It’s 30 years since Hannu Mikkola won the Drivers’ World Rally Championship in a Group B Audi Quattro. To celebrate, Octane joined him on a closed stage in Argentina. Words Glen Waddington. Photography Stefan War.
‘Third, fourth, then top gear arrives before the first corner, but only just, and that corner didn’t look far away to start with. Oh. My. God. This is serious’
Just like putting on old gloves,’ says Hannu Mikkola, 1983 Drivers’ World Rally Champion, and winner of the 1983 Marlboro Rally Argentina. He says so in response to my question: ‘What’s it like to get back behind the wheel?’ And it’s good to know, as I’m strapped in next to him in the Group B Audi Quattro A2, held captive by a four-point harness, in the position (though not the shoes) once filled by Hannu’s co-driver of 13 years, Arne Hertz.
We’re at the top of a closed-road stage outside San Carlos de Bariloche in Patagonia, scene of the Argentine rally for that year only. Hannu’s holding the revs at the point where the noise becomes thick and constant, not the pop-pop-spit-brrraapp of an idling rally-tuned engine that still pumps out 350bhp or so from five turbocharged cylinders, even though that turbo has had its wick trimmed in the name of longevity. I peer out from under the brim of my helmet as the marshal, borrowed from the organisers of top Argentine classic rally 1000 Millas Sport, signals that it’s time to set off. It’s the point of no return, but who’d be nervous with this guy behind the wheel?
‘Grip was at a premium. Many of the roads in Patagonia back then were gravel rather than tarmac’
He selects first gear and we pull away with surprising gentleness. I know this is a demonstration run, not the real thing, but he’d promised 80% and, well, for a second or so, I begin to wonder. Then baddda-da-da-da-da- BLAMM, the tachometer finds 5000rpm then spins straight to 7000, 8000, Hannu snatches second and we’re back at 5000rpm momentarily, only for the fun to start again. Third, fourth, then top gear arrives before the first corner, but only just, and that corner didn’t look far away to start with. Oh. My. God. This is serious.
An involuntary whoop escapes me and a grin threatens to split my face in two. ‘Turbo lag,’ I think I hear Hannu say, but there’s no more turbo lag now, just the onslaught of power as the Audi erupts down the mountainside and Hannu makes measured movements at the wheel. He’s more forceful – almost brutal – with the clutch and accelerator, and makes stabbing inputs on the brake pedal to upset the Quattro’s naturally nose-led line through corners.
Yet the car seems to glide, even when Hannu hooks the inside front wheel into the rough; there’s a touch of the hovercraft about it. In every other way, this is an onslaught on the senses; petrol fumes assailing the nose, the yelp of transmission under duress, driveline vibration, exhaust blare and the unmistakably Audi thrum of five cylinders overlaid by lungfuls of whooshing turbo induction.
There’s a hairpin coming up; briefly I wonder how Arne Hertz would have announced it but we’re shedding speed and ratios and digging into the bend before I’ve completed the thought and Hannu is thru-penny-bitting his way round, turning-in, kicking the brakes to shove out the tail, then planting the throttle only for the nose to pull out again; brakes, throttle, brakes, throttle. I make a mental note to ask him later how steep the learning curve was when, after years of competing in rear-drive BDA-powered Ford Escort RSs, he made the leap to turbos, all-paw traction and a car whose size and weight distribution made it a less-than-natural basis for a rally weapon, especially on tarmac.
Yep, you’re right, that thought didn’t form fully at the time either, not with all this going on. My feet are hard-up against the toe-board, right hand clinging to the rollcage, left fingers threatening to tear the tweed trim (same as the road car’s incidentally) of the Recaro bucket. I’m only bracing against thegs, mind. Hannu’s a past master. In fact, scratch the word ‘past’. He’s still got it, no question.
We close in on the bottom of the stage, turn and head back up the hill. Gaining altitude is not a problem with the torque available in that 3000rpm band, and the ascent is just as vicious and addictively adrenaline-pumping as was the drop down. This is easily the most intense few kilometres of my life and, as Hannu forces the Audi at full tilt towards the finish, he turns towards me for a split-second, clocks the grin, smiles back and asks: ‘Again?’ We were doing 190km/h. What would you say?
