LONDON (Reuters) – Ari Vatanen’s father died in a car crash while driving his family to a funeral when the future world rally champion was eight years old.
The vehicle was new and although seatbelts were optional he had fitted them only the day before but was not using one. He had, it transpired, also got the day wrong and the funeral had already happened.
“Just before we got to that village we had a head-on collision and I didn’t have a father any more,” the Finn, a four times Dakar winner, told Reuters ahead of his 68th birthday.
“I apparently said afterwards that I’ve got to tame motor cars in my life.
“But what I think I have learned is that you can’t tame life. Life will always tame us.”
The rally bug bit four years later when a stage came to their village near the Russian border and Vatanen waited into the early hours in the soft summer light to catch a glimpse of the action.
“The first car came at two o’clock in the morning and time stopped there in my life,” said Vatanen, speaking from his farmhouse in the south of France.
“The first car was a white Volvo 544 and it came with the drum brakes red hot and it was kicking up the dust…that stuff absolutely took my breath away and my body stayed on that bank in that luminous summer night but my mind went with the car.”
For Vatanen, a religious man, driving is an art form and the gravel roads, forest tracks and sand dunes provided the canvas for his talent.
Sometimes he tested the boundaries with a little too much enthusiasm.
“When you enter a corner you are maybe not quite 100% sure if you will survive and you cannot have anything else in your mind,” he explained.
“(It’s like) a violin player if he or she has a Stradivarius violin once, I’m sure he or she will play with the eyes closed. That’s how I felt, literally driving with the eyes closed because you are all with the car, in that corner.
“The car is sideways and you are fighting it and that’s it.”
His autobiography was titled ‘Every Second Counts’ but it might equally have been ‘I could have braked a little sooner’. But then he would have been a different person.
“You can’t change your nature, your character. Your driving style is like your handwriting. It tells a lot about your personality,” said Vatanen, whose wild and exuberant approach thrilled an army of fans.
He once said there were not many ditches in Finland he had not ended up in.
“That was my driving style. In terms of results it was definitely not the best but I just couldn’t wait.”
The Finn, who won his 1981 title in a Ford Escort with David Richards as co-driver, nearly died in a 1985 accident in Argentina when his Peugeot hit a hollow at speed and he was flung from his broken seat.
Vatanen suffered eight broken ribs, crushed rib cage, fractured vertebrae, punctured lung and a broken ankle and knee. He needed three liters of blood on the way to hospital in Cordoba.
In 1988 he was leading the Dakar comfortably when his car was stolen overnight in the Malian capital Bamako. The Peugeot was recovered but Vatanen missed his start slot and was disqualified.
He later joined the European parliament and stood for president of motor racing’s FIA governing body but lost to his former Peugeot boss Jean Todt.
“For me, politics is a very noble cause. Absolutely a noble cause where you are at the service of the people,” said the Finn. “And by people I mean everybody.
“Maybe I am a bit naive but the real world is all about teamwork.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)