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Evolution Master: Tommi Makinen

September 29, 2015 by Jeremy McMullen

Though never considered the favorite, Finnish driver Tommi Makinen would become a rallying legend simply because he managed to master the difficult and highest form of rallying art—thrashing about with style and grace.

Among the rankings of the world's best rally drivers, Tommi Makinen has reserved a place for himself among the greatest of all time. Only Sebastien Loeb has more championships. The Fin's 24 wins also places him among the top five all-time. In addition, Tommi remains just one of two drivers to have scored four consecutive Drivers' Titles. But what makes Makinen's achievements so impressive is the car in which he earned much of his success.

Born on the 26th of June, 1964 in the town of Puuppola, Tommi Antero Makinen would find himself right in the heart of Finland's rallying scene. However, interest in the sport would bloom late for the young man. Instead, the young man's skills would be first put to the test within the agricultural field.

Obviously enjoying and having an affinity for all things competitive, Makinen would quickly earn a reputation for his driving skills, but as a plowing champion, for which he would be twice champion.

It wouldn't be until Tommi was twenty before he would take part in his first rally event. Even then, he wouldn't be entirely serious about the sport. But then, come 1987 and 1988, he would get much more serious about rallying and would show just what he could do when he put his head down and focused on the task at hand.

In 1988, at the wheel of a Lancia Delta HF, Makinen would win the Group N Finnish Rally Championship and this would propel him further up the ranks where, in 1990, he would find himself challenged to rise to the next level.

He would respond taking victory in the 1994 1000 Lakes Rally driving a Ford Escort RS. Despite being thirty, Tommi's rallying career was just beginning to take off.

Makinen would catch the attention of Mitsubishi Ralliart and he would be offered a drive in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo II toward the latter-half of the '94 season. Though inexperienced in Group A, he would seemingly become immediately comfortable with the Lancer earning a 2nd place in Rally Sweden the following season.


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    Mitsubishi developed the Lancer Evolution and made it available only in Japan in 1992. However, the reputation of the car grew to such a state that Mitsubishi would agree to start exporting the Evolution to Ralliart dealers throughout England and the European continent.

    The Lancer Evo showed tremendous potential, but it was first and foremost a sports production automobile instead of a purpose-built rally car that was then homologated to satisfy regulations. This fact would not only be astounding, but it would answer some of the causes for the difficultly some of the drivers experienced with the car, all except Makinen of course.

    Encouraged by the potential of the Evo III, Makinen would go out and would promptly win the first round of the 1996 season, the Rally Sweden. This would not be a fluke either as Tommi would follow that victory up with another in the Safari Rally.

    Tommi's chief rival throughout the 1996 season would be the then current world champion Colin McRae in the much more capable Subaru Impreza. Nonetheless, there wasn't anything McRae could do about Makinen as three straight victories in the Rally Argentina, Rally Finland and Rally Australia locked up the championship for Tommi, and with two more rounds still remaining.

    He had arrived to the stage late, and with a production automobile, but there was no stopping Makinen. He had become World Champion for the first time and he had demonstrated he was well worth the wait. Question was, 'Could he do it again?'

    The Evolution and Makinen were as one. Four more victories and five podium finishes would mark the Fin's 1997 season. However, at fourteen rounds, the season would be long and filled with opportunities to see the title slip through the fingers.

    The season would come right down to the final event of the year, the Rally of Great Britain. Things could not have been tighter coming into the race. Two straight victories for Colin McRae meant the Scot had closed the gap in the championship fight to just 10 points. Makinen had to at least score a point. But it was McRae that held all the momentum, and he was on home soil. Tommi needed to attack, but he needed to remain in control.

    Both drivers would do what they needed to. McRae would blister through the stages to take the victory. However, it would be a case of too much too late as Tommi would keep his head and would keep everything else well in hand. Guided by Harjanne Seppo, Makinen would eat up the miles and would throw the Evo around just enough to finish 6th. The solitary point earned for the last points-paying position would be the difference in the championship. It would be back-to-back championships for Makinen. He may have been a late bloomer in the world of rallying, but Tommi was coming on stronger and stronger.

