Rebuilding on the rebound

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Not for the first time, An Vatanen feels the need to rebuild his career. He did it after his near fatal 1985 accident in Argentina, and after being unceremoniously sacked by Mitsubishi at the end of 1990, but now the amiable Finn faces one of his greatest psychological challenges.

Shortly after finishing second on the 1990 1000 Lakes Rally, he was relieved of his World Rally Championship status by his Japanese employers, It came as a complete surprise, a stomach punch to the flabbergasted former World Champion whose future had been thrown into disarray. He still had his rally raid commitments with Citroen, in which he enjoyed his number one star billing whenever he appeared, but without a WRC programme he felt empty. “One has tried to be philosophical about it, what else can you do?” he pondered shortly after he was given his P45. “I would dearly love to do the World Championship now after all these long distance events and fight for every single second. As a sportsman you have to squeeze everything out of yourself and it is very satisfying if you can still do it competitively. But then, you have to tell yourself that, okay, you’ve been in far bigger problems than that in your life and still survived.”

Factory teams had already signed drivers for 1991 and Vatanen was left without a WRC drive until the RAC when, to his immense delight, his former co-driver, now boss of Prodrive, offered him a contract with Subaru. The reformed partnership with David Richards started well, Ari achieving precisely what he set out to do with a steady drive to fifth, bringing the only surviving works Legacy back to the finish in Harrogate.

However, 1992 has not been so kind, with his latest WRC outing culminating in a new crisis. While team-mate Colin McRae, some 16 years his junior, romped home in second place, Vatanen crashed out of the first stage, rolling his identical Subaru into a proverbial snowball. Tortured by guilt, tormented by murmurs that he’s past his peak and left to the anguish of his own uncertainty, he returned to his home in Provence to reconstruct his shattered spirit.

Stardom has not changed Vatanen, but has given the son of a farmer confidence to talk to any man as an equal, be it Nick Faldo (his close golfing buddy) or a desert tuareg in Timbuktu. Not restricted by his profession, he enjoys holding court about very personal experiences outside rallying which have shaped his life. Indeed, life is clearly put into perspective, and he doesn’t hesitate to state that driving a car pales into insignificance compared to his family and religion Now 40 years old, he’s seen and experienced much. It’s given him a wealth of knowledge, and he’s an accomplished authority of subjects ranging from French politics to flying helicopters.

However, like his departure from Mitsubishi, there are some things he’s reluctant to discuss and this year’s Swedish Rally is deeply rooted in that category. “Oh dear, do we have to talk about it?” he asked with evident pain when questioned about his violent stage one exit “I wouldn’t really like to talk about it what can I say? An unacceptable mistake and that’s it, that’s all I cast say. It hurts me to think about it.”

He accepts the accident (which to compound his misery occurred on co-driver Bruno Bergtund’s 50th birthday) was his own fault and only he can readdress it. “Too hard, too early.” he allows “How can I make such a big mistake? But anyway I did do it and I can’t turn the clock back. What can I say? I can say nothing.”

Since 1987 Vatanen has combined conventional rallying with the very different demands of rally raids, winning the Paris-Dakar three times out of four attempts with Peugeot. The first signalled his return to competition, an extraordinary display of courage to highlight to the world that the Vatanen of old was back. However, the ensuing race across the Sahara was nothing compared to the human battle he’d already won. The extensive physical injuries which included multiple fractures to the ribs on the left side and a smashed second lumbar vertebra (which caused breathing difficulties) and a broken right tibia were bad, but the Peugeot-Talbot Sport doctor, Jean Duby, reckoned would be fit again in four to six months. However, the mental scars were much deeper and took considerably longer to heal.

Convinced he’d contracted AIDS after a number of blood transfusions in Corboda Emetgency Hospital, he became a virtual recluse back home in Finland, suspicious of an outside world that had suddenly turned against him. It was the solidarity of his family,

particularly his wife Rita, which he says helped him through this traumatic nightmare. He also found sanctuary and strength in his faith, and gradually the mental torture was suppressed.

An ordeal such as that has made him appreciate man’s fragile existence’ on earth, and how little time he has to enjoy the important things in life. Moving to a smallholding in Provence not only strengthened the Vatanen family ties still further but, to his considerable enjoyment, ensured that his children grew up away from the impurities of a city and in harmony with nature. On September 26, 1990, he became a father for the fourth time, as Kim, Ria and Turn gained another brother. Max. “The older I become the more I realise how much more time I must invest in the family. It is by far the best investment you can make,” he says. “When you have children of different ages you become yourself, hopefully, more mature. You realise that time is running out: it’s not a commodity which goes on forever… So often work takes over your family and then, 20 years later, you regret it and then it’s too late.”

The desire to compete therefore particularly on the Paris-Dakar which takes him away from home at one of the most religious and family-oriented periods of the year appears to be a contradiction to Ari’s philosophy on life. However, when he talks about the ‘Experience of Life’ which he frequently does, expanding knowledge by travelling and doing what he’s good at is enveloped within. That’s why, even after such a horrific accident, he was able to climb back into a car and tackle events such as the Paris-Dakar and Paris-Cape Town which, to date, has claimed the lives of 31 people.

