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Sophie Says: An interview with Ari Vatanen

Sophie Gill

Sophie Gill catches up with rally legend Ari Vatanen, to discuss Group B rally days, Paris Dakhr and his greatest victory…

Hi everybody, I hope you’re all well and safe in these crazy times. In January, pre Covid-19, I went to the Autosport show at the NEC, Birmingham. Little did I know that the show would be one of the only Motorsport events to go ahead in 2020! Whilst I was there I caught up with rally legend Ari Vatanen and he very kindly agreed to this interview, talking about his Group B rally days, Paris Dakhr and his greatest victory…

Hi Ari! It’s amazing to get to interview you, huge thanks. Firstly, how did you first get into rallying? Did you come from a Motorsport background?

Nothing in my background encouraged me, quite the contrary!

My father died in his brand new first car in 1960. I was in the car with my mother and two younger sisters and my brother. Then we had no father, no car. Four years later, 1964, my mother got a driving licence and bought a little Opel Kadett.

The same summer a rally came for the first time ever to my home village. The first car came 2AM and I had waited for it since 10PM. Finnish summer nights are full of light and when the first car (Volvo 544) came kicking up the dust and the drum brakes red hot – it captured my imagination! My spirit must have gone with the car and the body stayed sitting on the bank. The rest of the story you know.

My dad tells me tales of the Group B days, what are your favourite memories of that era?

Sheer power, speed, noise… A beast which you want to tame! Unreasonable in a way but man needs to push the limits, otherwise there is no progress in humanity.
People still talk about Group B all the time. Those crazy cars made people forget their everyday worries, they gave wings to dreams of people. Uplifted us to another level above grey ordinary life! That’s why man must keep on doing ‘non sensible’ things, a jump into unknown, take risks. Without risks there is no progress! Man’s duty is to go forward, be positive, and believe in the future. That gives hope to everyone – without hope we are condemned. Group B symbolises what is best in man. That’s why man has overcome always the difficulties. Tomorrow is better than yesterday.

You were victorious at Paris Dakar, an incredible 4 times. Was it as tough as described? What are your memories of it?

A big human adventure. So vast, so beautiful, so dangerous. Man there is very small. You cannot dictate Sahara to play to your tunes. It dictates the rules. A lesson of humility. And people who live there…! They did not choose their parents. What if I was born in Timbuktu instead of Tuupovaara? Barren land. They deserve hope like anybody else. Because there have so little they share it. Contrary to us. Getting to know those people was a big advantage for me when I was in the European Parliament. We cannot forget them. It is in our moral duty and in our interest.

What was your greatest victory?

The biggest victory in life was the start of Paris Dakar 1987. I very nearly died in Argentina 1985 and after 18 months of convalescing – and having lost all the hope in the meantime – I was back in the rally. I had to pinch myself to believe it was me. A second life literally. I won the rally also, that was a nice bonus.

How do you feel about your son following in your rallying footsteps?

It touches me profoundly when I look at his eyes and see all that hope to follow my footsteps. Yet it is 10 times more difficult now than in my time.

He is always my dear son whatever happens in the rallying. I’m simply proud to be his father and very grateful for having him. If something was to happen to him or to my other family members, what value would rally wins have?

It was brilliant to hear you talking about karting, regarding the finance issues, at the Autosport show. What would you do to help grassroot motorsport be accessible to all, with more reasonable budgets?

Oh dear, never ending question… I think the only way is to have a low technology, as cheap as possible, one mark series where the talent counts. And the best ones get ‘upgraded’ to the next level etc…

Thank you, for the answers it was really interesting to talk to you, and hear about your rally experiences and see you reflect on your career and views!

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