One of the best Finnish motorsport clips doesn’t show any driving. I’m talking about the clip showing a taciturn Tommi Mäkinen receiving a surprise phone call at a British hotel lobby in late November, 1998.
The 1998 Network Q Rally of Great Britain was the ’98 WRC season-ender, and Mäkinen was still battling for crucial championship points when his Evo IV lost a rear wheel on stage 6 after hitting an oil slick and veering into a concrete block. Mäkinen’s retirement effectively handed the ’98 championship to Carlos Sainz, who only needed to finish better than fifth and proceeded to drive casually, sometimes with just “20% effort”, giving confident soundbites to interviewers.
With no realistic hope for the title, Mäkinen was soon in plain clothes at the hotel, talking to the Finnish national TV about how Sainz was clearly the 1998 champion. The mood isn’t great, as the interviewer asks Mäkinen how he’s feeling and Mäkinen responds all hope was lost on the first day.
Then, the mobile phone in Mäkinen’s pocket starts ringing. Mäkinen tells the interviewer he has to take the call, and perhaps they should re-do the interview bit a little later. But as we watch Mäkinen on the phone, the camera still rolling, it’s clear something is afoot. Incredulous, he goes “What? What?” and then repeats the unbelievable news he has just been told.
Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya have suffered a heart-wrenching breakdown less than half a kilometer before the finish on the last stage of the rally. The stricken Corolla has puttered to a halt and cannot be started. Even pushing the car to the finish is impossible. There will be no championship points for Sainz – he’s worse off than Mäkinen. Spanish end-of-year Toyota sales fall off a cliff.
You can see the huge relief on Mäkinen’s face turn into victorious laughter as the call goes on. “The game is clear”, he says, and tells the interviewer in a brilliantly understating fashion, “Well, it looks like we’re not going anywhere just yet.” And with textbook Rally English, Mäkinen announces in the lobby, “Carlos, his car get to fire. They can not run it anymore.” Mäkinen, who was ready to pack up and leave just minutes earlier, is now the 1998 world champion.
In the end, it’s Richard Burns who drives to first place, securing a victory for Mitsubishi after all. Juha Kankkunen takes second and Bruno Thiry third place. But Mäkinen’s initially impossible-looking championship win was the stuff of legend, still worth a chuckle over 20 years later.