A huge crash nearly ended his life, but Ari Vatanen fought on. John Davenport meets Finland’s most famous Parliamentarian
There are so many surprising things about Ari Vatanen it’s hard to know where to start The first time I met him was at the Donegal Rally in 1975. An was driving a very tired and well-travelled Opel Ascona in which he had just finished eighth overall on the Scottish Rally. His rally career had started just five years earlier in Finland and in the faithful Ascona he had done his first 1000 Lakes Rally in 1974.
In Donegal as in Scotland, David Richards accompanied him. This relationship was later renewed in 1979 and culminated in the pair winning the World Championship in 1981. But in the Donegal Rally of 1975 on his first all tarmac event in an uncompetitive car, what shone out most about An was his cheerful optimism mixed with old-fashioned politeness. And Wit seemed incongruous that this should be married with an ability to drive a car so far sideways that it seemed headlamps should be fitted to the doors, so it also made the young Finn an instant favourite.
I met up with him again just weeks ago and little has changed. Except that in those 24 years, An has won ten World Championship rallies and become World Rally Champion. He very nearly died in an accident in the Argentina Rally, then bounced back to win Paris-Dakar four times, and was crowned FIA Cross Country Champion in 1997. In 1998, he took the wheel of a works Ford Escort WRC for the Safari and Portuguese Rallies when regular works driver Bruno Thiry broke his ribs. He finished third and fifth overall leading to considerable speculation that, aged 45, he might be on the verge of a third rally career in the World Championship.
Instead, he became an MEP for Finland. And, as we sat in the quiet anteroom of the Cheltenham hotel, his next appointment was to become a TV pundit for the evening opposite Steve Rider, commenting on the BBC’s coverage of the day’s activity on the Rally of Great Britain.
So has he, at last, finally hung up his helmet. “Well yes, now I have. I have realised that without formally quitting, I have actually given up. Of course, since it is not official status, if the offer came to do the Safari or Paris-Dakar, then I would very much like to do it. I enjoyed those rallies last year. I would have been second to Richard Bums by some ten points but, of course, I handed my place to Kanldamen.” There’s no suggestion here that he’s having ago at Juha Kankkunen, at 40 a mere stripling by comparison, but there is more than a tinge of pleasure in such a good result.
“Portugal was less fun. I’d not been there for eight years so I did a copybook performance and everything came out right. But I wouldn’t like to do anything else. The problem is you are so rusty and it’s not easy to turn on the level of performance that is required.”
Still I wondered why rally drivers seemed to last longer at the top than in other branches of the sport. “In rallying, there’s so much more chance to use your experience to cope with all the unexpected things you come across. In F1, for instance, you have a track with maybe seven corners and you spend all weekend finding out about them. On a rally, you look at a special stage with maybe one hundred corners a few times. And then when you come to drive it maybe a week later, there is so much that may have changed — the surface, the weather. So experience is very important for a rally driver and, by using it properly, it is possible to stay competitive.”
Even so, the sport is changing and nowhere is this more evident than in the rapidly escalating salaries of the leading drivers which were now at such a level I suggested this might attract drivers from the bottom end of the Grand Prix field to consider taking up rallying. “Bottom end? You must be joking! Rally driver pay now is of interest even at the front of a Formula One grid. And it becomes a problem in many ways because the expectation for that money and the pressure is so much higher. That is why you will hear talk from people like Makinen and McRae about retiring.”
Not that Vatanen ever saw it such as an occupation from which to earn sufficient money on which to retire “It was,” he says today, “so much fun that, even when it is your whole business, it doesn’t feel like a job. You are so exalted by it that you are, in a way, incurable.”
But even if the fun remains, the events have changed. “If you judge rallies now by a twenty year old yardstick, then you have to say they have not changed for the better. Everything is shorter, fighter and quicker. There is not so much time for the social side.”