It’s 30 years since Hannu Mikkola won the Drivers’ World Rally championship. He was driving for Audi, with the revised-spec Quattro A2 taking over from the first-evolution A1 rally car in May 1983, its first outing being the Tour de corse. That year is an important one: 1983 marked the beginning of Group B, the era of rallying that saw competition become so fierce that only the deaths of drivers and spectators could put an end to ever-more-intense technical development and spiralling power outputs. Audi had developed the Quattro as a Group 4 car, homologating four-wheel drive after a rule change in 1979 – the same year that Ford withdrew from rallying. Mikkola, together with co-driver Arne Hertz, had been very successful driving for Ford since 1969. Suddenly he was going to have to learn a new style of cornering.
‘In Ingolstadt in 1979, Jürgen Stockmar was Audi Sport MD; he had the first prototype 200-horsepower Quattro and we had half an hour in the forest, trying to understand it,’ says Mikkola, relaxing into a leather sofa with a glass of mineral water a couple of hours after our banzai run up and down the mountain.
His English is expressed with a percussive accent, and he has a calm, seemingly reserved air that’s punctured by regular smiles. ‘Compared to the Escort it was a big car. At the beginning I was not too convinced. I knew the rear-wheel-drive cars and thought this would be completely different. Audi thought they would homologate the car halfway through 1980, but everything was new, I thought they would be lucky to have it ready.
So I asked to be able to drive other cars but continue with Audi testing. Testing in 1980, driving in 1981. I had a two-year contract.’ That contract allowed Hannu to drive for Mercedes-Benz in World Championship rallies and also for David Sutton’s British-based Ford Escort team. It left little time for testing Audis in actual rally conditions. Team manager Walter Treser arranged for a Quattro development hack to act as the course car in the 1980 Algarve Rally, running ahead of the field – but in every respect except actually competing for a trophy, Hannu could treat this as a full-on rally. In the end, had Hannu been allowed to post his times, he would have won the event by 30 minutes! The Quattro was homologated for Group 4 on 1 January 1981.
‘The Quattro always had a tendency to understeer. It was a problem at first, I was used to driving with the throttle, no steering,’ recalls Hannu, bearing in mind his days with Ford, yet his experience while driving for Mercedes- Benz during 1980 helped in one respect.
‘I drove the 450SLC, it was an automatic, so I had to learn left-foot braking – had to change my thinking – which I hadn’t learnt in front-wheel- drive cars – but it was only a problem in extreme conditions. You had to keep the throttle down and feed the turbo, but brake heavily with the left foot to get the rear sliding, and keep on the throttle the whole time. It was two styles of driving. Even now, I never left-foot- brake when I’m driving an Escort.’
Mikkola was the most successful driver of his era, with 18 World Championship rally victories, easily surpassing his predecessor Björn Waldegård’s 11 (Hannu’s 12th came in the 1982 RAC), and not overtaken until Markku Alén scored his 19th in the 1988 RAC. His Championship-winning season was the first in Group B, and included victories in Sweden, Portugal, the 1000 Lakes – plus, of course, Argentina.
That rally marked an upturn for Audi following a blip in fortunes, with Quattro coupés finishing in first to fourth places, Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist, Michèle Mouton and Shekhar Mehta scoring 16 fastest times on special stages between them, and even a Group A Audi 80 finishing sixth. Audi’s only disappointment was local driver Rubén Luis di Palma rolling his Quattro out of contention on the second day of the four-leg event.
Audi had won the World Championship for Makes the previous year, but Walter Röhrl won the drivers’ title for Opel. For 1983 Audi was out to do the double with Roland Gumpert taking over from Reinhard Rode as team boss, more new works cars being constructed, three starters promised for every World Championship event that season, and three world class drivers on the books: Mikkola and Mouton had both signed for a third season, joined by Stig Blomqvist. Blomqvist and Mikkola would have to fight for team order status, and Mikkola’s four firsts and three seconds ultimately put him in top spot.