    From 1996 through 1999, Makinen would be virtually unbeatable and he would achieve this dominance through a very focused, intentional and flat-out approach. However, while another of his peers, Colin McRae, would be famous for his saying, 'When in doubt, flat out', Makinen would drive flat-out, but with finesse, under control. He needed to keep within himself while pushing the limits of what he, and the car could do. It certainly seemed apparent no other driver could coax that kind of performance out of the Evo. But, with Makinen at the helm, the Evo would be willing to do whatever the Fin asked.

    It would prove a remarkable pairing. While the Impreza would go on to such glory, the Evo, in the hands of Makinen, would be the unsung hero of the WRC. And, every time a competitor offered a greater challenge, Tommi and the Evo would step up their game and respond. Consider for evidence the 1998 season.

    After scoring yet another victory in the Rally Sweden, just one victory and one podium would be all Makinen would manage to muster over six rounds of the championship. Tommi was still in the championship picture, but very much looked to be on the outside looking in. Then the Evo V would be introduced and a string of three-straight victories would come late in the season. It had been a valiant comeback to lead the championship, but there was still one last round of the championship to go.

    It would all go wrong for Makinen very early on when he would slide wide in one of the tarmac stages severely bending his right rear wheel. His rally was over, so too, it appeared, was his championship hopes. Carlos Sainz focused on staying out of trouble and carried on stage by stage, inching ever-closer to the title. However, on the final stage, with only 300 meters to go to the finish, the Spaniard's Corolla would grind to a halt with irreparable engine failure. Amazingly, a third straight championship was Makinen's.

    The 1999 season would see a number of changes within the WRC. McRae would be off to Ford and a number of other competitors would make moves as well. Makinen was still with Ralliart driving the Evo, and though different iterations of the car continued to make their way onto the rally stages, it was clear the most successful days of the Mitsubishi were behind it. To win now required a driver capable of going to the absolute limits and staying there through all the twists, turns, jumps and depressions a rally season could offer.

    Starting out with two straight victories in the new Evo VI, Makinen would declare he was just such a man. Unfortunately, a disqualification and some more minor points-paying results over six rounds of the championship suggested reality was setting in. Tommi needed to wrangle absolutely everything the Lancer Evo could muster. In Rally New Zealand there would be signs of hope as victory would again be Tommi's. Sadly, this would be followed by two-straight retirements. He would recover to score victory in the Rally San Remo and then would be third in Rally Australia. Heading into the final event, the Rally Great Britain, Makinen would find himself the clear leader in the championship.

    The 1999 had been his worse of the four when it came to victories. This suggested the dominant days of the Evo were in their twilight. However, none of Makinen's other competitors could put together solid seasons in order to challenge. Despite two victories in the last two rounds of the championship by Richard Burns, Makinen would cruise to his fourth title, tying Juha Kankkunen for the most championships in rally. It would be a most remarkable achievement for a man who had started rallying late in life, and doing so with what was very much a production automobile first and foremost.

    The fourth World Championship had been a hard fight and was not won by a dominant Makinen. The Evo remained a potent challenger, but it was clear there were other cars that had the strength to challenge. Therefore, it remained highly improbable Makinen could make it five in a row.

    Tommi would prove otherwise taking victory in the Monte Carlo rally. He would then follow this up with a 2nd place in the Rally Sweden. Once again Makinen was leading in the championship standings. It was incredible. Unfortunately, it wouldn't last.

    Two straight retirements would be followed by three more retirements. The best result he would secure throughout the remainder of the season would come in the form of three 3rd place finishes. After four straight titles, Makinen would finish the 2000 season 5th in the championship points. All of sudden, the four-time World Champion looked just like any other rallying mortal.

    Mitsubishi and Ralliart would help his cause in 2001. Piloting the Evo 6.5, Tommi would look resurgent scoring yet another Rally Monte Carlo victory, his third in a row. This victory would be followed by two more victories, one coming in Portugal and the other in the Safari Rally. Six rallies remaining in the season and Makinen was in contention for an unprecedented fifth title.

