After driving for Subaru World Rally Team during the 2002 and 2003 World Rally Championship (WRC) seasons, four-time WRC Drivers’ Champion Tommi Mäkinen ended his racing career. However, the Finnish driver’s relationship with Subaru and Subaru Tecnica International (STI) did not end.
Tommi Mäkinen Racing (TMR)
Mäkinen went on to establish TMR in 2004 – a state-of-the-art rally car constructor workshop and rally school located near Jyväskylä, Finland. He had been so impressed with the Subaru car-making philosophy that he chose the WRX STI as his weapon of choice – that’s all he has used to build hundreds of customer Group N and R4 spec rally cars.
Meanwhile, TMR’s rally school has developed many top rally contenders around the world, and Mäkinen’s workshop has been servicing Subaru rally cars.
Then, in April 2010, Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI) and STI met at the Nürburgring “Nordschleife” (Northern Loop) course in Germany as part of a collaborative project. Taking a lightly modified 2011 WRX STI prototype sedan to the fabled track, their aim was to confirm the evolution of the newly updated WRX STI sedan by beating the lap-time record set by the previous model year’s WRX STI.
Subaru considered only one trusted, long-time partner to make it happen – Tommi Mäkinen. Able to memorize the tough 12.94-mile, 160-plus-corner Nürburgring Nordschleife with a few practice laps, Mäkinen drove it in an impressive lap time of 7 minutes, 55.00 seconds, which made the 2011 WRX STI the fastest Subaru and the fastest sedan in the world.
Photo: Yujiro Otsuki
Late in 2013, Tommi Mäkinen met FHI and STI at the Nürburgring once again. Having driven for them before, this was the first direct involvement that Mäkinen had in the development of a car with them. Relying on his rally-car testing and rally experience, he was there to help evaluate and test the all-new 2015 WRX STI.
“I was there to check the car’s overall performance while conducting high-speed stability tests and some other small tests to see how the car was behaving,” commented Mäkinen. “I just kept driving, and I told my feelings about the car to the engineers, including Takatsu-san [Project General Manager for the new WRX STI]. I gave many detailed suggestions, and I told them what I would like to see.”
Mäkinen’s main concerns were the car’s drivability, suspension behavior, and roll stiffness. He summed it up by saying that his work was “all about fine-tuning the drivability.
“Usually, as soon as I start driving, I can tell immediately how the car is performing and what it’s doing,” he continued. “I especially focus on if the car is easy to drive and if it can be improved some way for better drivability. There are so many possibilities and so many approaches to enhance cars to make one good package, so it’s a rewarding task for me: I just helped Subaru reach [its goals] with my feedback.”
Then, early in 2014, the engineers invited Mäkinen to Japan to test the final product – a preproduction 2015 WRX STI – at the Subaru test track. He noticed that several of the modifications that he had suggested had been implemented, saying, “The car was optimized even more and behaved much better now. It had become a better-balanced, agile, responsive car, and I was satisfied. Good job, Subaru!
Photos: Yujiro Otsuki
“I’m very happy with the final product. It’s completely different from the previous car in many areas: It has a better chassis and aerodynamics, which lets drivers use the capability of the massive engine power to the fullest. It gives a better gear-shift feel; nice, accurate, fast, and linear steering response to control the car with sharp turn-in; better rear stability with a solid grip; good high-speed agility; flat ride with less body roll; and overall drivability that has been truly refined. All these enhancements make the car much safer and fun to drive, and that feeling gives drivers more confidence.”
Mäkinen noted that Subaru was not aiming to make a rally car for the road, because that would make it too uncomfortable to drive. He observed, “The philosophy to create a road car should be different. Of course, it has to be softer, smoother, and comfortable for everyday use, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a fun car. A good car should be fun just to go get groceries around town or cruise on a highway or drive mountain roads or enter motorsport events on the weekend.
“I may be a more experienced driver than typical drivers, but I think drivers are drivers. If a road car is easy and fun to drive, that means it’s easy to race, too.
“This car has a great geometry and chassis, and anyone can definitely sense the refined and updated drivability as soon as they start driving. I’m looking forward to seeing new WRX STI owners’ smiles after driving their cars. It’s really an enjoyable car. It’ll give you good confidence to be a better driver – you draw a [driving] line, and the car will follow.”
Photo: Yujiro Otsuki
Q&A with Tommi Mäkinen
Drive Performance (DP): How do you see STI as a brand?
Tommi Mäkinen (TM): STI is a well-known brand in the world. It has an extensive motorsport background at a high level of competition, such as WRC. STI has been very successful compared to other Japanese factory tuners.
After retiring from WRC, I completely stopped competing. But I have been driving a lot, since we develop our own rally cars with help from STI.
DP: How was it working with the FHI team?
TM: Very good. Team members are very professional and serious people. I have been working with them for many years, so we’ve established a good relationship already.
I think there aren’t very many carmakers that work directly with the race car driver to enhance their cars. Many carmakers may use top drivers in their promotions, but those guys don’t usually get involved with making new cars.
I’m happy to be the one to help Subaru.
DP: What are good cars to you?
TM: It’s the whole package. It’s not just one area.
Because the whole package was really good, I was able to set the course record. If I were to do another lap in the new WRX STI, I have a feeling that I can break my previous record. The new car is easier to drive quickly. We will see …
DP: Do you have any suggestions for others on how to become a good driver?
TM: There are so many elements … but listening to the car and understanding your car would be very important. You don’t fight the car, just listen and give instructions to it. Tell it how to go smoothly. If you have to fight the car, those cars are no good. With Subaru, the handling is all neutral. You can feel the car, and it becomes part of your body.