Another giant of motorsport leaves the stage.
Human heads (along with tastes) arrive in different shapes and sizes. A hat of one size could never truly fit all. Luckily, the French devised a device equally beautiful in both name and operation: the conformateur. Placing what on first sight appears to be an Edwardian torture implement upon one’s head, the levers comply with the wearer’s skull contour lines. Atop, a small lid is lifted, paper pinned into a receptacle and the one sixth scale shape of your (and yours alone) head is commutated onto said paper. Once cut, that template is fixed into the second part of the machine that adjusts accordingly; ordaining the wearer a perfectly fitting hat – voila!
The similitude of hat fitting and rally driving may at first appear completely unconnected – one suspects that a rally driver’s helmet is not measured this way. As a lesser mortal, the notion of the red mist appearing when the helmet is on and visor down is lost on me. The few times my bonce has been covered by a skid lid caused not only hearing but vision impairment, not to mention the pervading sweaty aroma of the thing; the true reason for my stubborn lack of motorsport success.
My own cap was doffed when reading of the recent passing of a fellow who was quite at home wearing a helmet. Joensuu, Finland-born Hannu Olavi Mikkola took to rallying Volvo PV544s aged just twenty; somewhat mature of years when compared to modern day tots who start aged four. Flinging these Swedish hulks around Finnish tracks garnered him experience, results and notoriety. In the 1966 Pohjola Rally in Finland, co-driven by Kari Grönberg, Mikkola steered his Volvo 122 (#32) to victory over Timo Mäkinen in a Morris Cooper S. Other cars soundly beaten include an Isuzu Bellet, more than a handful of Saabs, Škodas, Volvos and even a Mercedes 220 SE.
With his surname now on the grapevine and a resounding win two years later on what was then called the 1000 Lakes Rally (now just called Rally Finland)(1) piloting a Ford Escort, Mikkola rose to the top in 1970.
Then, the big win: taking just thirty-eight days to cover some 16,000 miles (25,700 Km) of European, then Southern and Central American roads and tracks, the RAC London-Mexico World Cup Rally (co-driven by Gunnar Palm) was a gruelling adventure he appeared to take in his stride. Other protagonists included fellow rally drivers, along with footballer Jimmy Greaves, Prince Michael of Kent (DNF) and a couple of all female crews. This victory directly inspired the creation of the now auction-busting Escort Mexico.
1972 saw the pair become the first overseas victors of the East African Safari Rally aboard another blue oval Escort. Consider that this, along with the London-Mexico, had day stages covering distances the equivalent of which a modern day WRC rally sometimes cannot cover in three, anywhere from 500 to 800 miles. These were literally epic drives in harsh environments where Mikkola thrived. Observed sweating profusely in dust covered, middle-of-nowhere service halts with little chance for sustenance or rest, the sobriquet Flying Finn was highly appropriate.
What became the World Rally Championship saw Mikkola take top podium place at his home event in 1974 in yet another Escort. He would go on to win the Finland round another five times, a crown he later shared with Marcus Grönholm.
At that time, drivers often switched cars, teams and manufacturers, almost at will. Mikkola sampled a variety of steeds garnering consistent, if not outright results; these included the Peugeot 504 (and V6 coupé), Fiat 124, Toyotas Celica and Corolla, Opel Kadett, Mazda 323 and probably the least likely rally car ever, a Mercedes five-litre 450 SLC. This boulevard cruiser, with long-time pace note attendee, Arne Hertz, took the top step on the Ivory Coast rally in 1979, the year in which he ended up second in the championship, just one point behind eventual winner, Björn Waldegård.
Spread over a 31-year career, Mikkola won 18 world events outright from 123 starts, his last ten at the wheel of one form or another of Ingolstadt’s ur-Quattro. For statistics fiends, he also racked up 666 stage wins, seventy more than multi-title winning Sébastian Ogier. Mikkola claimed one WRC championship, in 1983, against luminaries such as Walter Röhrl, Markku Alén, Michelle Mouton and his old sparring partners, Waldegård and Stig Blomqvist.
Starved of rally information until later in life, my introduction to this gravel tracked behemoth was through the medium of music. Hailing from the Wirral peninsula, nearby to both Wales and Liverpool, the alternative band, Half Man Half Biscuit (the name attracted me) epitomised the Finn’s glory inimitably.
The song title, “Architecture, Morality, Ted and Alice(2)” which opens with the lines, “The wonderful dexterity of Hannu Mikkola, makes me want to shake hands with the whole of Finland,” invested me in a new avenue to travel. Whilst those friends and family revolved around bags of wind, these eyes sought out cars that handled at speed on gravel and dust. In those innocent, pre-Internet days, this meant libraries, newspapers, magazines and later fortunately, TV and video. And those names again; exotic, enigmatic and until 2004, elusive.
That year, my home city hosted both start and finish of the Roger Albert Clark Historic Rally at the now demolished Don Valley Sports Stadium. With the mighty Biscuit’s tape played loud on my personal stereo, my stride purposeful toward some rally-prepped machines when I became star-struck on recognising a face in the crowd. There stood Mikkola, dressed casually, not competing, probably discussing tyres or pace notes.
Through a voice as gravel-choked as the tracks he wasn’t to drive upon, I managed to ask for an autograph. He graciously took my proffered pen and paper, smiled, said hello and signed. Thirty little seconds – equivalent to half a dozen gear changes, three corners and a leap of thirty feet – just like my insides felt. Friend and competitor, Stig Blomqvist (not seen in paddock) came second. Mikkola’s stature, like his heart and commitment were that of a lion.
Should the hat fit, wear it. Chapeau, Herra conformateur.
Hannu Mikkola 24/05/1942 – 26/01/2021
(1) The recent WRC Arctic rally in the North of Finland was held over just ten stages and 250 kilometres of competition over three days.
(2) From the album Back Again in the DHSS. For those brave (or daft enough) try www.halfmanhalfbiscuit.uk