Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Obituary: Pentti Airikkala

Pentti Airikkala, who died last month after battling illness for several years, was one of the most sideways of the Flying Finns and the one who loved this country the most.

He burst onto the scene in 1976, tackling the British Rally Championship in an outdated Mark One Escort and serious discomforting old stagers like Roger Clark. He was able to upgrade to an RS1800 for the RAC Rally and put in a barnstorming performance to lead the rally before mechanical problems and eventual disqualification.

He then signed for Vauxhall to pilot their new 'Escort beater' the Chevette 2300HS. The project never really got going properly and despite some good performances his only success was to be crowned the 1979 British Open Rally Champion. 1980 promised the improved Chevette HSR and a shot at the European crown, but unfortunately the money ran out and he only ended up competing in Scandinavian rounds.

The rest of the 1980s saw Airikkala competing in various cars in Britain, Sweden and Finland. However as his star sank the drives became harder to find and by 1988 he was left to fund his own way in the British Open in a Mitsubishi Starion Turbo. Despite not having the most competitive car he almost won the series.

Back to being a driver the team managers wanted to know again he was given a drive in a Group N Mitsubishi Galant for the next Open. Up against a young Colin McRae in a Cossie he nursed the heavy car to the Group N title- being careful not to use the brakes in the last mile so he could be sure of stopping at the end of the stage.

His reward for this was a full blown Group A Galant for the RAC, the rally he'd been leading 13 years earlier. Lancia, who'd dominated the season, were saving their Lira and staying away so the Japanese teams, Mitsubishi and Toyota, who were the favourites.

Despite being second fiddle to Ari Vatanen, it was Airikkala who was clearly the quicker driver. The Toyota Celica GT-fours made the early running, but once Dai Llewellin and Yuha Kankunen had hit trouble Airikkala found himself second to their new Spanish hot shot Carlos Sainz.

Both drivers were looking for their first WRC win and the last day began with the young Spaniard over a minute ahead of the old stager. Airikkala had his suspension lowered for the fast Yorkshire stages and started reeling the Toyota in, but not fast enough. I was spectating in the Woodyard at Dalby when the drama happened. On the first pass through Airikkala looked like he'd taken a couple of seconds out of Sainz's lead, but not enough to win. The second time the cars came through though something was clearly wrong with the Toyota. A half shaft had broken and it was Airikkala who took the win, at 44 years old the third oldest driver to win a WRC round.

His last season was spent thrashing the ungainly Sapphire Cosworth 4X4 on a few international rallies. He then retired to run his well respected driving school, whose pupils included the World Champions Colin McRae and Richard Burns.