Pentti Airikkala, 1945-2009

One of the original flying Finns, Pentti Airikkala's driving style was as committed and spectacular as any of his contemporaries

Pentti Airikkala, 1945-2009

Airikkala, who lost his battle with cancer aged 64 yesterday, was almost as well known for his efforts in converting people to the virtues of left-foot braking as he was for his own success on the stage.

After collecting a variety of rally wins at home in Finland, Airikkala soon realised that a move south from his birthplace in Helsinki was the best way to forward his career - which is how he ended up living in Britain.

After driving myriad cars through his early days, he settled into a factory Vauxhall outfit, where he found the car which suited his style: the Chevette HS. Airikkala would take his sole British title with that car in 1979.

It was 10 years on from that season, however, that Pentti enjoyed his crowning glory - when he won the RAC Rally. He was offered a drive in the factory Mitsubishi team, at the wheel of a Group A Galant VR-4, as a thank you for winning Group N in that season's British Rally Championship, where he had seen off the threat of a certain Colin McRae in a Ford Sierra Cosworth.

After limited testing ahead of the event, Airikkala built his speed through Wales before moving through the gears as the rally headed into Kielder and the south of Scotland. A string of fastest times moved him into the lead fight and when Carlos Sainz hit trouble two stages from the end, Airikkala passed him to collect his one and only World Rally Championship win.

The significance of this win went beyond Airikkala breaking his duck at the highest level; this was an event Sainz was desperate to win - it was the last RAC Rally run without pace notes into the forests.

Twelve months later, Airikkala pieced together a last-minute deal to drive a Ford Sierra Cosworth 4x4, only to crash spectacularly in Cropton. After that, Airikkala would only make one more WRC appearance - on Rally GB again - when he retired a Group N Mitsubishi in 2003.

By that stage, Airikkala was busy running his own driving school, tutoring the likes of current Ford star Jari-Matti Latvala in the mysteries of the Scandinavian flick and left-foot braking.

Airikkala was a big character both on and off rallies, and one who will be sadly missed both in Britain and his native Finland.

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