When, in January 1990, Peugeot drew its hugely successful raid programme to a close. Vatanen’s immediate future in the deserts was assured by its sister company Citroen. Under the close eye of Jean Todt, he gave Guy Frequelin’s new team a magnificent launch by winning the gruelling Baja Aragon in Spain, where midday temperatures reached 48 degrees C. The new squad made sufficient improvements to the Camel-backed ZX Rallye-Raid machines to assure a fourth Dakar victory for Africa’s favourite Finn.

When the Thierry Sabine Organisation, the French family firm which had run all the previous 13 Paris-Dakars, announced that the 1992 African marathon would forsake the well established ergs of the Sahara for the equatorial forests of south-west Africa, few believed Vatanen would not arrive first in Cape Town.

For sure, Mitsubishi posed a very serious threat, but not only did the Sonauto Ralhart Pajeros have to overcome Citroen, they had to beat the man who’s combined desert and forest driving was unequalled among other competitors. However, it didn’t really work out like that, and even Ari himself was surprised to be queuing for the podium in fifth position, after one of his most frustrating motorsport failures. He has encountered many emotions on the finish line in Dakar ranging from great joy on his victorious return to motorsport in ’87 after 18 months recuperating from his multiple Argentinian injuries, and great sadness after the death of his close friend. Kai Salminen, in 1990. However, Cape Town offered a new feeling of disappointment. The sight of three victorious Rothmans Mitsubishi drivers spraying the champagne ahead of him left a lump in his throat, and the man used to all the attention was virtually left alone with his thoughts. Despite the circumstances he refused to be grumpy, turning his personal disenchantment into public encouragement. “I know the feeling of being up there, but sometimes it’s good to be back here” he said. “It makes it feel better the next time!”

Even team-mate Bjorn Waldegard had finished ahead of him, and while the world’s press swarmed over Hubert Auriol, the two former World Rally Champions were almost uninterrupted as they discussed where it had all gone wrong Indeed, they’d had a lot of time to do precisely that. Once the Citroens had fallen behind better prepared rivals in the desert, Auriol was able to control the pace of the event along the narrow, twisty jungles roads, leaving a furious Citroen squad suffocating in his dusty wake. For an event which adopted Africa as its home for 22 days, competition had lasted just six, as sections were either ruined by dust or cancelled by the organisers. At least, that’s what Jean Todt flew into Ruacana – on the once military infested frontier of Angola and Namibia – to tell TSO’s 70 year-old boss Gilbert Sabine. During that animated confrontation, he also said that unless the rules were altered for next year, and more competitive mileage could be guaranteed, Citroen would not return.

Reminded of his team manager’s little outburst, Vatanen agreed that the competitive element should have lasted longer, but remained diplomatic. “It can be, in my view, much tougher because it is still very regulated. When you are on a piste, the parameters are very clear, but when you are on an open desert I personally, and many others, have had big time losses near the end when we have been in Mauritania, for example. The situation has stayed much more open normally, but now it cannot stay as open. When you have difficult dunes, like on the way to the Nega Pass, you get stuck and you lose half an hour just like that. A little navigational problem on top of it and that’s one hour gone. So, that changes a lot, but here on the road you cannot lose an hour, that won’t happen very easily.”

However, the rules were exactly the same for Mitsubishi, and Citroen’s erratic satellite navigation equipment and far too frequent punctures aided its rival’s domination of things. Vatanen accepts that, where in the past it has been a team success, this year was a team failure. “From my point of view it’s very clear, there’s nothing mysterious about it, or about my situation or about the situation of the whole team. We have made mistakes and the others have not made mistakes. You cannot have it always going for you as we have had, so for now, at least for once, it’s different. There’s nothing fundamental that suddenly puts us a long way behind, not at all.”

Never had the Camel Citroen team spirit been so low, but it relied on Ari for a characteristic word of, if not encouragement, then philosophy “Of course we are disappointed, but at the same time you have to accept that you can’t win everything, and next time you will be twice as strong and you will appreciate your win twice as much when you have lost something,” he preaches.

It’s a theory he brought with him into this year’s WRC, which in the light of the Swedish disaster is stronger than ever. His determination to succeed again at rallying’s highest level remains unblemished, and he has dedicated 1992 as the year he’ll return to the pinnacle of the sport. However, after five years of rally raiding, he insists he hasn’t lost interest in cross country marathons, merely putting that on hold. Losing so much time in the early part of the Paris-Cape Town ensured that he had no realistic chance of winning the event, and having already missed a family Christmas and then spending the first two weeks of the New Year driving in the heat and dirt of an African convoy explains his disillusionment with the rally.

Nevertheless, Vatanen reckoned he was as motivated as ever before the start of the Paris-Cape Town, and he’d like to return and win the event one day. But he’ll only spend next Christmas on the Dark Continent if he doesn’t do the Monte Carlo Rally, and with the cancellation of the Baja Aragon -his only other possible appearance with Citroen this season his next rally raid voyage may signal a permanent departure from the WRC.

Unless there’s a significant date change, attempting both the Paris-Cape Town and the Monte Carlo is impossible. “It’s a question of time,” explains Ari. Time, however, is a commodity that he knows is in short supply if he wants to win the WRC for the second time. He’s had three months to forget about Sweden, and this month’s Acropolis Rally will be yet another big test of strength and character. It’s also a test he knows he must not fail, not least for his own peace of mind.

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