With no live rallying to entertain us at the moment, Motorsport Week’s rallying doyen Jerry Williams casts his mind back to some of the best drivers he has got to know over the past 35 years of his reporting on the World Rally Championship…
Markku Made a Mark on Me…
Markku Alén has always been a Finn to be admired. To me he seemed excitable, voluble; more Italian than Finnish and no doubt this was a result of his long-term career with Fiat and Lancia. In fact he became so Italian’ised that I recall one journo telling me how they went to Milan and then out to dinner…
Markku was served his starter and looked at it suspiciously. Eventually, he spoke:
“Where is prosciutto?” he growled to the waiter, who stood wringing his hands. After all, this was the great and venerated Markku Alén, who loved prosciutto. Eventually the waiter went out on his scooter and got some from another restaurant..!
Twice I came up against Markku, seriously: once pre-RAC Rally in Italy at a garden party with Cesare Fiorio and once, again pre-RAC, in Scotland’s Eskdalemuir forest. As he never tired of reminding anyone who would listen he had been a World Rally Champion in 1978, when it was just the Drivers’ Cup and – more important – again in 1986… For 11 days that is until the results were annulled with Peugeot being excluded for various technical faults, making Toyota’s Juha Kankkunen champion.
Still, Alén had scored five podiums and that 1986 loss rankled with him ever more. He always reckoned – rightly – that he had been a world No 1. Overall, in his career, Markku scored 19 wins from 129 WRC events. He also held the record for stage wins at 801 until Seb Loeb overtook him in 2011.
He had been born into a motorsport family, with his dad being a racing driver and Finnish champion at ice racing. Alén Jr. was into the sport from an early age. But one of his most famous early drives was on the 1971 1000 Lakes, when he took a Volvo 142 to third place.
He drove that car for three seasons and then attracted the Fiat and Ford factory teams.
In 1973, the FIA World Rally Championship was formed and Alén notably came second on the 1000 Lakes to Timo Mäkinen’s Escort RS1600. By 1974 he had teamed up with Ilkka Kivimäki and won driver contracts with both Fiat (WRC) and Ford (British Open Rally Championship, the then top rated series after the WRC), taking his first win on the Welsh Rally, in an Escort RS1600. He was also an official Fiat driver with a suitably huge salary, taking podiums in Portugal, Finland and the Olympus, in the USA. He remained with Fiat in 1975 and 1976, winning the 1000 Lakes twice and then, in 1977, Portugal. Then in 1978 he took the FIA Drivers Cup.
Alén was born in Helsinki in 1951 and expressed an early interest in motorsport; probably inherited from his ice racing champion father. He started in 1969, driving aRenault 8 Gordini to an amazing ninth on the 1000 Lakes with co-driver Juhani Toivonen, who stayed with him until 1973. Their cars were many and varied; firstly a Renault 8 Gordini, followed by a Sunbeam Imp, a Sunbeam 9000 and then an Opel Rallye Kadett. Then, in 1971, Alén got that Volvo 142 for rallying, scoring that astonishing third place on the 1000 Lakes in 1971 and again in 1972.
His good performances over three years brought interest from Fiat and Ford and on the 1973 RAC Rally he finished third with an Escort RS 1600, despite rolling on the first day and dropping to last. By now his co-driver was Kivimäki, with whom he forged a long-term partnership. They then took their first ever ERC win on the Welsh Rally.
And now victories began to come more frequently and in 1975 he took in six WRC events, in a Fiat 124 with podiums in Portugal, Finland and USA. In 1976 he had the new Fiat 131 Abarth, finally winning the 1000 Lakes Rally for the first time and two years later he took the drivers and manufacturers titles for Fiat, although the drivers’ title back then was only called the Cup for Rally Drivers. He used both the Fiat 131 and Lancia Stratos. He won four times and scored four podiums.
In 1984 his most notable wins were on Corsica and San Remo, now at the wheel of the Group B Lancia 037, both against the new and mighty Audi Quattro. But at the end of the year the 037 was replaced by the monstrous 4wd Delta S4, with which he came second on the RAC Rally to Henri Toivonen, in a similar car.
It was in 1986 that he fell afoul of the FIA rule book when his car was declared illegal by the San Remo organisers. Later that was annulled but the results were also excluded from the championship, costing Alén his FIA World Rally Champion status, a decision he has railed against ever since. He’d been champion for 11 days!
As a protest, he boycotted the 1987 Monte-Carlo.
From that point on he gradually tailed off into semi-retirement. But he came back on the 1000 Lakes, in 2001 for his 50th birthday, finishing a respectable 16th in a Focus WRC. There were also various rallycross outings and two attempts at the Paris -Dakar. He even tried his hand at Le Mans, touring cars and ice racing. But essentially, his career was over.
Both times I met him turned out to be instructive experiences. The occasion in Italy came about in the late 1970s and we already had an idea of what he could do from that amazing second place on the 1000 Lakes in a Volvo 142 of all cars. God, he even won five stages!
