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How being a target for young drivers spurred Mikkelsen back to WRC

It is hard to know what else Andreas Mikkelsen had to do to earn a second shot at the World Rally Championship big time after winning two WRC2 titles. However, a four-year pressure-filled journey that could have shattered his dreams, has now offered a second chance with Hyundai he intends to make the most of in 2024

Andreas Mikkelsen, Torstein Eriksen, Toksport WRT 3 Skoda Fabia Evo Rally2

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

It is fair to say Andreas Mikkelsen has been knocking on the door for a return to the World Rally Championship ever since falling out of the top tier in 2019. These knocks have become increasingly louder after winning two WRC2 titles and a European Rally Championship, but still the three-time WRC rally winner felt at times that he would never taste the big time again.

After coming so close to a return this year before Hyundai made a late swoop for Esapekka Lappi, Mikkelsen has achieved the goal he set out four years ago after putting pen to paper on a deal this week to share Hyundai’s third WRC i20 N challenger with Lappi and Dani Sordo

“I have been trying hard to come back to the top level since 2019 when we finished with Hyundai, so it has been some long years I would say,” Mikkelsen tells Autosport at Hyundai’s Alzenau WRC headquarters fresh from signing his one-year contract.

“I’m very happy now to be back and fighting with the big boys. I was very close last year. After 2020 and 2021 no, but after last season I was very close.”

The deal marks a full circle moment for the 34-year-old Norwegian as it was at Hyundai when he last drove in the WRC’s top flight in 2019. He finished fourth in the championship that year, despite missing three rounds, as Hyundai rotated its drivers Sebastien Loeb, Thierry Neuville, Sordo and Craig Breen between the sky blue and orange machines.

But come 2020 Mikkelsen’s name was a notable omission from the Hyundai line-up. Ott Tanak was signed from Toyota to join Neuville, while Loeb, Sordo and Breen shared the third car.

It came as a shock considering Mikkelsen had emerged as a genuine rising star during his four-year stint at Volkswagen, that included three wins. The last of those, at Rally Australia in 2016, was perhaps arguably the most impressive as he defeated world champion team-mate Sebastien Ogier fair and square. 

Mikkelsen has been absent from the top level of the WRC since 2019 when he last competed for Hyundai

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Mikkelsen has been absent from the top level of the WRC since 2019 when he last competed for Hyundai

After losing his drive at Hyundai, the COVID-ravaged 2020 season left Mikkelsen with just one WRC2 outing as he began to plot a journey back to the top. Skoda proved to be his saviour in the form of a WRC2 programme with Toksport, but it would be a pressure-filled three seasons competing against a bunch of young hungry talents aiming to take the scalp of a WRC rally winner.

Knowing that failure to beat them could have ended any hopes of returning to the top flight, pressure from the young talents spurred him on. But as Mikkelsen explains, there were dark moments too.

“Yeah absolutely, I had those thoughts [that I would never drive at the WRC top level again],” he tells Autosport. ”Every year I was out of the WRC, I thought the potential going back was less and less. But the only thing I had in my mind was that if I win in WRC2 I must be first on the list, that was my aim. If an opportunity comes, I would be first on the list.

"To be honest the last year I was actually not so worried anymore, maybe it was something to do when our baby [Max] arrived. There are other pleasures in life and you don’t need to be in the WRC to have a nice life" Andreas Mikkelsen

“In one way, I always felt like a target for the young drivers. Because if I get beaten by them, then I am finished. I’m done. I have been a target in the last seasons, but in the end we won rallies and won championships. I found it strange at times [seeing other drivers get WRC drives] because I felt we were at the top of the list and we didn’t get the opportunity.”

Success in WRC2 was an immediate message to the WRC that Mikkelsen was still a force to be reckoned with. He swept to a WRC2 and European Rally Championship double in 2021, finished runner-up to Emil Lindholm in WRC2 in 2022, before claiming this year’s WRC2 crown. This latest title is most impressive considering he started the year without a programme, before being thrust back into battle after Lindholm left Toksport for Hyundai’s development programme mid-season.

Of the four wins from seven rounds that earned him the title, it was the triumph in Greece that maybe outlined to Hyundai that Mikkelsen was worthy of a recall to partner full-timers Neuville and Tanak - who rejoins the squad following a year at M-Sport. After losing the WRC2 lead to a puncture, the 34-year-old recovered from two more tyre failures to rocket from 12th in class to victory by defeating Gus Greensmith in a final stage showdown.

Now back wearing a sky blue Hyundai polo shirt with a beaming smile on his face, Mikkelsen admits that at times his life has revolved around rallying and returning to the top of the WRC ladder. After becoming a father late last year he says his ambitions remained, but have now been tempered.

The arrival of Mikkelsen's newborn gave him a fresh perspective on rallying

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

The arrival of Mikkelsen's newborn gave him a fresh perspective on rallying

“Before when I was out after 2019 I was thinking I need to be back [in the WRC],” he says. “But to be honest, the last year I was actually not so worried anymore. Maybe it was something to do when our baby [Max] arrived.

“There are other pleasures in life and you don’t need to be in the WRC to have a nice life. I was more relaxed about it and we had a great season. But I’m super happy to be back. It wasn’t going to be the end of the world if it didn’t happen. I think before, rally was everything, but now with the family this is also very nice.”

Now with the opportunity to drive a Rally1 hybrid car for the first time, Mikkelsen is no longer a target but has a new sight in his cross hairs as he aims to help Hyundai to a first manufacturers’ title since 2020. It’s an objective that begins with arguably one of the WRC’s most difficult events, Monte Carlo, now in his role as tarmac specialist. It's a tough task for a Rally1 debut.

“I would like to drive the car as much as a I can,” he says. “The plan before Monte is yet to be discussed, but I’m sure we will find a nice plan. The thing that is good about starting with Monte is you don’t need to be 100% with the car there to deliver a good result, because there are so many other factors. I’m happy I’m starting at Monte, even though it is very difficult.”

Now the goal to return to the WRC has been achieved, it is now case of staying there, as Mikkelsen hopes this second chance will lead to a full-time works drive.

“I hope I can be up there fighting with the best guys, that’s the plan and help the team,” he adds. “If there are some situations where I can help Ott and Thierry then perfect, so that is what I expect from myself. For me, it is a one-year contract, but I hope if I deliver well there could be more.”

What can Mikkelsen produce on his top flight return?

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

What can Mikkelsen produce on his top flight return?

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