The season got off to a disappointing start. There was almost no snow in Monte Carlo, so the rear-wheel-drive Lancia 037s dominated, leaving the Quattros struggling on an event whose normally slippery surfaces would have made good odds. They would always struggle on tarmac as the driven front wheels fought with the steering forces, and the division of torque front and rear made the back tyres so much more difficult to unstick – hence Hannu’s thru-penny-bitting on our closed-road stage today. But Hannu then won in Sweden, and again in Portugal with Mouton close behind, around which time Lancia began development of the four-wheel-drive Delta S4, Ford started work on the RS200, and Austin Rover turned its attention to the MG Metro 6R4. Four-wheel drive was winning rallies.
Pundits predicted that Audi wouldn’t win the 1983 Safari Rally, yet Mikkola again finished second ahead of Mouton in spite of a failed water pump that took a helicopter-mounted team of mechanics to fix. But after two wins and two second places in four rallies, Audi’s luck changed, with only one finish in the next three, mostly due to technical issues and accidental damage. Mikkola might have won the Acropolis, having set many fastest times along with Blomqvist, but the bootlid became detached close to the finish – and that tail spoiler hides the oil cooler beneath it. He ground to a halt when the lubrication ran dry.
So fingers were crossed when five Quattro A2s lined up in Bariloche. The A2 spec meant a reduction in engine capacity to 2135cc from 2144cc, to homologate the car in the under- 3.0-litre class (the FIA applied a multiplication factor of 1.4 to turbocharged engines), with weight down by 100kg to around 1000kg and power up from 320bhp to 360bhp.
Audi’s main opposition again came from Lancia, still with 037s, driven this time by Markku Alén and Adartico Vudafieri. But now the tables were turned. Bariloche is a ski resort and the rally was held in early August – deep winter in the southern hemisphere. Grip, therefore, was at a premium, and many of the roads in Patagonia back then were gravel rather than tarmac. Alén set two fastest times; all the rest went to the Audi team. Hannu emerged leading the Drivers’ standings (and therefore becoming top dog in Gumpert’s eyes), while Audi edged closer to Lancia in the Championship for Makes.
Audi dominated again in Finland for the 1000 Lakes, though a broken forward differential on the first stage for Mikkola (plus, later, an engine fire, a blown turbo and a broken engine mounting) meant that Blomqvist led for much of it. In spite of some reports, Mikkola is adamant that there were no team orders: ‘Alén and Blomqvist were leading me by 30 seconds in Jämsä, with seven stages to go. But there we found a small hole in my car’s turbo pipe and then I was flying again. I passed Alén and then, on the second-to-last stage, Blomqvist. It was the best rally I have ever driven.’
Lancia took a 1-2-3-5 win in San Remo, Mikkola succumbing to another engine fire, and the Italians took the manufacturers’ trophy again. Audi was keener than ever to ensure a drivers’ championship for Mikkola, and on the RAC rally’s loose surfaces, the Quattro utterly outclassed the rear-wheel-drive opposition, with 55 stage wins for the Quattros and only seven going to other teams. Blomqvist won, Hannu never recovering from a first stage in which a lost front wheel was balanced by co-driver Arne Hertz sitting on the bootlid.
The season was over, Mikkola was World Champion, and Audi had missed out on its other goal by only two points.
The Quattro in which Mikkola won the 1983 Rally of Argentina was destroyed during testing (not by him) after the end of that season. For today it’s represented by the largely identical car in which Stig Blomqvist and Björn Cederberg won the 1984 Acropolis and Monte Carlo rallies (Audi won the Championship for Makes that year; Blomqvist took the drivers’ title). It shares its layout and basic mechanical principles with the production car, though many outer surfaces are composite rather than steel. Cleverly, Audi exploited homologation rules that allowed 20 evolution cars by building all its works rally contenders as such.
