Rallying: The making of master Makinen

World Rally Championship showdown: Flying Finn on record-breaking run in pursuit of third title
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The Independent Online
TOMMI MAKINEN is in his prime as a rally driver. Last weekend he won the Rally of Finland, the fastest event on the world championship calendar, for the fifth time in a row to break Shekhar Mehta's long-standing record of four successive wins in the gruelling East African Safari Rally. But where Mehta was very much a Safari Rally specialist, Makinen is an all- rounder - certainly one of the top three drivers currently competing and, arguably, the best of the lot.

Makinen is a shy man with an extrovert driving style. At 34, his record already bears comparison with the long line of Finnish rally superstars like Hannu Mikkola, the unrelated Timo Makinen, Markku Alen and Juha Kankkunen and it is sure to become a lot more impressive over the next few years. Makinen is now competing in only his fourth full season at world level and he has already won the world championship twice, in 1996 and 1997. This season may not always have gone to plan - he has won three rallies, crashed out twice and three times his Mitsubishi Lancer has let him down - but with three rounds left, he could well win a third championship on the trot.

That would be another record. No driver has won more than two world championships in a row and only Kankkunen has won more than two at any stage. Makinen himself is very keen to win another world championship, but records per se do not impress him. "It's nice to make some kind of record," he said, "but I don't really think about that. I just want to be as good as possible and beat all the others."

There is little doubt that he has the speed to do just that. "For pure speed from the start of a rally," said Richard Burns, the rising young British driver who is Makinen's team-mate at Mitsubishi, "he and Colin McRae are the fastest. The way Tommi wins rallies is not to be on the pace throughout the event, but blindingly quick on two or three stages. It's very similar to the way Colin would do it, too, whereas someone like [the current championship leader] Carlos Sainz or Kankkunen win them by working away the whole time without really doing any one spectacular stage."

This winning strategy is one he has built up over the years. According to Phil Short, his team manager, Makinen's talent was raw when he first joined the team in late 1994. "Then, he would try to go flat out everywhere. Now he knows how to select the stages to attack. His driving is much more intelligent."

Makinen started rallying in 1985. His father had competed in a minor way, but Tommi is unsure what sparked his passion. "For as long as I can remember, I've just dreamed of being a rally driver," he said. In the 1970s, young Tommi watched as Kankkunen, who comes from Laukaa, 10 kilometres away from the farm at Puupola where Makinen grew up, cleaned up in local rallies.

Kankkunen went on to become world champion an unprecedented four times and as Makinen grew up and started to compete he became Kankkunen's protege, first in tractor pulling, another of Kankkunen's stamping grounds, and then, from 1985, in rallies. After an apprenticeship in local events, he moved on and by 1989 was a winner at European championship level.

The successes continued and in 1994 the big breaks started to fall into place. He contested the British Rally Championship with Nissan and was hired by Ford for his home world championship event - the 1,000 Lakes Rally (now renamed the Rally of Finland). He won that and later in the year joined Mitsubishi for a full world championship programme in 1995.

Now his dream has come true he is not only a rally driver, but one of the very best of his era. He is not sure how long he can continue at this level - like most of his competitors he finds the relentless schedule exhausting - but he is certainly looking forward to the rest of this season. "I think it will be a big fight between Colin [McRae], Carlos [Sainz] and me. Last weekend I was really happy with this car [the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution V] for the first time, and we have time to improve it more before [the next round in] San Remo. I'm very confident."

RACE FOR TOP PRIZE

1 Carlos Sainz (Sp)Toyota) 47pts

2= Tommi Makinen (Fin) Mitsubishi

Colin McRae (GB) Subaru 38

4 Juha Kankkunen (Fin) Ford 31

5 Didier Auriol (Fr) Toyota 30

6 Richard Burns (GB) Mitsubishi 23.

World Championship for Manufacturers

1 Toyota 72pts; 2 Mitsubishi 61; 3 Subaru 52; 4 Ford 40.

Remaining rounds

12-14 October: San Remo Rally

5-8 November: Rally of Australia

22-24 November: RAC Rally

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