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RAC Rally 1989: Pentti’s last-gasp win

Submitted by on October 15, 2009

700_airikkalaThe death of Pentti Airikkala reminded me of the time I cheered him on to an historic and hugely popular maiden world championship rally victory in one of the sport’s toughest events: the Lombard RAC Rally.

The date was November 23 1989 and Airikkala, who was something of a darling among British rally fans – the Finn had scored numerous wins in the highly competitive domestic series – and had made the UK his home, finally stood on the top step of a WRC podium on the occasion of his 33rd cap. He had added his name to an exclusive list of fellow Scandinavians, that breed of fearless – and uber-talented – drivers who made sliding a rally car between the trees look easy.

For Airikkala, however, it had been 16 years before he too could taste the winner’s champagne. After bit-part campaigns with Vauxhall/Opel, Ford and Toyota during which he scored just five top-three finishes, including a best of second place in the 1976 1000 Lakes, the then 44-year-old must have been beginning to wonder if his day would ever come.

The foundations for this historic Airikkala win were laid during the 1989 British Rally Championship season during which the Finn drove a four-wheel-drive, turbocharged Mitsubishi Galant VR-4. As a thank-you for his efforts on UK soil, the factory Mitsubishi squad offered him its second car alongside Ari Vatanen for the final round of the 1989 WRC – the Lombard RAC.

Heading into the British forests that he knew well, Airikkala would face a full complement of factory rivals – both drivers and cars. There was Vatanen, the 1981 world champion, and a quartet of Toyota Celicas driven by former double world champion Juha Kankkunen, Spanish up-and-comer Carlos Sainz, rapid Swede Kenneth Eriksson and reigning British champion David Llewellin. Add in three Mazda 323s pedalled by former world champions Hannu Mikkola, Timo Salonen and rally winner Ingvar Carlsson, and the number 19 Mitsubishi Galant would have its work well and truly cut out.

Once the five-day marathon got under way, Airikkala found his rhythm and kept a keen eye on the battling Toyotas at the front. As they fell by the wayside – only Sainz remained at the head of the field come the final day – Airikkala upped his pace and took fastest time on all but one of the penultimate day’s stages. He closed on Sainz, only for the Spaniard to break a driveshaft on the final morning and slip behind his Mitsubishi rival.

For Airikkala, it was simply a matter of reeling off the final stages to secure that maiden WRC win. And it was with characteristic good humour that Pentti responded to the realisation: “I feel very sorry for Carlos, for I know how he would have felt [Airikkala had lost the 1976 RAC Rally at the 11th hour after car failure]. Well, perhaps not very sorry!”

Henry Hope-Frost

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