Rallying: Makinen content to be free of constraints

Derick Allsop meets the dominant force in world rallying who is yet to taste victory in the British event
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The Independent Online
WHEN Tommi Makinen says he prefers to let his driving do the talking for him, it is not merely rhetoric.

Sit alongside the Finn in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and you get an idea of the car control that has made him world rally champion for the past four years. His hands and feet are a blur of mesmerising motion, the car grunting and sliding to his command.

Inside rallying they say only one other driver, Colin McRae, has comparable natural talent and pace, and the evidence, even on a short, artificial stage at Silverstone, is compelling.

However, talking, or at any rate talking in English, in England, about British drivers, comes less naturally to the 35-year-old Makinen. He acknowledges that McRae and Richard Burns will provide stern opposition in the Rally of Great Britain but does not care to rate one above the other. "I'm sure they are on the same level," Makinen says. "Both have good experience on this rally. Both can be strong. Colin will try to finish the season with a win. Richard is improving all the time."

If McRae is as quick as Makinen, how is it that the Scot has only one Championship? That is another question he finds "difficult" to answer. In fact he has no answer at all.

Makinen is a farmer who discovered he had an extraordinary gift for driving rally cars, and away from the car he is still at his most comfortable when he is back on the farm. "It is important to find something different from rallying and forget it completely, then get ready for victories again."

He is one of the world's outstandingly successful sportsmen and has a new contract said to be worth more than pounds 3m a year, yet it is difficult to imagine a less likely superstar.

Significantly, he decided to stay at Mitsubishi when Ford were prepared to pair him with McRae in a much-vaunted super team with all the resources any driver could desire. But Mitsubishi was home. Like the farm. "It was an easy decision," he says. "I know the car, I know the team. It is easy for me here."

Driving is transparently easy for Makinen. He may have had his strokes of fortune along the way, but he is respected by his peers as the supreme exponent of the art. "He is the one driver I wouldn't feel confident of beating if I was 15 seconds behind him on the last day," McRae admits.

One glaring omission on Makinen's CV is victory on the British event. His best place is fourth. "I don't remember what year." But he remembers his experience 12 months ago all too vividly. He slithered out of the rally on oil dumped by a Hillman Imp in the historic competition and had given up on the title. "That was definitely the worst moment of my life," he says, in a burst of eloquence.

Then, a few hundred yards from the end of the final stage, Carlos Sainz's car expired and Makinen, packing his bags and heading for the airport, was confirmed as champion. "I couldn't believe it, I just couldn't believe it."

This time the anxieties and constraints of the championship have been removed. He can simply go for it. "There is a big difference this year because I have no worries," he says. "I can just do it flat out. It's a very nice feeling."

But where would he put his money? "I would put it on me," he says boldly. "I think it would be quite a good bet."