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Rally Finland 2003 marks the last WRC event 1981 World Champion and a true rallying philosopher Ari Vatanen entered. #RALLIRINKI contacted Vatanen for an interview about the 2003 event, but it turned out, as expected, to a lengthy discussion about everything else as well.
When the phone rang and the person on the other end introduced himself as Ari Vatanen, the rallying fan in me skipped a heartbeat, but at the same time felt very honored. Every previous time I’ve talked with Ari Vatanen has left me with warm, compassionate feeling.
Vatanen is a rallying legend, but also a cosmopolitan, a politician and above all, a humanist. He talks much in a way that breeds new aphorisms in the process, but it’s easy to like his style. There’s so much mileage in his words, so many people met, that his truths about life and living are hard to argue against.
”So you wanted to reminisce in old things? Well, that’s now about everything a man of my age can do”, Vatanen, 66, says in a boyish manner.
In 2003 Ari Vatanen had turned 51 years, which had become a traditional age for Finnish rallying champs to enter their home WRC event for the one last time. Hannu Mikkola, Markku Alén and Timo Salonen preceded Vatanen and Juha Kankkunen and Sebastian Lindholm have continued the tradition later on.
Vatanen entered Rally Finland 2003 in a Bozian Racing’s Peugeot 206 WRC. Initially he had Fabrizia Pons entered as a co-driver, but as she couldn’t start, Vatanen drafted Juha Kankkunen’s co-driver Juha Repo as his wingman.
Vatanen’s previous start in Jyväskylä had been 1998 in an Escort WRC. His latest podium was from 1993 when he finished 2nd in Subaru Impreza’s debut on a world stage (“I should’ve won that”, Vatanen quickly adds). 2003 marked the 10th anniversary for the then successful Impreza which was also celebrated during the event.
“But it was never an option to start my anniversary event in any other car than a Peugeot”, Vatanen says leaving no room for second guessing. “In the light of my life, Peugeot were the only option. I have a strong emotional tie to the marquee. Of course, I’ve worked for other brands as well, but at the time Peugeot were the only choice.”
Vatanen got to test Bozian’s 206 WRC twice, first in France and later in Finland.
“Getting the car for Rally Finland had many turns in organizing it. It was from a private team, but I recall Peugeot being involved too. It was already a few years old car, but it felt okey.”
“We tested on gravel at Kuukanpääntie. I had invited the head officer of Central Finland’s police to join me for a passenger ride. I remember we had had arguments over the years, because I thought the police was too excessively trying to fine rally drivers for speeding. So there I was driving 160 km/h on that gravel road and the police officer was out of words how that was possible. I was just telling him that ‘please, give us rally drivers some credit, we know how to drive safe, if we do 90 km/h with these cars on a tarmac straight, it’s not that dangerous.”
Ari Vatanen is as social as a human being can be. Over the decades, all over the world, he have met thousands of people, leaving a mark. He admits it’s a humble feeling now when people approach him with a story how they’ve met earlier in life, even if only for a brief moment. People remember him, but he remembers people as well.
“During the recce in 2003 we stopped at houses to have a coffee in an old way. Schedules were tight already in 2003, but we used the time we had. We stopped at farm houses for coffee with the people I knew.”
As for the competition side, of course Vatanen had no goals for the results. He was there to enjoy. He had however an order to bring the car to the finish.
“Knowing that I had to finish made it a bit unnatural to drive, but at the same I very well recognized there wouldn’t have been any sense to drive like there’s no tomorrow. That was my farewell competition.”
“Actually, I think that not driving to the full and without any goal also made the speed feel a lot faster than it was. At some faster sections I took off some speed and I could do that with a good conscious. I didn’t have to go 100 percent over every blind crest. I had no close calls”, Vatanen describes.
“The result was good, too. I was twice the first”, he jokes, referring to his 11th position in the finish.
Finishing 11th in a highly competitive era of WRC means Vatanen was not just driving for fun. Of course, eventually all the retirements from the front meant he gained several positions, but as a detail Vatanen was, for example, faster than debutant Jari-Matti Latvala (in Ford Focus WRC) throughout the event.
Ari Vatanen also did four times 10th fastest stage times, the first being on the second run of Ouninpohja. Vatanen’s way of driving through the iconic Kakaristo junction, pulling down the window and waving a goodbye to thousands of rallying fans is still very fondly remembered.
At the time the gesture was also criticized for being mere election campaigning for Vatanen, who at the time was a Member of European Parliament. Next elections were to be held about a year after Rally Finland.
“I have to say that at that moment I thought I would be in the elections for European Parliament from Finland, but eventually I ended up being selected from France. After we had passed Kakaristo junction and I had waved for the people, I told my co-driver Juha Repo there on the stage that “did you hear how many votes I just got there?” Repo started to laugh so hard that he missed some pace notes, but of course, I didn’t mind. We had fun.”
