Name: Ari Vatanen
Motorsport Class: 1981 World Rally Champion
At what age were you when you first got involved in motorsport?
Driving tractors at 6 yrs, cars at 12 and I was 18 when I did my first rally. Life has flown very fast!
Who was your biggest influence in rallying when growing up?
I was living far away in a rural area, my father had died in a car accident (I was in the car with the entire family) – I knew nobody. I listen to radio when Timo Mäkinen won Monte Carlo 1965 and few years afterwards Hannu Mikkola won East African Safari and London-Mexico rally. They and many others made me to dream.
What was your first road car?
My mother bought us Opel Kadett 1964, 993cm3 motor and 42 brake horse… Night time I dared to drive on public road at the mature age of 14.
What was your very first rally car?
Opel Kadett Rally, 1,9l.
Having driven numerous competition cars, which has been the most memorable and why?
Two cars: Ford Escort BDA, my first works car, a fantastic engine and plenty of sideways. But the real one was Peugeot 205 T16. I’ll enclose the foreword I wrote couple of years ago for another French 205-book. (at bottom of this page)
What is the ultimate special stage / rally for you?
Every rally has its own character, the beauty of rallying. The only rally which made me nervous was the 1000 Lakes, so fast in front the home crowd. There were no excuses!
The most memorable and the best sporting performance was in 1985 Monte Carlo rally when I overcame 8min penalty against Walter Rohl.
The best single stage was maybe Vaheri 1993 1000 Lakes when I beat Juha Kankkunen by 11sec on 20 km. The biggest difference up until then had been 4 sec on 40km stage. Thanks to that flyer time I went from -8sec position to +3seconds – and the engine started misfiring on the following stage.
What vehicle format would you recommend for young drivers entering motorsport today? Front wheel drive, rear wheel drive or 4 wheel drive?
Whatever they get their hands on! Only the mileage under your belts counts. Later on its equally easy to go to 4wd from front or rear wheel drive car.
What advice could you give an up and coming driver looking for sponsorship?
Shake hands with everybody and look into their eyes… in other words: good manners.
You have to sell yourself with modern means, social media etc. Look at what Ken Block has done!! He has not finished very high up on the podium but he is known world wide!
Hayden is very active in his communication and sponsorship hunt. He deserves a break and is a good model – after my late friend Possum Bourne – to young Kiwis.
Business to business counts today. Rallying can be a pretext to get together like-minded people who realize the business opportunities between themselves.
If you could design the perfect formula for a rally car what would it be?
Different levels: different cars. In the beginning very cost efficient cars – the same maker cars (or how you call them) are very good. When cars are all the same you see who is good.
Many limitations: if the engine and gearbox must last 20 rallies, its cheaper for everybody. If you can only use 6 tyres then they must be very hard compound. When it’s the same for everybody – where is the problem?
If you could make one change for the better to modern rallying what would it be?
If we can’t increase publicity for rallying, then we must lower the cost. Otherwise the constructors and sponsors stay away. Everybody must find value for their money!
In 1977 your reputation was elevated to legendary status for many kiwi rally fans with your epic drive to 2nd place in the Radio New Zealand Rally. In particular a cold dark night out of Gisborne when you started 4th on the road in the Masport Escort and came through 1st having caught and passed all three works Fiats. What can you remember of that drive?
As I said after the stage: “see Naples and die” or whatever the proverb says. (Meaning: now I die happy). That rally and that stage stands out in my rallying history. Wild and beautiful! What a satisfaction from pure speed!
At the end of the factory Mk2 Escort programme, and before the Group B Peugeot you were involved with Ford testing the RS1700T. What were your thoughts on that car and could it have been a winner at the time?
It was too little too late. I’m very surprised that Ford undertook such a project which was condemned before the start. 4 wheel drive Audi was out already and we kept messing about with 2 wheel drive car…
You have had a wonderful career spanning from the early escort days and your 1981 World Championship, through Peugeot 205 and the Group B era, Pikes Peak, Paris Dakar events, and then Group A cars in the 90’s. What sticks in your mind as a particularly memorable experience?
Many events and moments, I have had a rich and privileged life. The start of Paris-Dakar 1987 stands out in a special way after my nearly fatal 1985 Argentina accident. It was a come back to life! I had to pinch myself to believe that it was me standing there at the startline on the Christmas day morning. The victory at the end was a bonus.