    Rallliart would debut its Evo WRC for four of these remaining six rounds. Unfortunately, the new car would not come fully prepared and tested. As a result, three retirements in these last four rounds spelled the end to Makinen's title challenge. In the end, he would end up 3rd.

    Despite Tommi's and Ralliart's best efforts, the Evo was not as competitive as it once had been. Mitsubishi would be pulling back and this meant Makinen, after eight seasons behind the wheel of an Evo, would be looking for a new car and team.

    Tommi would find a new home with 555 Subaru World Rally Team. Subaru's Impreza had been his main rival for years while he drove the Evo. He was now going to see what life was like from that perspective.

    He would prove comfortable right from the very beginning winning an incredible 4th straight Rally Monte Carlo. It was the first round of the 2002 season and many were getting excited about Tommi's chances. Approaching 38 years of age, the opportunities for another World Championship would be far and few between. The victory in Monte Carlo would suggest Tommi had every chance in 2002. Sadly, the Fin would find himself parched for thirst just for a finish as the season wore on. Following the victory in Monte Carlo, Tommi would suffer seven retirements out of the next ten rounds of the championship. Makinen would go from having his name thrown around the championship talk to being the focus of questions about retirement.

    The 2003 season would be an important season in WRC. Two of the series' biggest names would be on the verge of retirement. There were rumors swirling around Colin McRae that he would be done by the end of the year. By the final stretch of the season, Tommi would not make it any secret. He would be retiring following the Rally GB.

    It would be an epic season that would see Petter Solberg and a certain Sebastien Loeb battle it out for the championship. Eventually, Solberg would win the championship in a thriller over Loeb. Makinen, adorned with gold shoes and a sign of thanks upon his Subaru Imprez, would be locked in one last duel with one of his biggest challengers, McRae. It appeared as though McRae, who was also retiring after the race, would snatch third place. However, with just miles remaining, the Citroen would suffer a flat tire. McRae and Derek Ringer would work frantically, however, it would not be enough to deter Makinen from earning one last podium finish.

    After nearly a decade driving a Mitsubishi Evo it would seem rather strange to see Makinen the last couple of years of his rally career behind the wheel of a Subaru. Still, Tommi would apply his all to the partnership, and the partnership would continue following his retirement.

    Not long after retiring from rallying, Makinen would partner with Subaru Technica International (STI). The purpose of this partnership was to build and prepare Subaru cars for Group N racing. Fittingly, Tommi would set up Tommi Makinen Racing in a brand new facility just outside of his native Puuppola. Having the reputation of its owner, the outfit would soon become a large supplier of the world's Group N products for Subaru.

    Tommi Makinen Racing continues to be a strong influence in rallying and has further added other services, such as a rally school, to foster the love and passion for rallying Tommi has for the sport. Though he continues his partnership with Subaru in this new endeavor, Tommi Makinen, or 'Mak-Attack', will always be best remembered as the Evolution master.

    Sources:
    'Driver: Tommi Makinen', (http://www.mitsubishi-motors.co.jp/motorsports/00wrc_e/DRIVER/makinen.html). Mitsubishi-Motors. http://www.mitsubishi-motors.co.jp/motorsports/00wrc_e/DRIVER/makinen.html. Retrieved 15 June, 2015.

    Hammond, Richard. 'Hammond's Icons: Mitsubishi Evo VI', (http://www.topgear.com/uk/photos/richard-hammond-icon-evo-2014-11-21). Top Gear BBC. http://www.topgear.com/uk/photos/richard-hammond-icon-evo-2014-11-21. Retrieved 15 June, 2015.

    'Company Info', (http://www.tommimakinen.net/company.htm). Tommi Makinen Racing. http://www.tommimakinen.net/company.htm. Retrieved 15 June, 2015.

    Wikipedia contributors, 'Tommi Mäkinen', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 January 2015, 02:29 UTC, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tommi_M%C3%A4kinen&oldid=641028933 accessed 16 June 2015
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