Just occasionally, you get to meet a driving God. And one of those I will always remember was Hannu Mikkola, who sadly passed away last month aged 78 after a battle with cancer. Because Hannu was probably the person who got me into cars in the first place.
You see, most kids in the 1980s spent Saturday nights watching the Dukes of Hazzard and fantasising about Daisy Duke. I also loved seeing stickered-up cars flying through the air, but instead that was thanks to Top Gear Rally Report and specifically Hannu Mikkola: the winner of the first RAC Rally I properly remember, in 1982.
Top Gear Rally Report used to occupy a prime evening slot when the RAC Rally was on, and while most of my contemporaries were out sniffing glue, I was at home equally glued to the spectacle of William Woollard in his trench coat standing in the corner of a desolate field talking to Mikkola. Normally in the rain and the dark.
But I wasn’t the only one with such an obsession. Rally drivers were such folk heroes back in the 80s that even cult band Half Man Half Biscuit featured Mikkola in their 1989 song “Architecture, morality, Ted and Alice”.
“The wonderful dexterity of Hannu Mikkola/makes me want to shake hands with the whole of Finland,” intoned lead man Nigel Blackwell (before later screaming “but the nauseating bashfulness of early Diana/makes me want to set fire to commemorative tea towels.”)
Hannu himself didn’t actually find out about this eclectic tribute until many years later, but said he was very flattered. You can listen to it right here, if you’re so inclined.
A lot of the fascination was also about the car, of course. My dad drove a 1983 Audi 80 GL, which I fondly imagined was closely related to Hannu’s Quattro. The four rings on the steering wheel looked the same, after all. So did the numbers on the speedometer. And in my imagination, the snarl wasn’t dissimilar.
So, it seemed insane to behold our family car – or something vaguely similar to it – tearing up forests in the dead of night on this epic annual road trip across the country that was the RAC Rally. The Audis and their rivals were filthy, beaten up, even missing entire wheels sometimes. But they carried on, scrubbed up miraculously well for the restarts the following day, and were viscerally genuine. The Dukes of Hazzard was just a story, the jumps a mere publicity stunt. I was genuinely stumped as to why people would rather watch Daisy than Hannu.
Rally cars and their drivers were instead firmly rooted in the real world. Mikkola spent the best part of his later career driving a Mazda 323, actually leading the 1988 RAC Rally (aged 40) with the little Mazda before being blinded by the low sun over a crest in Yorkshire and going off.
Yet despite that bitter disappointment he was the perfect gentleman when interviewed on Top Gear Rally Report immediately afterwards in the middle of the forest, surrounded by inquisitive fans popping up from out of nowhere like meerkats.
I really didn’t know much about the country back then, but Hannu made me want to shake hands with the whole of Finland. Later on, I was lucky enough to meet him on a couple of occasions and felt exactly the same each time. God speed Hannu. And thank you for being the quintessential ‘flying Finn’.
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.
Photographs courtesy of Audi