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Mitsubishi Rules European Rallying

by Larry Roberts

February 5, 2001

Cross country rallying isn't big time in the US and aside from our own home-grown but publicly unknown SCCA Pro Rally series, this type of auto racing is simply non-existent.

But in the rest of the world, professional road rallying by big-buck professional teams is as closely followed as NASCAR Winston Cup is here. And in recent memory the Marlboro Mitsubishi Rallyart team has ruled the roost.

Like those that apply its NASCAR counterpart, the rules for international World Cup Rally cars are very strict but the resulting Mitsubishi racers have little in common the Mitsubishi Mirage, Eclipse, Galant or Diamante cars you'll see on local showrooms. The Rallyart cars enjoy the same space-age technology and research as the cars in international Formula One Grand Prix racing, and for the same reason: success in World Cup Rally events helps Mitsubishi sales in South Africa, Australia, Sweden and the rest of the rally-conscious world.

The World Cup Rally program is overseen and licensed by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile), the same organization that sanctions Formula One races, but in the case of factory sponsored rally racers, the rules are sometimes altered during the championship, seemingly to provide an edge for a particular vehicle or manufacturer. This is currently an ongoing problem involving the Mitsubishi entry. The car was discovered to have an "illegal" turbocharger casing after the win by Tommi Makinen and co-driver Risto Mannisenmaki in the final event last year, the Rally Australia. The Finnish drivers and their car were disqualified as a result.

But a meeting of the minds was achieved between the sanctioning body and the Mitsubishi organization and the cars were OK'ed for the 2001 season.

The situation was certainly a plus for the team and resulted in a win for the Japanese manufacturer in the prestigious and venerated Monte Carlo Rally, an ancient event that runs from various starting points around Europe and Africa to the finish line in Monaco. It traces its history back to the inaugural event in 1911, predating the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car endurance race by more than a decade.

This year the Mitsubishi team of Makinen and Mannisenmaki pulled off a hat-trick when they won their third Monte Carlo Rally in as many years. The team is now in a jubilant mood and is looking forward to more victories in the 14-event series.

Here in the U.S., the name Mitsubishi isn't well-known to motorsports enthusiasts. It doesn't compete in the ALMS sports car endurance races, or with CART or the IRl series' for single seaters. But mention the name to the many millions of rally fans in 20-some odd countries around the world, and you'll be deluged with statics that rival those known by baseball fans here.

And somewhere up near the top, you'll encounter the name Mitsubishi.