Statistically, Ari Vatanen’s single World Rally Championship title may not seem especially significant against those with multiple crowns to their name. But, rather like Colin McRae, the impact he made on motorsport was far greater than the sum of his numbers.
Vatanen was one of the original ‘Flying Finns’, becoming his nation’s second World Rally Champion in 1981. But it was his flat-out sideways style behind the wheel that captured the imagination of fans around the world and inspired a generation of rally drivers.
Beating Hannu Mikkola to win a local Finnish rally behind the wheel of an Opel Ascona got Vatanen noticed, but it was the Ford Escort MkII with which he would become synonymous on his rise to the top of the sport. He claimed two British titles with the rear-wheel drive Escort before taking that success to the world stage. After his first WRC win on the Acropolis Rally in 1980, he won the championship the following year (co-driven by David Richards): all that with the private Rothmans Rally Team after Ford withdrew as an official entry.
Vatanen didn’t defend his title but returned to the sharp-end of the WRC when he signed to drive the new Peugeot 205 T16 in its debut season in 1984. He crashed out of the lead on the car’s debut in Corsica but went on to take its first win on that year’s 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland. He followed that up with two more victories at Sanremo and the RAC Rally in Britain, setting the wheels in motion for one of the most iconic cars of the Group B era.
The 1985 season began with Vatanen’s greatest ever drive. Walter Rohrl started the Monte Carlo Rally as the favourite (having won the last three editions) and opened up an early lead in his Audi Quattro.
But Vatanen then surged to the front, only for his co-driver Terry Harryman to mistakenly clock-in eight minutes early at a time control. The resulting penalty dropped Vatanen over four minutes behind Rohrl, seemingly ending his hopes of victory.
What followed was an incredible comeback for Vatanen, thanks to a gamble on studded tyres that allowed him to ascend an icy col considerably faster than his rival, before managing his rubber over the subsequent 20 kilometres of asphalt. He ultimately took the win for Peugeot by over five minutes, to the delight of the massed French public. And to the relief of a traumatised Harryman.
Vatanen won next time out in Sweden too, but a series of retirements meant he was already trailing team-mate Timo Salonen in the championship when he suffered a huge accident on Rally Argentina. The crash was so violent that his seat broke, and Vatanen suffered severe leg injuries as well as life-threatening internal bleeding.
He spent 18 months recovering from his physical injuries as well as severe depression, by which time Group B had been banned and Peugeot had withdrawn from the WRC. Vatanen instead conquered the Dakar Rally next, winning it three times with Peugeot and once with Citroën over a five-year spell. It could have been five wins had his car not been stolen mid-race in 1988. He also took a Peugeot 405 up the Pikes Peak hillclimb with Colorado in a new record time in 1988, an effort immortalised in the award-winning film Climb Dance (you can watch it here).
Vatanen would return to competing in the WRC on a regular basis, achieving podium finishes with Mitsubishi, Subaru and Ford as late as 1998. He moved into politics and was elected in 1999 to the European Parliament but continued to enter the Dakar Rally right up to the mid-2000s, including as team-mate to McRae with Nissan.
“I love the Dakar as you realise how small you are in the world,” he said once, in Morocco. “Do you see all those grains of sand in the desert? We’re each as tiny as one of those.”
In 2009 his interests came together as he launched a bid to become the president of the FIA, the world motorsport governing body. In a twist of fate, his rival for the post was Jean Todt, who had been his team boss during his years with Peugeot. Todt won out, though Vatanen remains involved in motorsport today as the president of the Estonian Autosport Union.
He also continues to delight motorsport enthusiasts with tales from his career. One onboard clip from the 1983 Manx Rally has over two million views on YouTube, and features a huge sideways moment after Vatanen clips a wall in his Opel Manta. Harryman lets out a “Dear God” while Vatanen collects it up and tells him to keep reading the notes. Check it out
It was that personality in and out of the car that marked Vatanen out. “I was kind of an artist,” he once said. “I listened more to my heart than my brain and that was my approach. You miss out on a few victories, but you never have a boring life.”
The Australian almost lost his right leg...