In the hot seat

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Surely the most humanistic politician in Brussels, Ari Vatanen is also one of the most exciting rally drivers ever to grace this earth. So what was it like driving the widest-ever Escort and doing Pikes one-handed?

Your 1988 run on Pikes Peak in the Peugeot 405 was breathtaking tell us about taking one hand off the wheel and using it as a sunshield. (Yes, we’ve seen the footage!) Alex Roache, Stratford-upon-Avon

People from all around the world ask me about Pikes Peak it seems to be a popular subject! In pure performance terms, Pikes Peak is the ultimate test by a long way. That film was shot during the practice runs, which were early in the morning, and the sun was so low it came straight into my eyes. People are amazed that I was brave enough to steer with one hand at Pikes Peak, with its sheer drops off the edge, but I have to burst the bubble: okay, when you go up slowly you look sideways and think, ‘Oh dear, that’s a big drop’; but when you’re doing it for real it’s different because you don’t think about the drop you’re totally focused on driving. Before the start I would walk around in the forest to concentrate and psyche myself up. When the flag dropped, passion would take over and automatically the rest of the world was no longer in vision.

British rally fans have fond memories of your exploits in the “black beauty” MkII Escort in 1982, reputedly the widest Escort ever built. What are your memories of it? Robin Middleton, Newbury

Of course, the Escort was already obsolete by that time because Audi had changed everything. But occasionally, like the Scottish Rally of ’82, I was blindingly fast. At night, Hannu Mikkola could not match my speed even though he had four-wheel drive. So I have very fond memories of it; it was an incredibly spectacular car to drive. But when you were going quickly over Tarmac bumps it was a real handful. I had a really big accident that year on the Isle of Man, because I was pushing it a bit too far. We were zig-zagging down the road, and I was fighting it for hundreds of metres at high speed, and finally I lost it. Afterwards, they asked my co-driver Terry Harryman at what point he had realised we were going to have a major accident. He replied: “In scrutineering.”

Which of your fellow Finns did you fear the most: Mikkola, Toivonen, Kankkunen, Alén or Salonen? Hamish Laing, Norfolk

Fear? Does that mean respect? On Toivonen, I’ve always believed that Henri himself never realised just how much sheer talent and speed he possessed. Therefore he never truly came to terms with it, and never fully took advantage of it. Mikkola was 10 years older than me, but someone I always respected as a driver and gentleman. Not very expressive, but always a very correct man he was the only driver who came to see me regularly in the hospital after my Argentina accident. I had some great battles with Alén while Kankkunen’s peak came after my accident, so it’s harder to judge him. Salonen was very talented, but just so laid-back. When he arrived as my team-mate at Peugeot in 1985, he immediately asked for two things to be changed on the car: that they fit assisted steering and an ashtray! It’s too hard to say who was best — we’re all so different. Sometimes Finns are described as ‘dour’, but the six of us are all totally diverse characters.

Why is it that Finland has produced so many great rally drivers over the years? Adam Crocker, Belfast

I’ve always said that all you need to be a top rally driver is a heavy foot and an empty head! But seriously, I think Finns are very individual people, and are not best suited to team sports — ice hockey aside, perhaps. We have good footballers spread across the world, but bring them all together, and to keep them happy you have to give them 11 balls. So we tend to excel in sports where we’re on our own, such as ski jumping and motor racing. But it’s rather alarming that Finns seem to be only really good at sports where our heads are in danger!

From what age did you believe you had the talent to become world rally champion? Lindsey Buckle, Sydney, Australia

I only ever believed I could do it when I had actually become champion in 1981. I’m not ambitious, I’m just active. When I was young, my career was nothing but a struggle — but luckily I never realised how far it was to the top of the mountain, because I never dared even look that far. I just focused on the next stage. How to get the next set of tyres; how to get the panel-beater paid; how to squeeze another £100 out of my mother. It was continuous crisis management.

What possessed you to make that comeback drive in the Peugeot on the Monte in 1985? Rob Jackson, Chesterfield

For sure, it was one of the great wins, and when I think of that rally, it’s very special because we had to overcome so much adversity. Nothing went according to plan. First of all, I heard the news that my first co-driver from 1971 had died of cancer. It was expected, but when it happens it’s still a shock. Then I was out running and fell ill, went to hospital and could not complete the recce. My co-driver Terry Harryman called in Fred Gallagher to help, but they rolled my car while making the notes. Then on the second stage, I hit some spectators, which was not nice — one of them broke a leg — and the radiator was damaged. It was a terrible start Walter Röhrl was pulling away, until I found this completely new speed altogether and we beat him by 25sec on one stage. After that, I never looked back — I was a different Ari, full of confidence. But then there was the famous clocking-in-too-early incident, and it seemed we had lost all hope of victory. Terry was distraught I said, “Now, Terry, put it behind you. You’ve made a mistake, and now you have to read the notes better than ever in your life.” We went beyond flat-out and won. Massively satisfying.

Do you ever think about your accident in Argentina in 1985 and wonder, ‘What if?” Nick Poulos, Devon

I often think about the accident The surgeon told me he’d never seen a patient with such a low oxygen value in their blood — it was below 20. That normally means you’re dead. But I now think I was incredibly lucky to have this happen to me, because otherwise maybe I would not have realised how totally selfish and introspective we can be. It made me realise that we are all living on borrowed time, that life is a gift given to us all, and that I must treat all human beings according to their unique value. That’s why I work as an MEP now; I have to try to help.

What was the key to you winning the Paris Dakar Rally first time out in 1987? Matt Wilson, Marlborough

I can’t pinpoint it. But you have to remember the background. I was coming back from near-death. So just to be at the start meant so much to me. And then, on the very first special stage near Paris, my front suspension collapsed through a mechanical failure. I was telling Jean Todt, ‘I know it was not my mistake’! And then to actually win the rally was amazing — because just to be alive was fantastic. So at the end I was so overwhelmed by life. The Dakar win was a dream, but in a way it was just a bonus on top of being there in the first place. My wife, Rita, came to see me in Dakar; I still remember that pink cardigan she was wearing. I was in love — with her and with life.

Were you ever tempted to go circuit racing like Röhrl or Jean Ragnotti? Nick Eduard, Kensington

I’ve done a few saloon races in my time — I did the Niirburgring 24 Hours once and, on that sort of circuit, it appealed to me. But rallying is my life. It’s given me so much, and allowed me to take in many great challenges. It’s never left me cold or indifferent.

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