Anyway, we were invited to Italy by Paul Ormond, then the PR for Lancia in the UK. It involved an executive jet from Heathrow (Christ knows how much that cost!), a buffet lunch in the garden and then a trip out to the Fiat/Lancia test track at La Mandria. There, we were treated in turn to a spin round the track driven either by Alén or that very capable test driver Gorgio Pianta.
I got Alén…
At the end of our run he said: “is coming good, eh?” and I said, maybe foolishly: “Not bad Markku, nor bad at all.”
“Hah” he snorted. “So we go again.” Clearly, I’d insulted him.
This time, at a difficult off-camber right hand bend halfway round he seemed to deliberately ping the car off the left-hand guard rail. It shot back on a perfect line for the next straight. How he did that I have no idea. It must have been something he had practised before.
Anyway, we dawdled back and he said: “Is good coming this time eh?”
“Yes, Markku, yes, very, very good!” The mechanics looked somewhat askance at the side of the car. Alén didn’t seem to notice..!
The next time I went in a car with him was another press trip, this time pre-RAC Rally. We had the ex-Datapost plane from Biggin Hill up to Cumbria, then a coach to Eskdalemuir. The base for the Lancia test was a farmhouse on the edge of the forest. Alén’s gleaming Delta S4 looked totally incongruous, sitting in a dirty cowshed. There was an AGIP tanker and numerous glam Lancia management cars dotted around the farmyard.
By the time we got there Markku was in a stinking mood. The Delta was not set up to his liking. But much more important was that a seat on the plane had been reserved for him on the return journey. However, it had been taken by Martin Brundle, brought along by one of the journos, Russell Bulgin, as I remember.
Now, no-one was going to turf a Formula 1 driver off the plane so that meant Markku was not flying back as he’d expected. He would have to drive a road car. It brought on an instant dark mood.
“No rides for anyone is coming today,” I overheard him snapping. “Car is shit. I not drive.”
So we all trooped off down the road for coffee and cakes. But I had promised the Daily Mail’s sports editor that there was a good story in this test day. A rally supercar in a farmyard, etc., etc. He was going to run it Friday for Saturday. So I got quite desperate quite quickly. Neither had I much enjoyed the flight up. The plane had bucked about rather too much for my liking.
So gradually I formed a plan in my head. It seemed a good one. When we strolled back to where the car was, I got Ormond to buttonhole a team member… Giorgio Pianta I seem to remember.
“Listen,” I said. “Tell Markku if he guarantees me a ride in the car and gets someone to drive me back to Manchester he can have my seat on the plane home.”
Pianta looked at me as if I was crazy, but then smiled broadly. Was I saving his bacon? It looked like it. He called Markku over.
“Markku,” he said, in Italian. “This madman says you can have his seat on plane back if you guarantee him first ride and then get him lift back to Manchester.”
Alén’s face underwent a dramatic transformation. A broad smile replaced the previous thunderous look as he shook me warmly by the hand. Then, hand over my shoulder, he took me outside the cowshed. In the farmyard was a silver haired older gent. Someone to do with Martini. Markku beckoned to him and he obediently came over.
“Hey,” said my new mate: “Now I take my friend Jerry for ride in car, then you [he said pointing at said gent] drive him to Manchstr for catching train for London. I go back on plane. Is good?”
The older bloke just had time to nod a reluctant OK and then Alén had turned away, barking at the mechanics to “get car ready”.
Someone selected me a helmet and suddenly I was being strapped in. Markku got in, all smiles now, and we woofled out of the farmyard, past all my fellow journos standing, astonished, outside and on up to the stage entrance. That was a brilliant moment!
Anyway we burbled up to the stage start. Markku told me to tighten the belts and then we were off with a mighty shove in the back. I didn’t remember much of that first run except that halfway round he was suddenly flicking his hands from steering wheel to gear lever while dancing on the pedals and I was looking at the hedgerow, then in the hedgerow, then out again. Oh my God! We’d gone off!!!
Alén grunted his annoyance, regained control and we carried on. At the end he suddenly turned back to the start of the stage again instead of into the farmyard.
“Ok, is no good. We go again. Is coming better now,” he grunted.
“OK, is ready?” he asked back at the start.
I gave the thumbs up and we shot off the line. This time he got everything right and I’ve rarely been taken round a stage as fast. I have to admit I spent half the time watching his feet flicking around on the pedals and half out the windscreen, watching the (very) rapidly changing scenery. No doubt about it, this was a lanky genius at the wheel. And soon, too soon, we were sliding to a halt at the stage end.
“Is good this time, eh?” he said, leaning across with that trademark shark-like grin. Then we burbled back to the farmyard. He got out, grabbed the silver-haired one and said: “Is good. Now you drive my friend here Manchstr.”
It was, I have to say, an essentially silent drive for the three hours down to Manchester.
Later I rescued my neighbour’s car from the Biggin Hill car park and got home about 2.00 am. It was well worth it, especially as I got the feature and was also was told that on the way back, the pilot had allowed fellow-journo Keith Oswin to take the controls briefly on the return flight.
Those that know my relationship with airplanes; I would not have been happy with that!