Twenty-one years ago, the governing body of Finnish motorsport celebrated 50 years of the Finnish Grand Prix – the 1000 Lakes Rally. Marko Mäkinen and Samuli Rauhala pulled together incredible memories from Arvo Karlsson’s 1951 win aboard and Austin Atlantic all the way to Marcus Grönholm’s 2000 success at the wheel of a Peugeot 206 WRC.
In the middle of those stories was Hannu Mikkola’s personal recollection of his championship year. The year when, finally, he achieved all he wanted to achieve.
Here, in his own words, are those memories of 1983.
I already had experience of the four-wheel drive Audi in the 1000 Lakes from the two previous years. Actually, I should have won in the first year, in 1981, but then we had a problem with the valve seats and only worked out the cause of it towards the end of the season.
I had a serious shot at the drivers’ championship in 1982, but it went wrong then. For several years my luck had played curiously: I had some good years, but unfortunately they were not calendar years. There was New Year in the middle! Usually I started getting results in the autumn [fall], which carried on into the winter and spring. In the summer however, the troubles always seemed to mount and I never got sufficient points for the title.
By 1983 I was really tired of chasing the title, because apart from doing the world series I also competed in the British championship with Audi. That meant 18 rallies in a season, over 300 days of travel. Recceing was tough, the routes ran over huge areas, we drove day and night…
My daily rhythm was gradually getting out of synch: we flew from New Zealand to Scotland and on to another corner of the world. I’d already decided that if I was not to win the championship in ’83 I wouldn’t care to even fully try the next year. I was 41 by then after all.
The start to 1983 was good. I was well in the thick of the championship battle, but again summer brought the hardships. My cars started breaking down. In Greece, for example, I was in the lead by minutes, but in service they forgot the boot lid was open. The oil cooler was mounted on it and got torn loose, which sidelined us. Next, in New Zealand, we were out on the first stage with engine failure.
By the time we got to Finland I was trailing Walter Röhrl by a few points. I thought I had to succeed there – it was essential for my title aspirations.
I did a thorough reconnaissance, but was already quite tired for all that traveling. One really needed to charge the batteries for the 1000 Lakes, because the opposition was tough and you had to fight for seconds. Even four-wheel-drive didn’t give a crucial advantage on that event in those days, as you kept up the speed all the time.
I was under hard mental pressure before the start; if I wanted the title, it would have to come now, and I needed to win in Finland for that.
We started the first stage with Arne [Hertz] in Laajavouri. Towards the finish there was this jump, which is followed by a sharp right just before the Killeri trotting track. On landing after that jump the Audi’s gearbox broke. I had my hands full in keeping the car on the road through that next bend.
I drove into service and the gearbox had to be changed. I knew we were going to suffer badly for that. The crew changed the box as quickly as they possibly could, but I was 11 minutes late to the start of the following stage which was Humulamäki. That gave us 1 minute 50 seconds of road penalties.
I took the lead for the first time and I thought I’d just carry on the same speed and it would be alrightHannu Mikkola
My start to the rally was straight from hell… one stage down and trailing the opposition by nearly two minutes. That was an eternity in the 1000 Lakes. The moment was really depressing. I decided nothing mattered anymore. All one could do was to try and I let go as best as I could.
The rally then started going well. I was driving absolutely to the limit all the time and was little by little catching the leaders. Still, after a few stages it seemed the rally would have to go on a full week for me to have a chance at victory.
Another setback came in Ouninpohja, where the injection manifold worked loose and fuel sprayed onto the hot engine. Luckily I made it to service, where the mechanics came up with a temporary repair, which nobody believed to last on the finish. The repairs dragged on, but fortunately Lasse Lampi urged all waiting cars to move onto the side of the road at the start of the next stage and I made it there just in time. We were only saved from another road penalty by four seconds! Without Lasse’s help we would assuredly have got that penalty.
