Q&A: Pentti Airikkala - EXCLUSIVE.

by Rob Wilkins


1989 RAC winner and 1979 BRC champion Pentti Airikkala was at the 2008 Rallyday in the UK last month - and he had some very forthright views on the state of the World Rally Championship. Crash.net Radio got his thoughts prior to the two asphalt events in Spain and France...

Pentti, what do you think of this year's Rallyday?

Pentti Airikkala:
Obviously we have fantastic weather - but it never rains in England! [laughs] I have been coming to this country from Finland since 1978 and I do like it - very much so. But the main thing about the Rallyday is that it is an informal event. You can go and meet people - you can meet drivers, meet mechanics and see the cars and so on. You don't need to have an invitation, like say in Formula 1. It is not nice to say only invited people. We all like motorsport, so why can't we just go and enjoy it? There are some exciting cars here too. It is no wonder it is so popular an event. I invited a lot of my friends from around the world to come here because it is what it is. It is a friendly event and you don't have to worry about anything. It is great.

How important are events like this for the sport?

Well, as you may know, I run a rally school and a racing school. Mikko Hirvonen is one of my pupils and so is Jari-Matti Latvala. I am very proud to be able to teach them. Lewis Hamilton is also someone that I have tried to help. But okay he is in Formula 1, which is boring! I don't know if it is important for rallying, but it probably is as people can come here and see how friendly it is. But at the end of the day, about 65 per cent of people in my schools are rally people and the rest are racing people - and what a difference! Nice people go into rallying and nasty people go into motor racing, although of course there are exceptions. But it is quite easy to understand why that is the case. In rallying you drive through the forests and mountains at two minute intervals. Whereas in Formula 1 - or motor racing in general - you try and stop somebody from overtaking you. You try to kill him or her by crashing into them or pushing them off the road. That is not nice! Plus, except John Watson, I've never met another F1 or racing driving in my life, who has been a safe driver. But 95 per cent of rally drivers - or even more - are safe drivers on the road. I have been lucky. I learned from rallying how to be a safe driver - and so far I haven't had a road accident. That is because of the skills I learned rallying. But what skills do you learn from motor racing? Nothing…

Can Mikko still stop Sebastien and win this year's drivers title?

No - and there are three main reasons why. First, Citroen has a lot better engine. They have got the best engine in the sport. That is quite clear to see. They have a more powerful engine and engine power matters. Secondly, they have got the spare wheel in the right place. All the Ford Focus' have the spare wheel in the end of the car - and weight distribution is important. Where Ford has it, it makes the Focus very difficult to drive. It is very slow to react and when it does react, it is then tough to get it back. Citroen doesn't have that. They have the spare wheel more or less in the middle of the car. Also, they have softer suspension than the Focus. So even if you are a better driver than Sebastien Loeb you can't beat him. I would love to see him driving a Ford Focus and I'd like to see Mikko Hirvonen or Jari-Matti Latvala driving a Citroen. That would be exciting to see. But at the moment Sebastien Loeb has got the better car.

Sebastien Loeb of course is on course to take his fifth drivers' title. Is he unstoppable? Is he the Michael Schumacher of the WRC?

Maybe you can also compare him to Michael Schumacher in that he is very good with the team. But so is Jari-Matti and Mikko. But the difference is that Michael Schumacher was liked by Ferrari. Everybody adored him. If he wanted to have seven reserve gears they would have said: 'When do you want them?' But in rallying if Mikko wants to have the spare wheel moved, which makes sense, he won't get it. He just will not get it. Michael Schumacher was in that lucky situation - although he created some of it of course. Kimi Raikkonen doesn't seem quite capable or interested in doing this and therefore Lewis Hamilton will win the title this year. Unless, of course, he starts to make the same mistakes which he did last year and that is unlikely now [Pentti was speaking pre-Singapore and Japan - Ed]. But Lewis is certainly the best driver in Formula 1. I hope he wins it. It will be very good for the sport and hopefully it will encourage other coloured drivers' to try motorsport and say: 'Maybe I can do it too'. Motorsport use to just be a wealthy persons sport and it still is in many ways. So even though I am a Finn, I still want Lewis Hamilton to win.

The WRC has changed a lot over the years, how would you like to see it develop in the future now?

Easy! Just go to rear-wheel drive cars - the only problem is it will be too popular then. The cars would go sideways and there would be too many people wanting to watch it and then you would have a crowd problem. But that is a small issue to deal with. You can imagine if you have three-litre engines and normally aspirated - the engines will make a lovely noise. None of these turbo charged noises. It would be great. The big problem with four-wheel drive cars is that the engine power is so important. The more power you have the better results you can get. But that is not the case with rear-wheel drive. If you have 300 horsepower, that is enough, more than enough, to put down the traction. Also if you make it a one-make tyre series - and we have that now anyway with Pirelli in the WRC - and you make them with virtually no grip at all, it would all be so much cheaper. The gearboxes won't break and the brakes will last longer. Okay it will be more difficult to drive a car like that - but don't we want to find out who is the best driver? Luckily there is a very simple solution then for the WRC. But is it going to happen? No, it is the usual thing. The people that are doing well don't want any changes.

What do you think of this new rotation system for the WRC, with events taking place once every two calendar years?

It has been tried before and it was a total mess. It will be the same this time. Why don't we support the events that are doing well and then let them stay on the calendar? With my plan for the WRC and having rear-wheel drive cars suddenly the budget is a tenth of what it is now. So instead of £50 million per year, it would be £10 million or even less. Then we could have 20 rallies a year because we could afford it. It is all political and that is why they are rotating them. It is basically because [FIA president] Max Mosley wants to have various countries in so they will vote for him - and one way to do that is to say: 'I will give you a WRC event'. All kinds of countries are coming up. It is all political, but not good for the sport.

There is speculation Marcus Gronholm might come out of retirement in 2009. Would you like to see him back?


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