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Famous as much for his early crashes behind the wheel of works Escorts as much as his wins, Ari Vatanen was, and still is, a firm favourite with rally fans. Here’s why.

ari vatanen

What is the Ari Vatanen mystique? How is that Ford fans still worship this man — the star who crashed more Escorts than any other works driver of this period? Did you ever see him drive an Escort – close your eyes, and visualise the sight, the sound, the sheer drama. That is why everyone adored him.

Do you remember the way that Ari Vatanen burst on to the 1975 British rally scene in a battered old Opel Ascona? It was enough for Ford to hire him — first to do the 1000 Lakes (in a Boreham-built RS1600) then in a brand-new RS1800 for the RAC. For six stages he led the 1000 Lakes, then crashed out — a trick he repeated on the RAC, though that was on the second morning…

Even so, his pace electrified Ford’s Peter Ashcroft, who immediately signed him up as Boreham’s apprentice rally driver. The young man from Finland was suddenly on his way to becoming a Ford Superstar. And for why? Not only because he was super-fast, and seemingly quite fearless, but for the way that he always made himself available for interviews, appearances, chats with the fans — he was, in every possible way, the people’s hero.

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Winning antics

From novice to star he made the transition, right away, in 1976. Rallying just one hard-worked RS1800 — LAR 801P — he dominated the RAC Championship, with his victories, and his exciting antics. During the year the Allied Polymer-sponsored car had many off-road excursions that inflicted body damage. As ace-mechanic Mick Jones once told me:

‘We were so busy that we never had the chance to re-shell the damned thing — we just kept patching it up. In the end Ari wrote it off for us on the Castrol 76 rally’. 

ari vatanen

Yet with five wins, the Championship was his, spectacularly and memorably. This was a year, too, in which he also won the Tour of Britain, which ran to Group 1 regulations, in an RS2000. At the end of the season, no question, he was exhausted, and looked it.

As far as Boreham was concerned, the apprenticeship had been worth it, and signed up to run a Boreham RS1800 in Scandinavia, works RS1800s in World Championship events, and – where there was time – to drive David Sutton’s Gandy-backed cars in other rallies.

ari vatanen

Even so, by comparison with 1976, the 1977 season was almost a washout. Having won the Arctic rally in POO 489R, Ari didn’t finish another works International event all season! It was a sad story, for Ari usually drove two Boreham cars — POO 504R and STW 202R- both of which seemed to be jinxed. 

It was a season to regret: Ari crashed POO in Portugal, hit a non-competing car with STW in Africa, planted POO head-on into a tree in Greece, a reshelled POO’s clutch exploded in Finland, STW’s ignition system let go in Canada, and he also crashed MTW 200P in San Remo, and rolled STW on the RAC. On the other hand, he won the Mintex and the Scottish in a Sutton Escort, was second on the Welsh, crashed a Ford of New Zealand RS1800 in New Zealand but still managed to finish second, and won two other Finnish-Championship rounds.

Because Boreham had plenty of drivers — Roger Clark and Bjorn Waldegard were heading the team — many suggested that Ari would be cut adrift, as too crash-prone, and too immature. Yet it didn’t happen. Peter Ashcroft still believed totally, in his protégé, and was sure that one day, it would all pay off.

On the stages Ari was spine-chillingly spectacular, always seeming to be hovering on the cusp of a disaster, but mostly keeping his increasingly-battered Escorts on the road. Even so, it was not until years later, when a young Colin McRae joined the team, that Ford’s bodyshell repair bills went even higher.

For 1978, Ford reduced his programme, cutting his World Championship programme to just four events (he retired three times), letting him concentrate on events in Scandinavia and Europe. For his adoring fans, however, he was married to David Sutton’s magnificent wide-arched Tarmac-spec Escort UYY 256S, soon known as Black Beauty. In Donegal, he not only set fastest times on nearly every stage, but won the three-day event by more than 12 minutes. But still it wasn’t his year, for his engine let go in the 1000 Lakes, yet again he went off the road in the Castrol 78, and he was excluded for missing a passage control in the RAC.

