Henry Catchpole: Everyone, understandably, always asks you about Colin McRae, but before that you co-drove for another world champion – Juha Kankkunen. What was he like to sit next to?
Nicky Grist: As a character he was very cool, calm and collected. Nothing would really faze him, he wouldn’t get really excited about anything, it was all just taken in his stride. Jumping in with him for the first time in Argentina 1993 after Piironen [Kankkunen’s previous co-driver] had his brain haemorrhage, that for me started our relationship off and it just grew and grew from there, because it was a question of ‘Right boyo, here’s the pace notes, here’s the road books, let’s go’. He’d have a cigarette after every recce pass and he just set me into a very relaxed mode from the word go. I remember him saying ‘Listen don’t worry about it, we’ll be ok. We’ll manage to get round the stages twice. It’s fine’. And sure enough we managed to get round every stage twice and we led from start to finish. That was the first time I’d ever led a rally in the world championship.
From a driving perspective, Juha was the first driver I ever sat with that was a naturally talented driver. I think it’s difficult to appreciate what a naturally talented driver is unless you’ve been with a lot of other drivers leading up to it. I’d sat next to a lot of drivers who were exceptionally fast and very quick drivers, but when you’re not naturally talented, everything is hard work – every arm movement is more aggressive as you work the steering wheel and change gear. But when you’ve got somebody with so much car control and so much confidence like Juha, everything is just slow motion. It was just playing and sliding and throttle and another gear and slide… and I think that was my underlying memory of Juha, of just how cool, calm and collected he was.
He was also a very shrewd operator, a very clever driver, because he would never be sucked into a battle. He was happy to take second place. If somebody was driving well, he would not get drawn into a battle to try and beat him and then sacrifice second place. He would say ‘No, he’s driving well. It’s his rally. We finish second’ and that’s why he was a four-time world champion. He was really clever at collecting points.
Then you look at someone like Colin McRae and finishing first was what it was all about. He would go that extra mile to try to finish first, which is why he was only a one-time world champion. I always said to him ‘If you could have a little bit more Kankkunen in you, you could be a lot more successful’. In the very first year I joined Colin, 1997, we won six rallies. Now, anybody who wins six rallies in a year should be world champion, but we had so many crashes and retirements with this, that and the other that we finished second in the championship. And I think that was just a side of Colin, but you can’t take that away from him because that’s why people loved him so much, because he was a trier. But Kankkunen was pretty special, he just did what needed to be done.
HC: Was there one moment that really stood out for you with Juha?
NG: The only rally that I was really surprised at with Juha was in Finland in 1994 – firstly because we crashed, but also because of what happened afterwards. We went into a stage called Lankamaa which was the second stage in the rally – you drive down Juha Kankkunen Road and you go past his farm to get to the start. Anyway, the stage starts and eventually comes right round on the back edge of his farm. We’re going along and it was fast and I remember coming over this one crest and the car just went wide and we whacked something heavily on my side and we rolled – bang-crash-wallop and glass was all smashed in the car.
As we were sitting there in the immediate aftermath there was this bloke coming up to the car, really angry and I thought ‘Christ this bloke is going to punch Juha!’. Anyway, we eventually started the car and got going again and the car’s pretty mashed – I think we only had front-wheel drive and there was noise coming from every corner – and we get to the end of the stage and I said ‘Bloody hell that was wild! I thought that bloke was going to hit you!’ and Juha said ‘That was my brother.’
Anyway, the car was in a hell of a state and I remember they [the mechanics] set about working on it and all they could try and do was get the bodywork straight and get the glass as best they could in that road section. Then we went into this one small stage and the alternator belt came off because the bonnet was bent down on the belt, so we had to lift the bonnet and put the belt back on. We’d lost a sh*t load of time, we finished the end of that stage, they did a bit more work but it was still stuck in front-wheel drive, and we needed the help of a friendly policeman to get to the next stage. After that they managed to get the car into a position where they could replace the diff and re-establish four wheel drive, but we’d whacked the rear suspension mounting point on the rear, so we had really bad negative camber on one rear wheel. Nonetheless, with four-wheel drive back, the car was as good as it was going to be.
The next stage, was a stage called Myhinpää, which is arguably the most difficult stage in the world from a technical aspect. You’d have maybe 15-20 instructions on one corner, with three jumps and crests on one long long left hand corner for example. That’s kind of the nature of the beast. So, we got to the end and I said to Juha ‘How did that feel?’
‘Oversteers a little bit on left hand corners’ he said ‘but other than that it’s ok. How was it?’
‘You were quickest!’ I said. And then from that point on we were fastest time, fastest time, fastest time. We went from last overall to ninth overall on the fastest rally in the world. All with a car that geometry-wise was way out. But Juha had that inner ability just to drive around something, whereas I remember our team-mate, Didier Auriol, if he had the track out one degree on the front, the car would be undriveable.
HC: If you hadn’t been a professional co-driver, what would you have been?
NG: Well, I did dabble in golf as a youngster. That was my first love and my grandfather introduced me to the game and I started playing when I was 11 or 12, so when I left school I was assistant professional in my local golf club - Monmouthshire golf Club in Abergavenny. One night I went to watch a road rally passing over the top of the mountain behind the golf club and ended up in Hay-on-Wye at 6am having breakfast. As a young golf pro I had to go back home, shower and change and be into work for 8am. Well, I was shattered, but that took my interest in motorsport and the golf went out the window. [Today Nicky still plays off a handicap of 5]
HC: I have to ask about the 1995 championship when Toyota was banned for its illegal engine. You and Juha were leading the Championship. Did you know about the engine?
NG: No, no, it was just an evolution of the engine, that’s what we were told. It did feel good, but it was an evolution. Even if you go back that 20 or so years, at the time the engine shop in TGE was closed off to everybody. You know, you had to have a security code to get in there and everything. So we knew nothing of it. All we were there to do was to drive. But that was another time when the championship was in our grasp [the other time being with Colin McRae in 2001, which you can read about in part 1] and it was all taken away. I think winning championships… is it important? I don’t know. It all depends what you’re like as a person. I think you can have an incredibly successful career in motorsport and you could have one very lucky year and win a championship and nothing other than that. Is my career incomplete because I haven’t officially won a world championship? I don’t think so. I’ve had a wonderful time. 21 victories around the world and great times. I’m not disappointed with what I’ve done.
Read the first part of the interview here: drivetribe.com/p/SQA7-xieStSh8C9drgLCxw?iid=FtREbXVWTyC7laQNvgQ6_A