Opinion between the team principals was split. For Malcolm Wilson, he was the classiest driver ever to sit in a Ford Escort. For Andrea Adamo, he was Mr Audi. For Jari-Matti Latvala, he was a revolutionary.
One thing was beyond doubt, Hannu Mikkola was a gentleman.
And one heck of a rally driver.
A terrible sense of loss was felt throughout the Arctic Rally Finland service park following the news of the 1983 world champion’s passing last week. And it was utterly genuine. Sometimes when you talk about one of the sport’s bigger characters passing, there’s the obvious story of a win here or a crash there, then comes the tittle-tattle.
With Mikkola, there was no tittle-tattle.
He was a bona fide Finn of the flying variety. And a fine family man, husband to Arja, father to Juha and Vesa and grandfather to the boys’ four children.
I have to be honest though. My earliest Mikkola memories were born out of frustration. Why couldn’t he just let Jimmy McRae win the Scottish? Why did he always get the better of Russell Brookes in Wales and if only David Llewellin could have found another 17 seconds on the 1986 National Breakdown Rally…
The 1986 season was my first memory of seeing Mikkola in the flesh. With my father already on the Welsh Rally of that season, I convinced my mother to drive me to Coed-Y-Brenin in the middle of the night so we could watch just one stage. Good as gold, she even let me put some stickers on her silver Vauxhall Cavalier for the journey. Away we went to watch on a weekend that would be marred by the loss of Hannu’s friend and countryman Henri Toivonen.
It’s impossible to overstate to impact that event had on me. Waiting for any stage to start delivers massive anticipation, but hearing Mikkola blip the throttle with 30 seconds to go, then winding all five cylinders up into a full fury at the countdown was extraordinary. When he dropped the clutch to chase an arrow of white light between the trees, fever pitch was reached. Such was the excitement, I momentarily forgot – just minutes earlier – my comfortable seat on the forest floor had turned a bit bitey because it was, in fact, an ants’ nest.
Starting in the sport in 1963, aged 21, it might have taken Mikkola two decades to lift the sport’s biggest prize. But success would come far, far earlier. He won the 1000 Lakes on his fourth attempt, driving a Ford Escort Twin Cam in 1968. He was paid £300 for an outing that would lead him to sign a long-term deal with the Blue Oval for the following season.
As well as winning the rally, he learned another valuable lesson in Jyväskylä in ’68. Having enjoyed a single beer with the team to celebrate the win, he was bound for bed when one of the mechanics asked, in all apparent innocence: “Which room are you in Hannu?”
“I came to reception the next morning and my bill was taking nearly all the £300 I had won!”
He wouldn’t be so free and easy with his room number again.
A hat-trick of home wins followed and – along with Marcus Grönholm – Mikkola remains Rally Finland’s most successful ever driver with seven wins.
That stat will stay for at least another six years – and that’s only if two-time victor Ott Tänak maintains a 100% success rate from this year until 2026.
There are no end of stories from Hannu’s 27 starts in Jyväskylä. Ouninpohja in 1985 is probably the most memorable one – when he drove Audi’s Quattro E2 so hard and fast it delivered a fighter pilot-style out of body experience.
But there was also to moment when the road dropped away from beneath his Escort on the 1970 event. It was the middle of the night and Hannu became fixated on the six pools of lights he was staring at as the car fell back to mother earth on its nose – and six spotlights. He got away with that one. As he did when the lights went the other way after a particularly vigorous approach to a Hassi crest in 1982.
“It was totally dark and the car just took off,” said Mikkola. “The Audi’s nose went straight up to the trees and the lights were lighting up all of the branches. I knew there was a corner coming and I was just hoping the car would come back down in time to make the bend.”
It did. He did.
And he won both events.
While the 1000 Lakes delivered the most wins, the RAC Rally was an event where he enjoyed the longest run of podiums. Between 1977 and 1984, he was first or second four times.
“I liked RAC,” he said, “it was a challenge and an event, I think, suited my style. It was also helping me that I did so many rallies in Britain – events like the Scottish and the Welsh. These were the same forests where we would compete on RAC.”
Mikkola scored some of the biggest wins in the history of Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship, winning by as much as 11 minutes on the 1981 event. And that was after he’d rolled the Audi in Grizedale.
Seven years on and he came within a whisker of a fifth RAC win driving a car very different to the quattro – a Group A Mazda 323 with half the horsepower. Leading Markku Alén’s Lancia by a minute and a half with just five of 52 stages remaining, Mikkola was blinded by the morning sun and slid into a Langdale ditch. Jamming the Mazda into reverse broke the gearbox and that was the end of that.
Hannu’s last ever world championship win was delivered on the 1987 Safari Rally, when he landed Audi the honour of becoming the first manufacturer ever to win Kenya’s WRC counter in a four-wheel drive car. That was a month before Mikkola’s 45th birthday. For three years, he held the record as the WRC’s oldest winner, until a 46-year-old Björn Waldegård topped the 1990 Safari podium.
The longevity of Mikkola’s career is beyond question a record. He drove professionally for 24 years and before his final factory outing for Toyota, a seventh place on the 1993 1000 Lakes Rally aboard a Celica Turbo 4WD.
“He was 51 years old when he stopped,” Latvala told DirtFish at the weekend. “That’s incredible. But for me, you know, I will remember him as being part of the revolution for the sport. When he drove with Audi in 1981, everything changed.”
And Hannu changed everything. Forty years ago last month, Mikkola dominated the Swedish Rally and ushered in not just another era for the sport, but another world for the sport.
And he did so in his own, inimitable, professional, courteous and competitive way.
Mikkola mastered his craft across four decades and will forever be remembered as one of the Finland’s highest fliers.
On Friday, the world lost a champion and a thoroughly decent chap.
My deepest condolences go to his lovely family and his many, many friends across the world.