Returning to NZ to drive a BDA Escort in 2011 must have been a special experience and you wasted no time in setting some very quick times to lead the event on the first full day. What was it like to drive an escort again after all those years and were you surprised at how quickly you were on the pace, given the amount of time since you had driven competitively?
It was like going back a half century! I enjoyed the long forest stage where I could find a little bit of “old Ari” and that made the difference. It still hurts me to think that “old Ari” spoiled everything on the same ultimate stage by hitting a gate post!
You were a factory driver for Ford and a member of the “Boreham family” throughout the mid to late 70’s. Do you still keep in touch with any of the personnel from that era?
I still see occasionally some of the Boreham members, especially John Wheeler with whom I have kept in touch.
I recall a quote from you recently that your life has “turned a page” from your motorsport career. How do you spend your time these days?
After 10 years in the European Parliament I work now for Rita in our farm in South of France – and that is tough!
Your son Max appears to have followed in his father’s footsteps and is now an accomplished rally driver. Is it likely that we will see more of the Vatanen name in the future?
Max has only started rallying last summer so Rita’s worries are not over yet! Rallying involves the entire family and of course there is a certain anxiety which does not exist in “normal” sports. Life takes its course and its our duty and privilege to help. Every moment – good or bad – is intense and has a value in itself. Occasional podium is extra.
Foreward from the French 205 Book, by Ari Vatanen
Every now and then I still see a Peugeot 205 passing me with a faded red, blue and yellow logo on it. No, it is not the flag of some insignificant far away island, they are the colours of Peugeot Talbot Sport. My memories from that period have not faded.
It was the best time of my rallying career – or should I say my life? Not because I won some rallies but thanks to the fact that during my 205-time I saw all the colours of life from the darkest till the brightest. Many more colours than there are in a rainbow.
We shook hands with the royals in front of palaces and met the poorest of the poor behind the dunes. I had an incredible win in the 1985 Monte Carlo Rally and a few months later I nearly lost my life in Argentina. We went up the Champs Elysées in a winning parade and our heads went down by the unjust death of our friend Christian Tarin in the rally of Pharaoh.
The depth of life is not measured by the number of rally wins, and as my wife Rita says: too much success does to us what the sun does to Sahara.
Peugeot 205 T 16 is much more than a rally car to me. There is a profound human story behind it. In the early eighties Peugeot had very little money left in the coffers but despite that MD Mr Boillot took alone the very courageous decision to take up rallying. He passed away recently and I remember him with respect and emotion. Mr Boillot gave free hands to Jean Todt, who rolled up his sleeves – and the rest is history!
Not many realise the vital role 205 T 16 rally program played in the rescue plan of Peugeot, we were not only fighting for a rally win but at the same time factory workers’ livelihood got a new lease of life. In the beginning the sceptics were trying to dampen our spirits – the untried technical concept with French staff and attitude: that will not work!
Deep inside I knew better – Jean, the determined eyes of our mechanics and the discreet wisdom of Jean Claude Vaucard had convinced me. But I could not imagine beforehand the dimensions of this human adventure! The mechanics were working at Bois de Boulogne throughout the night and Jean brought them croissants in the morning. Not many team principals would do that. Our team was welded together by the hope of things to come.
I fell in love with the car immediately. No other car has rendered me as confident as the 205 T 16. With faith we can move mountains! The car felt like a glove in my hand, I clicked my fingers and 205 did the trick. I had a smile on my face whether I was at Pikes Peak or Paris Dakar. The 205 captured the attention of the French Nation in an unprecedented way.
It left nobody indifferent and our victories and setbacks were shared by the Elysèe as well as a refugee cleaning lady at the Sochaux factory. Daily troubles were forgotten for a moment. Is this not what the real mission in life is all about: raise ourselves above boundaries and see in a fellow human being what we have in common?
Even nowadays people come often up to me and refer to the 205 “Belle Époque”: “Merci de nous avoir fait rêver!” J’en suis honoré.
I hope you all enjoyed reading this “Meet the Driver” – I know I did!
I’d really like to thank Ari very much for being so kind in giving up some of his very precious time to be part of this website and to give such good advice. It’s very much appreciated.
I’d also like to thank Danny James for making this happen. Awesome work Danny!
Please enjoy some of the videos found online, along with some more photos. I have credited the photographers where known. If I have used your image and you would like me to add the credit, please contact me.
Footage from Rally NZ – 1977