Tommi Makinen's nonchalent manner calmed the nerves. Never mind that I was sitting in the co-driver's seat of a works Team Mitsubishi Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evo V, on a test road for Europe's fastest round of the World Rally Championship, the Rally Finland. I didn't know what lay in wait on the four-kilometre test road, a winding, loose-surface forest track near Jyvaskyla in central Finland. Makinen did and even if he didn't, as the master of this supremely demanding rally, the uncrowned king of Finland, he would surely have coped with anything a Finnish road could throw at him.

Yet this was no demonstration run for the sole benefit of the press. It was the day before the rally started and this was Makinen's last-minute shakedown test in his rally car, a final chance to evaluate the latest suspension refinements developed by Team Mitsubishi Ralliart's engineers. There was no question of turning down the turbo boost and chucking the car sideways to impress journalists and photographers. Makinen needed a win to maintain his bid for a third successive world title with Mitsubishi and even if it was the rally car itself, he needed to be close to the limit on the test road to find out if the suspension had been improved. Better tighten the full harness seat belts another few millimetres.

At first, Makinen made his job look only too easy. Top rally cars have a restrictor in the turbocharger to limit power to around 300 bhp a safety measure that also gives incredibly equal performance and hectic competition. The Mitsubishi engine pulls strongly and as smoothly as a road car's. It is a highly efficient unit, but the acceleration was not startling. Meanwhile, Makinen steered one-handed, placing the manoeuvrable Lancer in generous yet effortlessly controlled slides.

It is soon clear that this is nothing like as easy as it seems. Makinen's right hand rarely left the gear lever, changing ratios as swiftly and precisely as though he were operating an electric switch. We rarely dropped below third gear on a track scarcely wider than the car. While his hands smoothly revolved the steering wheel, his feet worked furiously. With the rugged competition gearbox, there is little need for the clutch, but his left foot constantly pumped the brake pedal, balancing the car as his right foot stabbed hard on the accelerator.

Four-wheel-drive and Michelin's renowned tyres give astonishingly late braking. On a sandy, slippery track, Makinen could brake as hard as an ordinary driver could manage on asphalt, throwing the passenger against the seat belts; they should have been tighter still.

But the most telling demonstration of Makinen's skill was reserved for the jumps, the features that give his home rally its uniquely demanding character. Although Finland is largely flat, the countryside undulates gently. Suddenly, we were bearing down on a blind crest as tall as a house in sixth gear, at perhaps 160 km/h. There was no time for the passenger to glance at the instruments or the driver's feet on the pedals: Makinen feathered the throttle, flicked the car sideways over the first jump, then steadied it in a fraction of a second and swung it through a wide arc the opposite way over a second, equally narrow, equally tall jump. It was a momentary, unforgettable reminder of the gulf that separates the normal motorist from a supreme talent such as Makinen's.

The trip was over in a few minutes, Makinen unruffled, the car in perfect shape. It came as no surprise that, three days later, he won the Rally Finland for the fifth time in a row, while Mitsubishi took its fourth consecutive success. For Mitsubishi and Makinen, breaking records is all part of the job.



Copyright 1998 by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.