Hannu Mikkola, who passed away on Friday night aged 78 from cancer, was one of the original ‘flying Finns’: epitomising the fearless brigade of men from the frozen north who made cars dance and rally fans dream.

He’s probably best-known for winning the 1983 World Rally Championship with the legendary Audi Quattro, but his exploits with the rear-wheel drive Ford Escort were just as spectacular. He narrowly missed out on becoming the first-ever World Rally Champion in 1979, ending up only one point behind eventual champion Björn Waldegard.

The Escort was also the car in which Hannu took the first of his 18 WRC victories, on Rally Finland in 1974. It would be the first of four WRC wins on home territory; the last one coming in his championship year with the Quattro. He drove another, more cumbersome, Audi to his final WRC win on the 1987 Safari: the 200 Quattro.

Hannu really burst onto the public consciousness in 1970, when he conquered the epic London to Mexico Rally with Ford, which resulted in the iconic Escort Mexico. From there, he began a stellar career that also brought him drives with Peugeot (co-driven by Jean Todt), Toyota, Opel, Mazda and Subaru among others – including the unlikely Mercedes 450 SLC that he put on the podium twice, in Argentina and New Zealand in 1980.

His 123rd and last entry on a WRC event was the 1993 Rally Finland, where he finished seventh with a Toyota Celica in 1993, aged 51.

But he continued to make regular appearances right up to a few years ago, when his health sadly began to fail him. His last appearance at a rally was at the Lake Superior Performance Rally in 2017, driving a Mark 1 Ford Escort as a course car, and he was also a regular visitor to events such as Goodwood.

Yet his lion-hearted achievements don’t come close to describing what he was like as a person. For somebody who was so flamboyant in a car, he was understated in real life: the perfect gentleman who was always so generous with his time and conversation.

He quietly pervaded every aspect of automotive life. My personal favourite tribute to Hannu comes from the most unexpected of places: British prog rock. In 1989, cult band Half Man Half Biscuit featured Hannu in their song “Architecture, morality, Ted and Alice”.

“The wonderful dexterity of Hannu Mikkola/makes me want to shake hands with the whole of Finland,” intoned lead man Nigel Blackwell, as the very first two lines of the song. It’s hard to find better words that sum up what Hannu meant to us all.

Autocar extends its condolences to Mikkola’s family and friends.

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