I like Tommi Mäkinen. Always have. I loved his direct driving style and the even more direct explanation that followed. It’s the same since he moved into team management. There’s always a story. And it’s always a good one.
And now we face a World Rally Championship without Mäkinen. Trust me, the service park will be a poorer place without him.
There might be a few folk around the service park who disagree (certainly a few in light blue and orange), those who will see meetings progressing with a degree more alacrity than with the loquacious four-time champ.
I don’t care about them.
What bothers me is not being able to talk to Mäkinen about that scrap with McRae for the 2001 Monte Carlo Rally. Or finishing fourth at home in an Astra Racing Deltona one year, then winning the 1000 Lakes in Miki Biasion’s Boreham Ford Escort RS Cosworth 12 months on.
That bothers me. The service park is losing a legend.
Understandably, there’s a degree of confusion about this move. Let’s add some context: under Mäkinen’s guidance, Toyota Gazoo Racing is 1-2 in the drivers’ championship and is ahead of Hyundai Motorsport in the makes’ race. Mäkinen made the Yaris WRC a winner second time out in 2017 (having posted second on the car’s Monte Carlo debut) and then picked up a world title in ’18 and ’19.
And now he’s going to make Toyota’s road cars faster.
For legions of fans around the world, Mäkinen is Toyota’s world championship effort; he’s the Finn who demonstrated switching outrageous ability behind the wheel to team management could be orchestrated to achieve similar levels of success.
Why, then, would the 56-year-old be moved aside to allow Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe GmbH take control?
Predictably, Toyota Motor Corporation’s announcement of the move trumpeted Mäkinen’s appointment as a motorsport advisor to TMC. You had to delve down to the fourth paragraph to discover that while Tommi’s away making Toyota’s road cars faster, the… “WRC project built by Tommi Mäkinen Racing Oy – Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT and the design and development of World Rally Cars – will be managed directly by Toyota. From 2021 on the WRC operations will be run by Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe GmbH, the Toyota group company responsible for the core functions of Toyota motorsports in Europe.”
As is always the case, the story’s behind the story. Talking to Tommi on Tuesday morning, it’s clear that he’s happy enough with the change.
“It’s the ideal situation now,” he told DirtFish.
That ideal situation is that he will be making Toyota’s road cars faster, working with his mate – Toyota Motor Corporation president Akio Toyoda – and keeping an eye on the firm’s WRC campaign.
There’s speculation about further issues that might have delivered this situation, but the word is that it’s what both sides wanted.
And there’s absolutely a case for arguing that Mäkinen’s work is done. He created the car, built the team, established the infrastructure and won the stages, the rallies and the championships.
The only time things didn’t quite go to plan was with Ott Tänak. There’s no point in dancing around this one, the Estonian fell out of love with Mäkinen and his team last year, and felt he was left with no option but to leave the people with whom he’d landed his maiden world championship title and join rival Hyundai.
Prior to Tänak’s arrival in the team, Mäkinen had had to manage a trio of malleable Finns in Latvala, Esapekka Lappi and Juho Hänninen. Tänak’s approach is, doubtless, more forceful and demanding.
Undoubtedly, there was fault on both sides. Yes, the Yaris WRC failed too often for Tänak’s liking, but from the other side there was talk of truculence and Ott not being the easiest of characters to get on with. I can see both sides. But it was surely Mäkinen’s job to smooth those waters and keep the champ in a Toyota into this season.
Japanese culture doesn’t reflect well on such scenarios and the fact that Toyota’s own hero departed at the height of his power didn’t go down well. Not least because Tänak enjoyed strong support from some quarters in the team. There was a noticeably stronger Japanese influence in some of the decisions made after this.
Equally, Toyota’s not exactly struggling without Tänak this year. I remind you: 1-2 in the drivers’ standings and the lead of the manufacturers’ race. Again, I can hear the detractors in the background, chirruping about Tommi “landing on his feet when Ogier walked from Citroën”.
Better now to consider life post-Mäkinen.
Prior to talking to him, it was impossible not to think the team would be packing up Puuppola and Tallinn and heading south to Cologne and what was the spiritual home of Toyota’s world championship effort. And that still seems entirely sensible. The engines for the Yaris are already designed, built and developed there and what part of an onsite windtunnel is not to be liked?
The location of the team’s ultimately less important than the team itself. How much will Toyota miss Mäkinen’s presence? That’s hard to say. The technical side of the Yaris WRC is run entirely by Tom Fowler, with plenty of Japanese influence, and the sporting side is underwritten by the similarly competent Kaj Lindström – this was reflected in Mäkinen’s absence from some of the more key stakeholder meetings in recent times.
Had Mäkinen become a figurehead? Quite possibly. And if that’s the case then, in practical terms, he might not be missed as much as, say, a master-strategist or genius engineer.
But he will be missed. Don’t forget, wherever Evans, Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä are going in the coming weeks, Mäkinen’s been there before them.
The final day of Rally Turkey was an obvious example of that. As Evans looked for comfort going into the final loop of stages defending a decent lead, Mäkinen was able to relate to his predicament and reassure him about the outcome.
That experience comes from the rarefied air breathed only by rallying’s elite.
How Toyota copes without one of the best of the best will be seen in the mountains high above Monte Carlo come January.