The name Tommi Mäkinen will undoubtedly evoke memories in any 1990’s motorsport fan, as the Finnish Rally driver dominated the World Rally Championship over the second half of the decade. With four world titles and 24 victories to his name, Tommi is the second most successful driver in WRC history and each of his Championship victories came behind the wheel of an Öhlins shod Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer EVO.
Whilst it may have scaled down its activities back in 2010, petrol heads will know Ralliart as the high-performance and motorsport division of Mitsubishi, primarily involved in the company’s rally and off-road interests. Set up by Andrew Cowan in 1983, Ralliart Europe first entered the World Rally Championship full-time in 1989, finishing fourth overall in the manufacturer standings after enjoying two wins with drivers Mikael Ericsson and Pentti Airkkala.
After several years of development and success, Ralliart first established themselves as the dominant Rallying force they have since become synonymous with in 1996. With Tommi at the wheel of the Lancer Evolution III, the pairing proved almost unbeatable that season as the flying Finn took five wins to secure the title in Australia, two rounds early.
Continuing that form with the introduction of the Lancer Evolution IV in 1997 and latterly the Evolution V in 1998 and VI in 1999, the pairing won a further three driver Championships as well as taking Mitsubishi’s only manufacturer title in 1998. One man who witnessed the Mäkinen’s dominance first hand is current Öhlins Sales Technician for UK and Benelux, Paul ‘Millsy’ Mills…
“I had always been into cars, and rallying was my passion so I knew I always wanted to work in the sport. Initially I was a mechanic at a Ford dealer in Birmingham whilst I also spent a lot of time co-driving in night rallying, which was something that was particularly popular in the 1970’s and 80’s. Through my connections within that sport, I was lucky enough to then get an interview at Mitsubishi Ralliart Europe, which was based in the UK in Rugby. They hired me and my role from then on was to build the rally cars they used. At that time, they used a few different suspension manufacturers but I remember we first tested Öhlins in 1993 at a gravel test in Arganil, Portugal and the difference was immediate. Öhlins transformed the whole car and from then on we never looked back!
Back then, Andy Dawson was also a mechanic at Ralliart (we actually now work together again in the British Superbike paddock!) and he was trained in Sweden to look after the shocks. When he left Ralliart to work on the Öhlins products for the Volvo Touring Car team, he trained me so that I was then able to continue the suspension for the team.”
Just like a motorcycle, where perhaps the suspension is a bit more of an obvious factor, it is just as vital in rallying as Paul explains “When we first moved to Öhlins, it completely changed how the drivers managed each event. Some stages were very rough and whilst they would go as fast as they could on the smoother stages, when things got a bumpy most drivers would be a little conservative in order to look after the car – but we found that the Öhlins products could take a lot more which meant our guys could drive more stages ‘flat out’!
As with all motorsport, testing was important and most of the time we would test in the same area that the rally would actually take place, so we would be able to set the car up ahead of time and then hit the ground running at the actual race event.
The equipment Tommi used during those dominant years was built bespoke for the Lancer Evolution’s, but he used the same equipment as the other drivers at the time so he never had anything special just for him. It was a fantastic time in my career and being part of that team and winning four world championship titles was a real highlight for me. It was always a lot of fun and I remember we used to call Tommi, along with the Öhlins Engineer Peka Siltanen and the Mitsubishi test driver Lasse Lampi the Finnish Mafia! To be fair those two test drivers really helped make that car the way it was an were integral to the development and ultimately the Championship crowns”
Paul has remained with Öhlins ever since, “I remained with Ralliart until 2007 when Mitsubishi closed our department. After a phone call from Andy, who was then working in the Racing Department in MotoGP, I switched over to two wheels and have been in motorbikes ever since! Initially it was with Pramac Ducati in MotoGP but after four years of travelling the world I decided to head back to the UK and moved over to the British Superbike paddock where I’ve remained since.
Last year I became the Öhlins Sales Technician for the UK and Benelux, which is a lot more focused on the commercial side of the business compared to what I’m used to. It’s a big learning curve for me but it’s something I’m really enjoyed and I’m meeting a lot of our current employees, looking for new dealers to sell both two and four wheel products and making lots of friends along the way!”
Whilst Mäkinen’s last title victory was in 1999, he remained with Mitsubishi until the end of the 2001 season. Although the two were never able to repeat the success of the 1996-99 season, it spawned a generation of motorsport fans with video games and limited edition commemorative road going versions of the Lancer Evolution VI.