Smoke signals

Then came 1979, the forging of his in-car partnership with David Richards, and the start of his love affair with the cigarette company, Rothmans. It would not be long before their ambitions spread, they picked the blond, non-smoking Finn as their next hero, and started to build him up for the future.

Ari, whose sense of irony was well-developed, loved every minute of it, and soon became the face of Rothmans — for he would be linked with them until he finally moved to Peugeot in 1984. Suddenly, in the second half of the season, the results began to roll in. Third in New Zealand, second in the 1000 Lakes , third in Canada (Quebec), a great win in Cyprus, and a solid fourth on the RAC — all in Rothmans-coloured cars — was encouraging.

Then came the Rothmans years of 1980 and 1981. Although Boreham had closed its doors, they kept Ari and Hannu Mikkola under contract, and loaned them to David Sutton’s team, where Rothmans invested in a series of newly-built Escorts.

In 1980, Ari’s spectacularly-liveried Rothmans Escorts were fast, reliable — and always exciting to watch. Ari, now approaching rallying maturity, captivated everyone by the sheer commitment of his driving — and the results poured in. Between February and November he started eleven events — five of them being World Championship rounds, and five of them British Championship rounds. In spite of the occasional high-speed crash, Ari won the Acropolis and Welsh rallies, and recorded seven second places.

It was remarkable, and would get even better in 1981. For this season Ari was backed up by Pentti Airikkala and Malcolm Wilson, a fleet of new Escorts was developed, and the Rothmans insignia seemed to be everywhere. The records show that there were 35 car starts in 21 events. Sutton maintained a fleet of 10 cars — and Ari started 12 times. Somehow he took part in 10 World Championship events without becoming totally exhausted, winning three of them — Acropolis, Brazil and Argentina — and taking second place on the Swedish and RAC. 

Not only did Ari win the World Rally Championship for Drivers, but he became the first (and only) one to do it in a non-factory team. Then came the anti-climax. With the Escort RS1800 now obsolete (the front-wheel-drive Escort generation had already been on sale for a full year), and with the four-wheel-drive Audi Quattro dominating the world scene, Rothmans took their money away and invested in Opel instead.

Ari, still linked to Ford, stayed on for a further season, spending time test driving the RS1700T, and occasionally appearing in privately-prepared Escorts. Early in 1982 he took second place in Sweden (David Sutton had repainted one of the old Rothmans cars), while in Finland he drove Geoff Fielding’s MCD Escort, but the engine blew. MCD also provided Escorts for Ari to drive in the British series, though by this time it was clear that time had caught up with the Ford, which could now be beaten by the Quattros, the Opel Ascona 400s, and matched by the Vauxhall Chevette HSR. 

Moving on

Then, in October, the news that all Ford fans had been dreading, broke — Rothmans, its links with Opel tighter than ever, had attracted him to drive for the German team in 1983, and except for one-off appearances in Sierra RS Cosworth in Finland (1987 and 1991), he would not be seen again in a works Ford until 1994, when in the autumn of his years.

When leaving in 1982, Ari was quoted as saying, very graciously, that: ‘It will be strange not driving a Ford, because since I joined them seven years ago, I have driven nothing else…’

In those years, of course, not only did he compete, and win, for Opel, Peugeot, Mitsubishi and Subaru (he won five World rallies in succession in 1984/1985 with the Group B Peugeot 205 T16), but he was so nearly killed in a high-speed accident in Argentina, fought his way back to health, turned to Paris-Dakar Raid rallies with huge success (he won no fewer than four times), and also took up a European Parliament politician’s career.

ari vatanen

Even so, in  1994, when Ford works driver Francois Delecour was injured in a non-rallying accident, Ari returned to Boreham to drive Escort RS Cosworths, taking third place in the Acropolis, and in 1998 he drove an Escort WRC into to third in the Safari, his last podium finish in rallying.

Even after he retired from active driving, he never lost touch with the sport, or his legion of fans, colleagues and friends. There were — and still are — many public appearances, when queues for his autographs, or selfies, are usually swamped by the crowds. 

Call him a hero, a phenomenon , the most popular rally driver of all time, and you would be right, every time. We’re already looking forward to the next time we see him. 

Words Graham Robson

Read the full story behind the genius of Ari Vatanen in the March 2017 issue

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