Deeply sad news that Pentti Airikkala has passed away at such an untimely age. I never met him, but paid to watch him drive many times in the 1980s when he was at his pomp.
Airikkala was one of those brilliantly-skilled, yet underdog and mildly-maverick Finns that I’m not sure front-line rally sport has a place for any more.
Rallying was still close to its amateur roots back then and gifted drivers who could cobble together some cash and persuade a rally team manager that he might bring in a good result, and even better a front cover in Autosport, could wangle a drive in a top car.
He also concentrated on what he knew best — flying between the trees, sometimes into them — and avoided tarmac events like the Monte and Corsica. When I was dabbling in road rallying as a student, Airikkala’s name on the entry list for the RAC rally or, better still, my local event the Welsh Rally, was always an invitation to break out the OS Maps and venture into deepest Wales to watch the maestro at work.
Airikkala also became a household name as a regular competitor in the BBC’s annual Rallysprint (anyone out there remember it?), which pitted 1980s rally drivers against race drivers in a thinly-disguised demolition derby, suitably sponsored by Austin-Rover. Pentti was invariably the most committed and most sideways on both gravel and tarmac.Do I remember him torturing an MG Maestro at Donnington with a virtuoso display of left-foot braking that left racers like Nigel Mansell chasing his tyre smoke?
Famously Airikkala also had the fortitude to grapple with, and tame, cars that never should have been rally winners. Notably there was the gargantuan Nissan 240RS, which was well-suited to endurance events like the Safari, but less so to sprints like the 1000 Lakes, yet he still campaigned it with his usual verve.
He also had the phenomenal car control to make the most of the rear-drive Mitsubishi Lancer with its peaky, early-80s, turbo power-delivery and take it to a podium in the 1982 1000 Lakes. Airikkala was probably the most successful driver to campaign the tricky Lancer. In fact a quick look at his WRC results show that the Finnish Grand Prix, with all its speed, committment and 100mph yumps, was his favourite event, which says everything you need to know about the man.
Seeing this, for the 1983 Lakes, Lancia installed him in a mid-engined Rally 037, not a car designed for flinging around on damp Scandinavian gravel, and he scored a spectacular 5th overall. Remarkably, Airikkala had to wait a long time for his first major win, the 1989 RAC in a four-wheel drive Galant, which came 16 years after his first start in top-line rallying.
Pentti, we salute you.