It’s early in the 1981 RAC Rally. Hannu Mikkola passes Ari Vatanen’s Ford Escort RS1800. It’s in a ditch. The more senior of the two flying Finns waits anxiously at the end of the stage. Much to his relief, Vatanen emerges.
“You’ll never win the world championship if you carry on like that,” Mikkola told his countryman, who needed a top-five finish to take the title.
Vatanen heard him. And, unusually for that point in his career, listened. Five days later, Ari and co-driver David Richards were World Champions.
Such a measured, sensible approach might have netted second on the RAC and a first world title, but it wasn’t exactly what the world had come to expect of Vatanen.
He was much more the hard-charging, all-or-nothing kind of driver. And it’s that that has endeared him to millions of fans the world over.
Here was a man who beat Walter Röhrl to victory on the 1985 Monte Carlo Rally by five minutes… and that was after being hit by an eight-minute timing penalty.
Ari could do things with a car that few others would even dare dream of. Talking to him about the RS1800, AV stops you in mid flow.
“Look,” he says. “Look at the hairs on my arm…”
They had indeed risen.
“The MkII Escort,” Vatanen smiles. “Was the glove on my hand.”
There will be plenty such gloves going up the hill and around the Forest Rally Stage at June’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.
After winning the 1981 title in a private Escort run by David Sutton, the car struggled against more prominent Group 4 machinery the following season, devoid of any factory Ford involvement. Vatanen moved to Opel at the end of 1982, winning the Safari in his final outing in an Ascona 400 the following season. Later in 1983, AV delivered one of the most astonishing saves ever captured on film, collecting a fifth-gear slide to tuck Terry Harryman’s side of the car in, inches before they go through a gate on the Manx.
Vatanen stories can go on forever, but it was only when he joined Peugeot that they went into fast-forward. Group B had been waiting for a driver like Ari, a driver brave enough to tackle one of these monsters head-on. Vatanen tamed Peugeot’s 205 T16 in a way few could ever dream.
He won on his third outing in the car and then won five on the bounce between 1984 and 1985: 1,000 Lakes, Sanremo, RAC, Monte Carlo and Swedish.
Vatanen’s hopes of a second world title in four years were derailed, however, by the four consecutive retirements that followed. When he reached the finish in New Zealand, 1985, he was over the moon, even if he was second to team-mate Timo Salonen.
A third-placed Röhrl pulled Vatanen to one side following the champagne in Auckland. Vatanen recalls: “Walter told me: ‘The important thing, Ari, is to finish in one piece’. He was right.”
The following month, Vatanen didn’t finish. Both he and the 205 were in pieces. On July 31, 1985 Vatanen’s 205 rolled out of Rally Argentina. His seat broke, leaving AV bouncing around the inside of the car until it came to rest.
Forgetting the crushed leg and all manner of superficial injuries, any one of a fractured cervical vertebra, crushed rib cage with eight broken ribs, punctured lung or damaged lumbar vertebrae could have killed him.
His biggest fight had begun. To be followed, more than a year later, by his biggest win. He celebrated his recovery by flying a Dakar-spec 205 through the Saharan sand dunes.
Asked to sign his autobiography, Vatanen rarely leaves just his name. It’s usually accompanied by a simple sentence: “The life in beautiful.”