Ari recalls the relaxed way in which drivers of the 70s could approach events like the Acropolis Rally. A protracted recce would encompass a “rest period” of several days at the Astir Beach Hotel at Glyphada where it was by no means not unknown to wake to the sight of a recce car going for an early morning swim. Or to find a pedalo perched on your cabin roof.
Vatanen returns to the present and is serious again: “Evidently from the driver’s point of view, the psychological pressure is raised with so many events in the calendar. And it takes a toll on your private life. Carlos Sainz uses a private jet to save precious days at home and Makinen will do the same next year. When you live like that, it makes life very one-sided. Rally drivers are in danger of becoming like footballers — and that would be terrible!”
But if the events have changed, the machinery has changed even more. Just what does a man who learned his trade on Opel Asconas and Ford Escorts think of modern rally cars ? ‘They’re really nice to drive. The road-holding is now so much better and four-wheel drive does make it easier. Of course, I loved the old rear wheel drive Escort. It was so easy to go sideways which I guess was my trademark. Current cars do not get out of shape easily. You get to corners quickly because of the excellent traction but the branding is so much better now and the four-wheel drive system makes it much harder to lock up. You remember the famous double Escort accident in Portugal 1980 when Hannu Milckola and I wound up side-by-side in the trees on the same bend ?That was downhill on wet tarmac, a little bit of rear brake bias and we both spun off backwards. A modem car would not do that.”
Educated on Escorts he may have been (and World Champion in one in 1981 despite the advent of the Audi Quattro) but Ari was also at the forefront of four-wheel drive Group B development with Peugeot and their 205 T16 in 1984. He had the not-so-thin end of the four wheel drive revolution.
With Peugeot he won five Championship rallies in a row between 1984 and 1985. But then came the mid-season round in Argentina and the horrific accident which so nearly ended not just his career but his life, too. He would not drive a rally car again until 1987. Yet he returned with his body restored and his talent unharmed. He took on the 1987 1000 Lakes Rally in a works Ford Sierra RS Cosworth with two-wheel drive and over 400 bhp, finishing second overall. “When I started testing the car, I thought there must be something wrong in the transmission. All I could hear was wheee ! wheee ! as the tyres spun. But after a while I got used to it and we started to go quite quickly. We even did one fastest time on a stage with few slow corners.”
I checked afterwards and found Vatanen’s memory for once not reflecting the truth. He actually did two fastest times and was in the top three times on more than half the stages.
Vatanen may be modest of his own achievements but clearly he takes pride in those of his countrymen, particularly the fact that the two principal motorsport World Championships are currently held by Finns for the second year running, with Makinen looking to make it five in a row. What chance was there of some other nationality getting a look in the years to come and is there any sign of the stream of young Finnish lions drying up?
“I can’t promise that In the Rally of Great Britain, Bums did a wonderful job but just look at the performances of Gronholm, Gardemeister and Laukkanen. Finland may be a small country but it manages to produce quick drivers in every era. And there are more coming all the time.”
I wondered if there were equally many replacements coming along for Mika Hakkinen to plague the lives of Schumacher, Irvine and Coulthard. “Yes, there are more racing drivers coming on now and they have Halddnen to look up to as a standard. Keke Rosberg is looking after the young drivers so something may come of that But there are many more rally drivers !”
I should have known better than to ask such questions of a Finnish MEP. Life today for An Vatanen involves an enormous amount of travel between the European Parliament, his constituency in Finland, and his adopted home in Monaco. Above all, he remains passionate about his job. He discovered quickly that, thanks to his profile, he was known by a large proportion of MEPs; thus his ability to be heard was greater than the average debutant Already, he has been influential in getting the maximum working hours legislation changed to help one man companies.
Listening to him talk, I could hear the same inflexions with which a younger An would have used to describe an incident on a rally in which he had just competed. It was in that moment that I realised that this World Champion had indeed found a third career that would provide him with a challenge for many years to come.