The ’1984 car is largely original, even much of the paintwork, though all the extended wheelarches have been replaced after being battered over the years by flying gravel. After that magic carpet experience up and down the hill, it came as quite a shock when Hannu steered us back off the tarmac and into our parc fermé, where Audi’s engineers were looking after the car. There’s barely any give in the suspension and it tip-toes far, far more roughly at parking pace, making you realize just how hard the springs and dampers are forced to work on the stage.
And that leather sofa is a far more refined place to find out a bit more about the 1983 World Rally Champion. So, Hannu, why so many successful Scandinavian drivers?
‘The Finns are good at sports you do alone,’ he says of a country that’s never figured highly in international football. ‘It’s easy to find good roads and ice to drive on, and the Finnish Rally Championship is always popular. It’s hard to win because there are always ten other great drivers taking part.’ Think Aaltonen, Airikkala, Alén – and that’s only the As…
‘A favourite event has always been the 1000 Lakes – it’s our rally, and to be a good Finnish driver you have to win it. I’m proud to have won it in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.’ He’s also proud of his achievements in the RAC, having competed on it eight times in three cars, scoring four victories and four second places.
Ever magnanimous, Hannu is quick to point out his 13-year partnership with co-driver Arne Hertz. ‘I saw him more than my wife!’ he says. ‘He was always very calm. A co-driver doesn’t win the rallies, but he can lose them. At those speeds, you really have to trust them.’
And having just partnered Hannu on a winding, narrow road with a sheer drop to one side, a rockface to the other and condors circling hungrily above, I can vouch for the need for calm. As for Hannu, has the juxtaposition of massive speed and extreme topography ever caused any trepidation? ‘You have to find the balance and drive in the way you are not scared,’ he says. ‘You can have a near moment, but you don’t remember them. You don’t count the near happenings…’
So to win takes nerve. And in spite of all those individual rally victories, the World Championship came only that once, with Audi, after so many years mastering the Ford Escorts. How did it feel?
‘My character is to win the rally then think of the next. But later it’s good to think you’re on the list of World Champions.’
Hannu Mikkola, master of the rally stage – and master of understatement.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1984 AUDI QUATTRO A2
MAX TORQUE 289lb ft (detuned to 270lb ft) @ 4400rpm
TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual, four-wheel drive
STEERING Rack and pinion, power-assisted
SUSPENSION Front and rear: MacPherson struts, coil springs. Front anti-roll bar
BRAKES Vented discs
WEIGHT 1000kg (dry, approx)
PERFORMANCE Top speed 120mph. 0-60mph 5.0sec (est)
Left and below Audi’s mechanics check over the Quattro thoroughly before letting us loose – industrial-strength under-bonnet plumbing and oil-cooler in bootlid clearly visible; battling the mud in Bariloche 30 years ago, en route to victory.
Left and right Quattro is in its element kicking up dust on gravel, and wet weather eases its traction surplus on tarmac; amber light warns of low oil pressure; Octane’s Glen Waddington prepares for a very quick descent.
‘The ascent is just as vicious as the drop down. this is easily the most intense few kilometres of my life’
‘You had to keep the throttle down and feed the turbo, but brake heavily with the left foot to get the rear sliding’
‘Third, fourth, then top gear arrives before the first corner, but only just, and that corner didn’t look far away to start with. Oh. My. god. this is serious’
CALLING THE WITNESS
Bariloche resident and lawyer Gerardo Viegener met up with the rally driver who scared him as a spectator 30 years ago…
‘It’s a pleasure to meet Hannu, to see in person the man who scared me so much back in ’83, when the Audis came to Bariloche. We used to have Renault 18s here then, 2.0-litres with maybe 150, 160bhp for rallying. Then came the Audis, so fast, so loud.
‘It was very cold. I had friends who were car fanatics, we all booked time off work. We took a small boat out onto the lake and listened for the cars. We heard them coming and went into the shore, stood in the trees by the road. First Blomqvist then Hannu came past, so fast, so close, almost off-roading. We dived back into the trees. And even though it was a gravel road and wet, the tyres squealed on the corners. Hannu, how did you do that?’
‘I don’t know,’ responds Hannu. Then, with a smile: ‘I was too busy to listen.’
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