”That was unusual election campaigning for a politician”, Vatanen says with a laugh now 15 years on.
Ari Vatanen says that he had the full support of his family in participating Rally Finland for the one last time. He had his children with him in Rally Finland – including his son Max, a future rally driver, 12 years at the time, who was said to attend a rally for the first time – but his wife Rita had the weekend off. In an interview for Finnish YLE Ralliradio Vatanen told he wanted to give some own time for his wife as well.
“Rita has supported me to a great extent in all ups and downs. I remember being very happy for all the support and how everything went well.”
Ari Vatanen is not planning to miss Rally Finland this year either. He says “it’d be difficult to stay away”.
“I’m there every year. I have a strong emotional attachment to the event, all the people and to that 14th cup of coffee on that field talking to the people. It’s just all part of the plan.”
“I remember spectating the event for the first time in 1973 in Myhinpää stage. When Blomqvist came, it felt like the car would have jumped on me. That was a huge wow effect. The next year I was already competing. I remember being rehearsing on the route, memorizing all the roads and one night in Ruovesi I just drove my mom’s Ascona behind a log pile, put the seat down and started to sleep. Then all of a sudden I woke up, and it was Alén with some other Italian driver in their 124 Abarths going flat out the same road. I thought this makes no sense at all, they are rehearsing in their full spec competition cars and here I am sleeping behind a log pile in my mom’s Opel when I should just drive back to my mom in Tuupovaara. But rallying ended up giving me a huge deal of things in an international scale.”
This year Vatanen has done a few events driving a course car. Would you like to return to Rally Finland for one more time and what car would you choose?
“I think I rather fly in a helicopter now than drive a course car.”
Another thing many people remember from Ari Vatanen’s entry to Rally Finland 2003 was his main sponsor, pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Vatanen’s 206 WRC had in large letters a web address erektioinfo.fi, in other words his car was advertising erection medicine.
Many people took on the chance and made jokes on a middle-aging driver sponsoring an erection pill.
“That sponsorship was quite brave, I think. I explained it that it’s only natural to use this medicine, just as natural as an aging man would need reading glasses. It’s all about biology”, Vatanen says now.
But there’s more to this sponsorship. During the preparations and the event, Vatanen got to know the CEO of Pfizer Finland with whom Ari and Rita made friends. After the event, on the last night before the Vatanens returned to their French home, the two couples had a dinner together and Vatanen also drove the couple to their home in Southern Finland.
“This all is part of a bigger picture, and how also rallying connects to it.”
“In the beginning of 2004 I drove Dakar Rally with Nissan. After Christmas I was on my way to Barcelona when I got a text message from them how they were having lovely time in Thailand at the moment. Then the tsunami happened. I sent them a text and realized it didn’t go through. That’s that. Their family had parents and two teenage children, a boy and a girl. Only the girl returned home.”
“I still think about the family. Everything is just a part of so much bigger plan.”
Ari Vatanen likes to talk about life in general, and how humble everyone should be for everything. “Rallying is life in a miniature size”, he says and everyone who has more than just a shallow connection to this sport understand what he means. Rallying takes you to places and makes you meet people, and in the process it brings experiences that equal living a life.
“One’s passion can be rallying, it can be poetry or art. It’s all part of life. It’s all about passion for life. I know an Irish person who comes to Rally Finland next week for the 17th time. Just as well it could be that a person goes to see a butterfly for the 17th time. The most important thing is the passion. No one should judge that”, Vatanen starts.
”In a competition every second counts, but it should be so in everyday life as well. You could ask, ‘how every second can matter, there are so many?’, but you never know how many there are. The limits to a human life make it all so grand, how we all are so vulnerable.”
Vatanen knows what he is talking about, facing a nearly fatal rallying accident in Argentina in 1985. He made an uncertain recovery, and by his own words, rallying helped him to recover. He’s ever thankful for the home crowd support he received on his comeback event in 1987 Rally Finland.
“I drove a powerful, rear-wheel drive Ford Sierra. When I first tested the car, it just dug deeper into the gravel when I hit the throttle. I thought there were something wrong with the differentials as the car just kept making noise throwing all the stones and gravel to the bottom of the car. In the event, even over all that noise, I could hear the shouts from the spectators: “Ari is back!” – “Ari is alive!”
”Almost daily, when I meet people, they keep making a reference to that Pikes Peak film (”Climb Dance” by Jean Louis Mourney on Pikes Peak 1988) and the part where I lift my hand when driving against the sun. In restaurants I see and hear people saying to each other, ‘there’s Ari Vatanen’, ‘who?’ and then they make that gesture and everyone gets it.”
“I reply: “In life, you can lift your arm, but you shouldn’t lift your foot”. You have to keep your foot on the throttle. I think that in a wider view you have to put yourself on the limit and not to live your life on half the throttle. Everyone have gifts and talents and those should be used to the max.”