HE­ROES: Ari Vatanen

The Fin­nish Ford rally driver was a leg­end at the wheel of an Es­cort. Gra­ham Rob­son re­minds us why.

Classic Ford - - CONTENTS - Words Gra­ham Rob­son Pho­tos Ford Pho­to­graphic

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.

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’.

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.

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 widearched 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-wheeldrive 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,

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.


Ari, look­ing pen­sive, was the star of the Roth­mans team in the early 1980s, and be­came World Driv­ers’ Cham­pion in 1981.

In his in­ten­sive year as Bore­ham’s ap­pren­tice in 1976, Ari spent much time with his co-driver Peter Bryant (left). Here they dis­cuss tac­tics with Timo Maki­nen. OVX 431P was a Group 1 RS2000 , which Ari used to win the Tour of Bri­tain in 1976.

POO 504R was in Ari’s hands in the 1977 1000 Lakes rally in 1977, where he car­ried spon­sor­ship from Marl­boro.

This fa­mous com­bi­na­tion — Ari, David Richards, and a Sut­ton-built Es­cort RS — won the World Driv­ers’ Cham­pi­onship in 1981. Here they are cel­e­brat­ing sec­ond place in the Lom­bard-RAC rally.

In 1976, this Es­cort, LAR 801P, was the hard­est-work­ing car of all, for Ari drove it through­out the year in the UK, crash­ing it sev­eral times, but win­ning the Bri­tish Cham­pi­onship in it.

The event which started it all: Ari, Es­cort LVW 690P, and the 1975 RAC rally, in which he was amaz­ingly fast, but then crashed the car.

Frater­nising with the lo­cals: this was Ari, co-driver Atso Aho and STW 202R, pre­par­ing to start the 1977 Sa­fari.

In the year fol­low­ing his crown­ing as World Driv­ers’ Cham­pion, Ari spent much of his time test­ing the Es­cort RS1700T.

In the mid-1990s Ari made sev­eral fleet­ing ap­pear­ances for Bore­ham driv­ing Es­cort RS Cos­worths. This was the 1994 Rally of Ar­gentina, where he took third place, ac­com­pa­nied by Fabrizia Pons.

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