Tommi Mäkinen, a legendary figure in the world of motorsport, is a name that resonates with speed, precision, and sheer driving excellence. Born on February 26, 1964, in Puuppola, Finland, Mäkinen’s remarkable career in rallying has earned him a place among the sport’s all-time greats. With four consecutive World Rally Championship (WRC) titles from 1996 to 1999, Mäkinen’s dominance behind the wheel of some of the most iconic rally cars has left an indelible mark on the history of motorsport. His extraordinary talent, unwavering determination, and a deep connection to his Finnish roots have not only made him a celebrated champion but also a respected mentor and team principal in the world of rallying. Let’s take a spin into the legacy of one of the greatest rally racing drivers in motorsports’ history.
Born in Puupola, a city near Jyväskylä, Finland, Tommi Mäkinen has been nothing short of remarkable, starting from his early days as Finland’s national ploughing champion at just 18 years old. Translating his tractor expertise on his father’s farm into the realm of rally racing, Mäkinen quickly emerged as one of the top racers in that time. His impressive racing career saw him clinch an impressive four consecutive world championship titles from 1996 to 1999, securing a total of 24 race victories on the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) stage. Among these triumphs were five wins in Finland and four in Monte Carlo, solidifying his status as a true rallying superstar.
“No, no no no no. It’s a young man’s job!” – Tommi Mäkinen on whether or not he’d like to get back to racing.Source: Mäkinen’s Interview with Top Gear
Notable Races & Wins
Throughout his legendary racing career, Mäkinen attained numerous and notable wins that defined his legacy as one of the GOATs of rally racing. By 1988, he achieved his first rally win in the Group N Finnish Rally Championship driving a Lancia Delta HF 4WD. One win wasn’t enough as Mäkinen set his eyes on the worldwide level. Mäkinen’s next win came in 1994 when he drove a Ford Escort RS Cosworth to secure his first world rally win. Mäkinen’s next journey in rallying took a somewhat unconventional path, as he secured his first full-time manufacturer seat in a Group A formula Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution alongside former Group A rally champion Kenneth Eriksson from Sweden in 1995. Despite this relatively late start, his success in the sport quickly became apparent, unfolding with remarkable spontaneity thereafter.
In 1996, Tommi Mäkinen’s triumphant victory at the prestigious Safari Rally set the stage for a dominant championship lead, which he further solidified by clinching the title in Australia, surpassing his long-time rival, Subaru’s Colin McRae. This marked the beginning of an impressive streak as Mäkinen proceeded to secure every drivers’ title for Mitsubishi from 1996 to 1999. During this period, the Mitsubishi team, with Mäkinen and the promising young Briton Richard Burns among its driver lineup, also achieved their solitary manufacturers’ championship win in 1998. In the year 2000, despite commencing the season with a victory at the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally in January, Mäkinen finally relinquished his grip on the championship title, yielding to a new champion and fellow Finn, Marcus Grönholm. During this period, Mitsubishi commemorated his past title successes by producing a ‘Tommi Mäkinen edition’ of the road version of the Lancer Evolution VI, featuring a distinctive front bumper design, and some models even sported a red and white paint scheme closely mirroring Mäkinen’s iconic rally car.
Tommi Mäkinen’s partnership with Mitsubishi extended until the conclusion of the 2001 season, during which he secured a third-place finish in the standings. Notably, his competitors now included Richard Burns and Colin McRae, who had moved on to drive for Subaru and Ford, respectively. However, before parting ways with Mitsubishi, the team’s debut of their first-ever World Rally Car at the San Remo Rally was marred by difficulties. Both Mäkinen and his teammate, Freddy Loix, struggled with the new car’s performance. Tragically, Mäkinen’s crash on the treacherous mountain roads of Corsica during the following round had devastating consequences, as it led to a severe injury for his co-driver, Mannisenmäki, effectively signaling the end of Mäkinen’s career at the top level of rallying. For the remaining events in Australia (with Timo Hantunen as co-driver) and Great Britain, Mäkinen was forced to adapt to substitute co-drivers. Ultimately, his withdrawal from the latter event played a pivotal role in assisting Richard Burns in securing the championship.
The Final Race
In 2002, Tommi Mäkinen made a transition to the Subaru World Rally Team, managed by Prodrive, taking over the seat left vacant by Richard Burns, who had opted to drive for the works Peugeot 206 WRC alongside Marcus Grönholm in his title defense. This shift resulted in one last, memorable victory in Mäkinen’s illustrious career, which occurred at the 2002 Monte Carlo Rally. Here, a technical violation committed by Sébastien Loeb, a rising star at the time and the apparent on-the-road winner, provided Mäkinen with an unexpected opportunity to outshine the Frenchman. Unfortunately, Mäkinen’s performance experienced a decline, and he was unable to add any more world titles to his already impressive résumé. He retired from the sport after the 2003 season, ending his WRC career on the podium with third place on that season’s final rally, Rally Great Britain.
Beyond the Driver Seat
Despite Tommi Mäkinen’s retirement from the racetrack, Mäkinen continued to make a bigger impact in rally racing from the sidelines. In 2004, he founded his own company called Tommi Mäkinen Racing Oy Ltd, with the goal to prepare rally vehicles and provide assistance to drivers. Aside from his own company establishment, Mäkinen also became the team principal of Toyota Gazoo Racing in 2016. Behind his leadership and first hand experience, Mäkinen helped the team secure Toyota’s first World Rally Championship in 2018 – their first manufacturers’ title since 1999.
“The longer wheelbase cars – [..] that was the moment when everyone changed their driving style, going with far less sliding, because this was the fastest way. We have continued with a neater, understeering car because this is still faster.” – Tommi Mäkinen on how new cars have changed the driving style in WRC.Source: Mäkinen’s Interview with Top Gear
Long Lasting Legacy
Tommi Mäkinen’s name will forever shine as a beacon of Finnish excellence and rallying prowess like no other. From his humble beginnings as a ploughing champion in Puuppola to his meteoric rise to become a four-time World Rally Champion, Mäkinen’s journey is a testament to relentless dedication and determination. His legacy extends beyond the driver’s seat, with his impact felt as a team principal and mentor in the rallying world. As a rallying icon, he not only left a long lasting impression on the sport but also inspired generations of racers to pursue their dreams with the same drive and passion. Tommi Mäkinen’s story is an excellent reminder that with talent, hard work, and the spirit of a true champion, one can conquer the most challenging of terrains and reach the highest level of success.