When we got to the night stages, the gap to the front began to shrink more rapidly, even though I had to drive behind the others on roads that were in a slightly worse condition. On stage 34 I took the lead for the first time and arrived at Kalpalinna regrouping with a one-second advantage. I thought I’d just carry on the same speed and it would be alright.
It was still night time when we started the next stage after regrouping – a narrow and bumpy forest road which I knew very well. There’s a certain straight section, very narrow and fast, with plenty of crests. I’d had a good look at those crests in recce, so I knew which lines to take even in the dark. I blasted flat out to them.
The car landed with a bang and that broke an engine mounting. In that same year I’d already lost victory in the Safari for the same reason, so the moment the turbo started losing pressure I knew we were in deep trouble again!
We were lucky in facing a long road section to the next stage. The mechanics fixed the car and on the road section I managed to claw back enough time to drop only half a minute behind [Stig] Blomqvist. Even that deficit felt like a lifetime, as there were only some 10 stages left by then. I tried not to worry. There were still a couple of really tricky stages left, where I was planning to tear within striking distance…
Alas, no. I just did not find the speed. I was wondering what on earth was wrong. I tried as hard as I could, but my times were on the level I expected them to be. The turbo pressure was OK, everything in the car seemed to be in order. I could not comprehend why the car would not go as it should. I did similar times to the others – suddenly I could no longer beat them.
I was puzzled and cursed the situation to Arne [Hertz, co-driver]. Driving is often a question of feeling. The confidence builds up during the rally, when you can push your limits – a little bit faster all the time. Sometimes the flow can expire during a rest halt, for example, and I was pondering what could be the problem now. One short stage which I knew very well, I drove really fast. Everything went spot on, but the time was fastest by only one second.
It nearly brought a tear to my eye, when I had done that last jump. I was a second per kilometer faster than the next best competitorHannu Mikkola
In the next service was a trusted mechanic of mine, Franz Peters and I complained to him saying: “I don’t know what’s going wrong. The turbo pressure feels alright, but the car just won’t go.” Franz placed his cheek a few millimeters above the turbo hose and moved it over the surface of the engine while it was running. He could feel on his cheek that there was a leak and locate it. Further inspection revealed a pin-sized hole, which caused the turbo to have too low initial pressure and delayed the pressure build up.
The hose was changed and then we got to move on! I did the fastest time on the last six stages and got back in the lead after the penultimate stage by three seconds. A couple of 1000 Lakes stages stick in my mind. And one of them is Vaheri in that final stint. It was as perfect as can be. Very nearly over the top.
That stage finishes with an ascent and a jump, which I ran foot hard to the floor. We flew some 30-40 meters straight to the flag. It nearly brought a tear to my eye, when I had done that last jump. I was a second per kilometer faster than the next best competitor.
Considering we averaged 120kph [74.5mph] on that stage and did two kilometers in a minute, even a single second advantage over a whole stage is difficult to achieve. Markku Alén, who was contesting the lead, with Stig [Blomqvist] and myself, came to me after the stage and said: “Your time in Vaheri was a complete shock to me!”
My problems were still not over, however. The turbo’s pop-off valve still played up and it was giving silly pressures. In using the accelerator, I had to constantly keep my eye on the turbo gauge to avoid over boosting and breaking the engine. That was very difficult, but we made it.
The last stage gave cause for some [concern], when my team-mate, Blomqvist, on purpose did a time quite a bit slower. I can assure that we had no agreement within the team whatsoever. I didn’t even have time to talk with Stig before the last stage. The international media pushed me after the rally, suggesting that I’d been “allowed to win.” It was really infuriating and quite unfair after that battle. With his slow time, Stig naturally gave an impression like: “Well, that was it – by demand.”
That 1000 Lakes win was the hardest push of my rally career. It truly was an event of struggle that had a happy end. So many times I thought it’s not going to happen. That victory got me to the lead in the championship standings and, at the end of the season, I finally got that elusive title.