Leader of the opposition

If Max Mosley has his way then Jean Todt will be the new FIA president, and yet former World Rally Champion and MEP Ari Vatanen thinks he can spoil their party
By Adam Cooper

Spend just a few minutes in Ari Vatanen’s company and it’s hard not to be won over by his engaging personality and easy, relaxed manner. His conversation is peppered with philosophical asides, and you soon realise that this man has experienced a lot in his 57 years.

Vatanen has had two lives, the first as a fiercely competitive rally driver who won the 1981 World Championship and then survived a terrible accident in Argentina four years later which very nearly killed him. His recovery from that episode – outlined in detail in his 1988 autobiography Every Second Counts – was the toughest mental and physical test he’s ever had to face.

It did much to shape the man who changed direction completely in 1999 when he became a Member of the European Parliament, a role he pursued for a decade. Now he’s embroiled in yet another challenge, taking on Jean Todt in the election for the job of FIA president.

Todt is not the incumbent, but he might as well be. Max Mosley has given the Frenchman his wholehearted support and has in effect transferred his powerbase across. Erstwhile FIA communications director Richard Woods, a key Mosley aide, is running Todt’s campaign.

Vatanen meanwhile appears to be more or less on his own, describing his wife as his only spin doctor. He’s already had some indication that this is going to be a tough fight after being lambasted for claiming that Todt had been using an FIA plane on the campaign trail. So a few weeks into the contest, how does he feel?

“Feeling is very subjective, but on a personal front, I am enjoying this,” says Vatanen. “Because honestly, how often do elections like this come up at the FIA? Roughly once in 20 years! And how many people can participate with legitimacy in that election? So to be in that situation is extraordinary.

“So I’m enjoying it every day, with a lot of humility, very modestly. You know that what you are proposing with other like-minded people is something which will stand [up to] scrutiny. Not that we are perfect, not that we have the monopoly of the truth. But anyway, we are proposing an improvement. And that’s it. So how far we get, we will see.”

Vatanen has already attended the German and Hungarian Grands Prix, and his candidacy has been well received in the paddock. But Formula 1 team principals don’t have a vote – FIA elections are all about the member clubs, large and small, some with little or no direct involvement in motor sport.

“That is true, and you must never lose sight of it,” says Vatanen. “But how people’s hearts and minds function is not an exact science. So we will do our very best in canvassing on a ground level, and life will take care of the rest. How the wind turns in life, nobody can control it. So we are into exciting times.”

Vatanen’s main backer is America’s AAA, but he has other key nations behind him. “Of course it would be disappointing not to have big clubs on our side,” he says. “We also have [the backing of] small clubs in various parts of the world. But the big clubs obviously are the opinion leaders. These are the people who don’t want radically to change anything.

“But I’ve said it before – had I been in power for 20 years, probably the FIA would need an even bigger overhaul than after Max. It’s only normal after the same people have been in power for a long time.

“It’s like a tree – I’m not saying that you’re cutting off rotten wood, because that would be a bad interpretation. But any tree needs trimming now and then in order to prosper. And I’m proposing this trimming.”

Of course, Mosley’s clear support of Todt has not made life any easier. “Yes, but nothing is black and white in life,” argues Vatanen. “I don’t even know whether to comment, is it fair or not? But anything too one-sided can also backfire.”

The irony is that Todt and Vatanen go way back in the sport. Perhaps only Michael Schumacher has enjoyed a closer relationship with the Frenchman.

“We have seen all the colours of the rainbow together,” says Ari. “We have won everything, we have lost everything, been to funerals together. I nearly died in Argentina while driving for him.

“During an election there are storms in the cup, but no, it doesn’t change what we have experienced together. And in any case as a starting point – and I come from politics – it’s totally legitimate and it would be very odd if other people would not go for the same place that you go. That’s what democracy is about. Anything else would be bizarre.

“In a way it’s nicer to be in a race with somebody you know. You won’t know the result until October 23. People always ask the same question – how do you rate your chances? Well, a) they are positive, and b) that’s not the point. The point is that you think you are proposing something sound, so every second of this process is worthwhile.”

Todt has closer links with the FIA, forged through his years on various commissions and via Ferrari’s seat on the World Motor Sport Council. However, Vatanen has the experience of a decade in Brussels and Strasbourg on which to call. “Obviously the politics have helped, but I’m also more mature as a human being,” he says. “What renders a man strong is his independence. Only an independent person is a strong person, because if vested interests take him one way or another, he’s not a free man. Only an independent man, a free man, is strong. And I definitely am one.

“What have I got to lose if I propose something solid? How far we’ll get, we will see. But my happiness will not depend on the outcome of October 23. I don’t even imagine that I can control my life. To a very small extent man can control his life. Who could have expected what happened to Felipe Massa, or to the son of John Surtees, for example?

“A fraction of a second, 5cms more left or right, that can make a difference. When you realise that, you have to live like a flower that is blossoming. If you live conservatively, it’s like driving the rally of life with the handbrake on and only using the first two gears and with dipped lights. You believe in something, you go for it.”

His spell as an MEP may have sharpened Vatanen’s political skills, but he’s never been afraid to speak his mind. Even when he wrote his book he had some pretty clear thoughts on motor sport’s governing body. Back then it was run by Jean-Marie Balestre, who had as dramatic an impact on rallying as he did on Grand Prix racing.

“FISA’s methods and its president are irritating to someone accustomed to western democracy,” wrote Ari. “What is worse is that nobody, anywhere, dares to cross them because if they do they soon find themselves run out of motor sport altogether, and a country runs the risk of being denied any competition of merit. To my knowledge, Jean Todt is the only person to have dared to stand up for his rights.”

Twenty-one years later, Vatanen and Todt are locking horns as they seek to take over from
the man who usurped Balestre. It’s going to be
a fascinating contest.