season.
“I don’t remember so much what was the goal in 2012 but it was obviously trying to win the championship again with Škoda in IRC, this was clear. But then when I did all the rounds with [Sébastien] Ogier I was trying to challenge him as much as possible, which we managed to do in some rallies,” says Mikkelsen.
“Particularly Rally Sweden, we were told by the team we had to slow down because Ogier said that either I win or I crash the car. So we managed to push him quite a lot actually in 2012.
“Also in Argentina, we were leading the rally in front of him until the third-last stage when the damper came through the bonnet in Mina Clavero, so it was really cool that I could push a driver like Ogier at that time. But I was in the car a lot at that time so I knew it really well of course.”
Mikkelsen’s WRC return came in 2013, five years after he had been forced to leave. It was “a proud moment” for a driver who could’ve given up but instead decided to fight for his future and had earned it with aplomb.
“Yeah exactly. It was really a proud moment being back in the WRC with Volkswagen, which was the biggest manufacturer in the world. That was really something special, being their junior which they really wanted to build up for the future. It was really special to be a part of that.
“Of course at that time I was under quite heavy instructions to try and finish rallies, try to get as much experience as possible and when the time was right make steps, but just do it in my own rhythm. So we took it actually quite easy in the beginning.
“I remember there were a lot of people putting question marks if they had picked the right driver because I remember a lot of people thought they should pick [Evgeniy] Novikov as a driver instead. But then when I started to understand the car straight away we started to win some stages here and there, fight for podiums and we quite quickly took the steps, so that was cool to see.”
Mikkelsen ticked off his first podium on Rally Sweden 2014 with a first win following a year and a half later on Rally Spain. From 2014 through to ’16 he was third in the world championship each year and, when VW suddenly announced its withdrawal from the WRC, he signed off in perfect fashion with a Rally Australia victory in a totally even fight with Ogier.
“During the 2015 and 2016 seasons we took some massive steps. I think in 2016 we were the only one who could take the fight to Ogier starting early on the road, because most of that season Ogier was first on the road and I was second on the road.
“Looking back it would be interesting to see what the world would look like if they didn’t pull out, I’m sure things could be quite different but that’s motorsport, that’s the automotive world. Manufacturers come and go and that’s just the way it is.
“But of course, you would wish that relationship I had with Volkswagen and the feeling I had in that car would last forever. They were some amazing years.”
Mikkelsen’s WRC career has been a source of frustration ever since. Beaten by outgoing team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala for a Toyota drive, Mikkelsen drove a Citroën for two events in 2017 before joining Hyundai at the end of the year and staying for another two years.
Since then he’s been on a comeback trail, winning both last year’s WRC2 and European Rally Championships in a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo and leading WRC2 this year too. He hasn’t given up on his quest to become World Rally champion.
But, as he’s already alluded to, it’s incredibly tempting to wonder if Mikkelsen could have achieved that ambition already had VW remained in the WRC. Just how good was the 2017 Polo R WRC going to be?
“It’s hard to say,” he says, “you never know exactly until you meet your competition but it’s hard to believe that we wouldn’t be competitive.
“I’m quite sure we would have been up there winning rallies and fighting for the championships, I’m very confident about that.”