Tommi Makinen and Seppo Harjanne took their first step towards the FIA World Rally Championship Drivers' title with a convincing victory on the International Swedish Rally, the first event of 1996, today, February 11, driving the Team Mitsubishi Ralliart Lancer Evolution III.
Makinen arrived at the finish in Karlstad with a winning margin of 23 seconds over Ford's Carlos Sainz after three days in which the Michelin-shod Mitsubishi led for all but one stage.
Once again, Mitsubishi proved to be the most successful manufacturer in the Swedish Rally by dominating Group N, the class for standard cars, filling the top six places with the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III, in addition to winning overall.
Kenneth Backlund led home the victorious Group N Lancers, making this his fourth Swedish win in the category and Mitsubishi's sixth. He was followed by fellow Swede Stig-Olov Walfridsson, with German Uwe Nittel third in his first World Championship rally with Mitsubishi Ralliart Germany.
Makinen started the final 442 km leg which looped to the north of Karlstad in first place and, despite a last minute challenge by Ford's Carlos Sainz over the snow-covered stages, increased his overnight advantage by eight seconds over the third day's five stages totalling 114 km in length.
The only leading casualty of the rally was the Ford of Ari Vatanen, which rolled out on stage 24. Of the 58 cars that left Karlstad this morning, 55 returned at the end of leg three.
Said a delighted Makinen: "It feels fantastic to win here. I drove at maximum for the whole rally, but over the last two stages I drove faster than ever before! I could not have driven like this if it were not for my Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III which had such superb handling, balance and control. And, of course, my Michelin tyres were superb and I had good co-operation form Michelin technicians."
His co-driver, Seppo Harjanne added: "Today was very difficult for us because some of the stages had fresh snow and we had to be careful, but at the same time we had to stay ahead of Carlos."
Team Mitsubishi Ralliart Director Andrew Cowan praised his driver, commenting: "This has been the drive of Tommi's life. He was under tremendous pressure during the last two days; being first on the road meant that he had to be very cautious, but at the same time fast enough to stay ahead of his opponents.
"Tommi has been so cool and relaxed in his mental approach, totally different to what we've seen in the past. He was fantastic to work with and he created a fabulous atmosphere within the team. The result was thoroughly deserved and I'm absolutely delighted to have been able to give him his opportunity to win in true style in a straight fight.
"The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III has worked perfectly throughout the event and never let us down. It has been a copybook performance from the driver, co-driver, the team and the car. I am absolutely delighted with this superb start to the 1996 season."
Mr. Iwao Kimata, Mitsubishi Motor Sport Supervisor added: "I would like to thank Tommi who made such a big impression - so clam and steady - in a very professional way. It was a pleasure to see. It was also a pleasure to come here and compete against such an experienced team as Ford and win. It is good to know that the World Rally Championship is so closely contested by both European and Japanese manufacturers."
Per Lidstrom of Mitsubishi Sweden said of the Group N victory: "It's a very nice result for Mitsubishi once again. I am very pleased for Tommi, and delighted at the performance of both the Swedish drivers Backlund and Walfridsson. Uwe Nittel has also shown great potential despite his inexperience here."
Once the victory celebrations are completed, Team Mitsubishi Ralliart will continue with preparations for the first round of the 1996 Asia-Pacific Rally Championship - the Rally of Thailand on March 3-5 - where Makinen will aim to repeat last year's victory, this time with Richard Burns as his new partner in the second Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III. Preparations are also under way for the next round of the FIA World Championship - the Safari Rally in Kenya on April 5-7 - where Makinen will be joined by Japanese ace Kenjiro Shinozuka.