A Flying Finn remembered

David Hobbs

As Mikko Hirvonen lines up for the first stage of the Rally of Great Britain this morning motivated by the prospect of a first World Rally Championship title, he may also draw inspiration from the remarkable efforts of one of his compatriots, Pentti Airikkala.

One of the original and these days mythical, 'Flying Finns', Airikkala claimed his one and only WRC win on this event in 1989, beating the likes of Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Ari Vatanen as well as Malcolm Wilson, the current boss of the Ford M-Sport team that runs Hirvonen and his team-mate, Jari-Matti Latvala.

Airikkala's death from cancer just weeks before the event has robbed the sport of a figure regarded by many as from the same mould as Colin McRae, Henri Toivonen and Roger Clark - drivers who you could guarantee would give their all in spite of the odds. He gained huge popularity amongst British fans in the 1970s and '80s, never more so than when he was at the wheel of a Vauxhall Chevette - the car he drove to the 1979 British Rally Championship title.

These days, Latvala is probably the closest to Airikkala in terms of style, which perhaps is understandable as the Ford driver was a pupil at Airikkala's Left-Foot Braking rally school in Berkshire. However, if Hirvonen plays his cards right this weekend he could become the seventh Finn to win the WRC and in doing so, deny France's Sebastien Loeb a sixth successive world title. If ever he needed extra motivation, then perhaps the memory of his countryman 20 years ago in an unfancied Mitsubishi Galant will do the trick.

* The Rally of Great Britain runs from 23-25 October. See WRC website for full coverage