The worst car I ever drove - Unreliable memories

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Ari Vatanen – Ford Escort RS 1800 reg. no. RRK 425 W

Ari Vatanen was the first Finn to win the World Rally Championship, no thanks, he tells John Davenport, to one particular Ford Escort

When nine FIA World Rally Champions in the last 18 years have been Finns, it’s good to be able to say, as Ari Vatanen can, that he was the first to earn that title. But the year in which it came was one of amazing highs and terrible lows.

Ford’s works team retired from international rallying at the end of 79 to concentrate on development of new cars as production of the Midi Escort was ceasing in 1980. However, they did lend cars, parts and the services of Vatanen to the privately owned David Sutton team who kept Ford’s flag flying for the next couple of years. For 1981, Sutton signed a mega-deal with Rothmans of which the mainspring was Vatanen tackling the FIA World Championship.

Ari recollects, “I did ten World Rallies that year and this was before they shortened them! Most were over 3000km and had 900km of stages. It was hard work with little chance to rest between them.”

The year started badly with an engine failure on the Monte Carlo but improved two weeks later in Sweden when Vatanen and Richards came second overall. “We could have won in Sweden but two things were against us: Hannu [Mikkola] and the new Audi Quattro with its secret weapon of four-wheel drive. He led Monte for a while with very quick times before his accident, but we thought that the longer studs used in Sweden would work better for us. Still, we were quickest of the normal cars.”

In Portugal, Ari left the road while leading “I was so surprised to see the Audi stopped in the stage that I guess I wasn’t listening to the notes” but won the Acropolis for the second year running. The leader of the Championship at this point was Guy Frequelin driving a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. Ari lay third, some eleven points behind the Frenchman.

The WRC circus now moved to South America and two events, one in Argentina, the Rally Codasur, and the other in Brazil. The Codasur was no doddle. It was 4200Icm long, of which 1600km were stages. For this tough event, Ari had a new car, RRK 425W.

The troubles started straight away. “The car was in the Customs House in plenty of time but they seemed not to want to let us have it. While we waited, I caught Buenos Aires ‘flu. I was feeling really rotten by the time David [Sutton] got the car so we didn’t do much testing.” At the time this didn’t seem important since there was a long run from Buenos Aires to the serious stages up by San Miguel de Tucuman. Then, to compound the problem, the first stage nearest to Buenos Aires was cancelled. “We did a couple of gravel stages and I could cope, but on the first tarmac one, the brakes were awful, and no adjustment could get them right.”

From leading, Ari slipped back. The pedal box was changed on the way to the first stage of the next leg. “That lost ten minutes in penalties. Now we were behind slower cars and had to drive in their dust. To make the times in such conditions, you take risks because you see nothing when you overtake.” The times were good and Ari was making up his deficit to Frequelin and rally leader, Timo Salonen.

“But then, you know that car did it to me again. It stopped in a stage. The crankshaft pulley broke and came off. David Richards] managed to get hold of the crew on the radio and they came in to us and fixed it. But then we were really in a hurry to stay in the rally.” They got to the next control at Salta Within a few minutes of exclusion. The chances of Winning were now gone but a good result was still on the cards. “But on the next long stage, I caught some driver and went off in his dust. End of rally.”

It was too. Frequelin won and extended his lead to 31 points. Ariother Escort was flown out for Braid and Ari romped home ahead of Frequelin. The gap was down to 26 points. The next event was the 1000 Lakes where Ari won and Frequelin didn’t compete. Six points. In San Remo, Frequelin retired and Ari finished seventh. The gap stood at two points.

There were two events left that counted for the Drivers Championship : the Ivory Coast and RAC Rallies. Frequelin had a drive in a works Peugeot for the African event and so, with great reluctance, the David Sutton equipe rolled out RRK 425W to see if they could pick up some more points for Ari.

“I remember that event as pure survival. With 5000km of African roads, you knew it would be hard work. There was rain early on and our Escort was like a Scotsman ordering a whisky. It did not like water so we had to stop to dry out the engine. Then, on the last tricky section into Yamoussoukro, this lorry hit the Escort. It came on the wrong side of the road in a sharp right-hander over a brow. We never saw the driver, he disappeared into the jungle. But that lorry had something seriously smelly on board – fish or something. I’ll never forget that smell.”

The Escort was badly damaged and the team had a job just to make it mobile. The accident bent almost everything up to the windscreen. They got it all pointing in roughly the right direction so the car was driveable, but its steering was all over the place.

“Even the wipers didn’t work. We had to de pieces of string to the arms and David pulled them from inside. I am sure he finds running Benetton’s F1 team is an easier job. Then the clutch went, then the starter motor. So we couldn’t stop to clean mud from the lights or the screen. Then, a front wheel bearing went so the car wouldn’t even freewheel.

“It was a nightmare. I remember coming to a halt where you were meant to have seven hours rest. The other drivers were just leaving as we arrived.”

The Escort finally crossed the line in ninth and last place. Its time penalties placed it 22 hours and 15 minutes behind the winner. Ninth place gave Ari just two WRC points. Ari reflects that, “No rally crew ever worked so hard to win so few points.”

Frequelin finished fifth so the championship gap widened to eight points. Ari would need a pretty good result on the RAC to clinch the tide but his hard-earned two points would mean that it would be just that little bit easier than if the Escort had retired in the Ivory Coast. In the end, Ari drove the RAC to perfection and took second place while Frequelin, feeling the pressure, dropped back with a puncture and then went off in Wales on the last night Ari won the championship by seven points.

“That Escort gave me some really bad times in the two rallies that I did with it. But I guess that, though I didn’t need those two points at the end, if we hadn’t got them, then Guy might have been a bit more relaxed on that RAC Rally. Arid who knows what the result might have been then…”

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