Happy birthday champion: Hannu Mikkola | Pirelli

Happy birthday champion: Hannu Mikkola

Happy birthday champion: Hannu Mikkola 01
Happy birthday champion: Hannu Mikkola 01

Driving the legends

Hannu Mikkola is most associated with two of rallying's most iconic cars: the Ford Escort and the Audi Quattro. While the Ford was his personal favourite, it was the Audi with which he finally claimed his one and only World Rally Championship title in 1982.

His career began however behind the wheel of a Volvo PV444 – the family car, which the then 21-year-old secretly ‘borrowed' to compete in his first rally. He finished fifth overall and won his class.

Engineering studies and a lack of money to spend on rallying meant that Mikkola's career didn't immediately take off, but he eventually began to compete regularly in a range of different Volvo models, backed by the local importer. In 1967, he finished third in the Rally of 1000 Lakes (which later became the Finnish round of the WRC) behind his more established compatriots Timo Makinen and Simo Lampinen – and ahead of the factory Fords.

A year later, Ford called up Mikkola to drive one of its Escorts in Finland, and he won. He repeated the feat in both 1969 and 1970, then in 1972, Mikkola became the first European driver to win the Safari Rally. His place in history was assured.

Happy birthday champion: Hannu Mikkola 02
Happy birthday champion: Hannu Mikkola 02

King of Finland

Mikkola took another 1000 Lakes win for Ford in 1974 before representing a number of different manufacturers over the next few years. In 1975, for example, he finished second in Monte Carlo and Portugal in a Fiat 124 Abarth (on Pirelli tyres), won in Morocco in a Peugeot 504, and claimed another 1000 Lakes victory in his first drive for Toyota. Proof that he could win just about anywhere in anything.

He returned to Ford in 1978 though and came close to winning the very first WRC drivers' title a year later, missing out to his close friend Bjorn Waldegard by a single point. Mikkola took the Escort to wins in Portugal, New Zealand and Britain, and also defeated Waldegard to win the season-closing rally in the Ivory Coast, where they were both driving for Mercedes-Benz.

Mikkola then agreed to join Audi to develop its new Quattro model, taking a chance on the revolutionary four-wheel drive technology. It worked: Mikkola won the car's second event in Sweden in 1981 before proving its potential on gravel too, ending the year with victory in the RAC Rally.

Now in the Group B era, the rate of development was intense and Mikkola suffered badly from unreliability in 1982. His sixth 1000 Lakes win and another RAC victory came too late, so it was team-mate Michele Mouton who fought Opel's Walter Rohrl for the title.

In 1983 though, it all came good, and Mikkola finally claimed the world championship aged 41. To this day, he is the oldest driver to win the WRC crown. Among his four wins that year was a seventh win on his home event, a record he now shares with Marcus Gronholm.

Breaking records

After coming second to Stig Blomqvist in the 1984 title race, Mikkola continued to make occasional appearances for Audi and even added his 18th WRC victory (a record at the time) on the 1987 Safari, Audi's first and only victory on the African epic. Following a four-year stint with Mazda, Mikkola brought the curtain down on his WRC career in Finland in 1993 in a Toyota Celica, aged 51. He finished seventh overall: competitive to the last.

Happy birthday champion: Hannu Mikkola 03
Happy birthday champion: Hannu Mikkola 03

Three big anniversaries

As well as his 78th birthday, Hannu celebrates two other important anniversaries this year – 25 years apart – which actually changed the way that road cars were sold forever.

In 1970, at the wheel of a Ford Escort Mk1 (registered FEV 1H) Hannu won the London to Mexico World Cup Rally, which took place over more than a month and 25,000 kilometres. As a test of endurance it was second to none, taking in around 20 countries and 32 individual stages that were often more than 800 miles long.

Delighted with this high-profile success, Ford launched a commemorative road car that they called the ‘Escort Mexico', building 10,352 examples with distinctive stripes and a strengthened bodyshell (for competition use). Power was 86 horsepower from the 1599cc pushrod engine, taking it to 159kph flat-out.

The automotive ‘special edition' was born and the ‘Mexico', thanks to Hannu, became one of the most collectible and driver-focussed Fords out there.

Fast forward to 1995 – 25 years ago – and Hannu drove a painstakingly-built replica of the car, this time registered H1 FEV, to victory in a re-run of the event. That car is now in the Ford museum, still making occasional appearances at events like Goodwood.

Three good reasons to celebrate a very special rally driver this year.