Norwegian rally driver Andreas Mikkelsen: Strength in adversity
Everyone had lost all faith in him.
He was 30 years old, he had won the World Championship and the European Championship EC rounds and been at the top of the rally circus for many years, but now nothing seemed to be working. In Monte Carlo he lost a wheel and had to stop, in Mexico his tire blew out and he was gone. He was a winner who had become a loser, in race after race in 2018 and 2019. Even those who were closest to him, and had followed him for many years, said: "Isn't it time to stop, Andreas?
"I began to doubt myself: "Had I lost it? Am I not in balance?", says Andreas Mikkelsen.
He sits surrounded by car tyres, wheel covers and tool parts at a workshop in Lier. The smell of rubber and oil fills the nostrils.
"For the first time I doubted myself. I wondered if they were right, what if I was actually done."
That's when he made a choice. He made a deal with himself. An agreement that would define the future.
The driving suit is off. The helmet has been put away. Andreas Mikkelsen sitting here, in high-tops, jeans and a white shirt, no protective cage around him, like in rally car he usually drives. Here there is no map reading colleague he can confer with, no manager or team apparatus.
Only Andreas. The boy who grew up in Oslo, who bet on alpine skiing and made the junior national team. Who had to give up his skiing career because of bad knees, switched to rallying and won everything he set his mind to. Who lost all financial support after the financial crisis and had to get back on their feet on his own. Who has crashed after 250 meters in his first race with a new factory agreement, and who has broken ribs, punctured lungs and been involved in a fatal accident.
Now he is in his 17th year in the world's rally elite. It has been 17 years of ups and downs and constant pressure to perform. For 17 years he has been fighting to be the fastest over the next hilltop and the sharpest around the next bend. He has loved every second of it, the exhilaration of competition and fight for victory is like a drug. He has turned crashes and failures into victory and success. He has had a huge contract terminated, but has returned.
There have been success, trophies and joys greater than he thought possible. Downs that he describes as the toughest he has experienced. But which has served as life lessons he would not have been without.
"I have always been extremely positive. Where others see problems, I see opportunities - even when things look very dark. But I have met my mountains that I have to overcome", he says.
The first mountain
At the age of 18 he stood in front of his first mountain. The financial support of his father his entire career had vanished in a instance with the financial crises. The message to the son was clear: "You have to give up on rally and focus on education".
"I had been served everything and suddenly dad cut me off. That was a wake up call. I had to figure out what my dream really was. It was an experience that shaped me more than anything else. Today I truly appreciate that jolt."
His mind was made up: He had chosen rallying, but where would the money come from? Where should he start? He came into contact with a team from Kongsvinger, led by concrete contractor Erik Veiby. Together with a group of investors who were all passionate motorsport enthusiasts, and had faith in Andreas. They provided the funds he needed, around NOK 5 million per season, and as repayment Andreas was to do everything to become world champion. A budget was drawn up, and soon he was back on the track.
Then came the second mountain. This time it wasn't Galdhøpiggen he was standing in front of. It was K2, Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest stacked on top of each other.
"I drove a standard car, and had to take a lot of risks to keep up with the competitors. That's when the accident happened", he says.
It was autumn 2009, Rally Larvik. He started well and was in the lead. Then he came over a hilltop, at 140 kilometers an hour. The asphalt was wet, the car lost traction and slid off the road. The car ran off the track and hit 10-year-old Elise. She died. While Andreas tried to collect his thoughts and take in everything that had happened, the map reader came over: "The girl's mother wants to talk to you."
"I expected to be beaten down and yelled hard, and I had accepted that. But when I met her, something completely different happened. She gave me a long, warm hug. Then we had a very special conversation."
He takes a break. The look clearly shows that the incident is still with him.
"She had just experienced the world's greatest sorrow, but managed to show extreme humanity. "You must never blame yourself for the accident," she said. And I had to promise to continue with the rally. The meeting with her will always stay with me. Without her support, I would not have been able to continue my career."
He looks up with blank eyes.
"Since then I have always driven with "Elise" on my helmet."
To outsiders, it might seem simple. You sit in a car and try to get to the finish line first. How hard can that be? Andreas knows the answer.
"Rally is a very mental sport. You sit for three days in a car that can reach 67 degrees, your body takes a beating and you have to deal with everything quickly. Rally is the most dangerous sport on four wheels, without the same safety around the track as in, say, Formula 1. You need to have confidence and be confident when making choices, and that requires mental strength."
– How do you develop those qualities?
"They are built over time. If I crashed at the start of my career, I spent three or four races building up my mental strength again, because I was afraid of crashing again. Now I can crash and quickly find my way back to feeling good. I know it's part of the game and I don't need to be afraid."
– Have you learned a lot about yourself during your career?
"A lot. Not just about driving skills, but about who I am. What I'm made of. I have found that my extreme positivity is good because there is always a solution to a problem."
Then it's good to have someone to collaborate with. For Andreas Mikkelsen, no one is more important than the man next to him in the car: the map reader.
The right people
"Having the right people around you is just as important as what you do yourself, he says with a determined look."
"One mistake can have fatal consequences. Therefore, we must trust each other and have confidence in each other. But we must also be able to share a laugh. If there is something that has become clearer to me in recent years, it is how important it is to have fun at work."
"Now I have a new map reader, Torstein Eriksen. We are different types, but complement each other well. While I am the one who loves to compete and deliver results when it counts the most, he is someone who loves motorsport. "Today it will be awesome to drive a rally", he can say. I like to hear that."
Just one more chance
Back to 2019. The year when Andreas heard that he was finished as a rally driver. After two seasons with the South Korean car brand Hyundai, the dark thoughts crept in.
"The Citroen and Skoda cars, fit me like a glove, but my driving style did not suit a Hyundai. You get to test yourself properly when you face adversity over a long period of time", he says.
That's when he made a deal with himself.
"Instead of letting myself break, I thought: "Give me one more chance and I'll show you". Put me in a new car and I will perform. And if I don't... Then I'm done."
He switched back to Skoda, moved down a division to WRC2 but then started winning again. In 2021, he became both European and world champion.
"If others can learn anything from my experiences, it is this: Trust yourself. Even if others say you're not good enough, don't let yourself down. Keep believing that you are good enough. It was crucial when I was at my breaking point in 2019.."
– How do you find that strength?
"It is difficult, especially when those who know you best start to doubt you. But remember, you know yourself best - no one else. Iif you trust yourself, you can turn adversity into success... That makes the taste of victory even sweeter."
Today he has taken charge of his own career and become his own manager. No one will negotiate on his behalf, no one else will talk to the car manufacturers.
"I could never have done that 10 years ago, then I didn't have the experience or the knowledge. But if there is one thing I have learned, it is that good people skills are essential. When I was part of Hyundai, I experienced a team manager, who I was standing right next to, texting my manager and asking me to put on the team clothes. That is not the way to communicate."
"Good communication with the people you work with is essential for success. Now I have all the tools needed and know what it takes to become a world champion again. And I thank the mountains I have had to climb in recent years."
3 LIFE LESSONS
Nobody knows you better than yourself.
See opportunities, not problems
Build and maintain a good relation with those you work with. It makes everyone better.
Photographer: Nikolaj Schwaner
Journalist: Lasse Lønnebotn
MAN IN THE SHIRT “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood” - quote Theodore Roosevelt in Paris, 1910. In the portrait series, Man in the Shirt, BARONS meets with inspirational people with one thing in common, that they have put themselves in play and at stake. Where do they find courage? What is the most crucial thing they have learned along the way? And what can we learn from them?