Ari Vatanen has declared he will stand for election as president of the FIA in the October elections.
Vatanen is well-known to motor racing fans having been a world rally champion and survived a serious crash in 1985. But his subsequent political career and passion for improving road safety also mark him out as a promising contender for the presidency.
Here’s a look at his career so far.
Ari Vatanen was born on April 27, 1952 in Tuupovaara. The village lies close to the Finnish border with Russia, which four of his uncles died defending during World War Two.
He was 18 when he entered his first professional rally, and in 1976 won the British Rally Championship driving a Ford Escort RS1800 with co-driver Peter Bryant.
In 1979 he paired up with future Prodrive boss David Richards and the pair won the British title again in 1980. Vatanen had also begun competing in the World Rally Championship six years earlier and in 1981 he and Richards won the title.
Having made only three starts in 1982 Vatanen joined the works Peugeot team for 1984, driving a Peugeot 205 Turbo 16. Just as F1 had its turbo era around this time, rallying had the infamous ‘Group B’ cars, of which the 205 was an explosively fast example.
Horror crash in Argentina
Vatanen gave the car its maiden win in the Rally of the Thousand Lakes in Finland in 1984. Two races into 1985 he had won the last five events he had entered. But he also suffered a series of accidents – including one in the Argentine Rally that year which almost cost him his life.
On a wet road on the second stage, Vatanen hit a rut that had been forged in the road by heavy rainfall. Travelling at atound 190kph (118mph), the Peugeot was launched into a series of flips, leaving little more than the twisted skeleton of the roll cage wrapped around the pair. The impact was so great it broke Vatanen’s seat, the driver sustaining a fractured lumbar vertebrae, a serious leg break below the knee and heavy chest injuries.
Co-driver Terry Harryman climbed from the wreckage and was spotted by a helicopter, which soon brought Vatanen medical attention. He spent 18 months in recuperation.
Paris-Dakar and Pikes Peak
By the time Vatanen returned to rallying Peugeot had left the world championship following a row with the FIA. He now spearheaded the team’s assault on the Paris-Dakar rally raid, winning the event in 1987 in a modified 205. The following year he was leading the rally when his car was stolen from the football stadium where it was kept in Bakano, and held for a ransom which Peugeot refused to pay. It was returned too late for Vatanen to rejoin the event.
He made up for that by winning the next three Paris-Dakar rallies, the last coming for Citroen in 1991. His second win in 1989, however, was controversial. Now partnering Jacky Ickx at Peugeot, the pair took control of the event in their 405 T16s with Ickx narrowly ahead. After stage 11 team boss Jean Todt decided his drivers should no longer race each other for the win, and notoriously decided which of them should get to win by tossing a coin.
Vatanen won the toss, but fortune now made a mockery of Todt’s decision. Vatanen went off on the penultimate stage of the rally and Ickx resumed the lead. And so on the final stage Ickx slowed down, handing victory back to Vatanen as per Todt’s insistence.
Also that year, Vatanen raced a 405 T16 at America’s famed Pikes Peak hill climb. One of his runs up the daunting course – which reaches a 4.3km high summit with sheer drops off the sides – was captured in the film Climb Dance, which was released the following year:
Vatanen continued to participate in world rally events, taking the Subaru Impreza to second on its debut in 1993 Finnish Rally. His last appearance came at the same rally 10 years later in a Peugeot 206 WRC. By then he had moved on to the second calling of his career: politics.
Vatanen in the EU
After many years service for French manufacturers Vatanen moved to southern France in 1993. Six years later he was elected to the European Parliament on behalf of the Finnish National Coalition party. He was re-elected in 2004, this time representing he French Union for Popular Movement, another conservative party.
His personal website reveals his chief political interests include transport policy. He has criticised the substantial sums taken from the motor industry and invested in the rail transport industry, and talks up the work done to make cars more environmentally-friendly. One can imagine the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, which last month supported FOTA’s criticism of the governance of Formula 1, endorsing this point of view.
He has also argued for greater investment in road networks and improved road safety. Vatanen’s passion for road safety is rooted in his childhood – his father was killed in a road accident while young Ari was in the car.
In 2005 his report “Halving the number of road accident victims in the European Union by 2010: A shared responsibility” was accepted by the commission. But by 2008 only France, Portugal and Luxembourg were on course to hit the target.
Vatanen will not be in office to see if his ambitious goal is reached, having lost his seat in the European Parliament in this year’s elections. His decision to oppose Max Mosley in the FIA president elections in October may be borne as much of a desire to continue his efforts to improve road safety as his interests in motor racing.
The right man for the job?
His essays suggest a mind which values the practical over the political, which certainly would be a breath of fresh air for Formula 1 right now.
Vatanen’s political career has not stopped him returning to the Paris-Dakar, racing for Nissan from 2003-2005 and then for Volkswagen in 2007. After the death of Colin McRae in 2007 he joined in the commemorative Colin McRae Rally in 2008, reunited with Richards once again. Richards also presented him with the Autosport Gregor Grant Award for lifetime achievement in motor sport.
If he can put together a successful candidacy and navigate F1 out of its troubled waters, that would surely be an achievement to rival his rallying successes and fight back from injury. Faced with the alternatives of Max Mosley and Jean Todt, I suspect many F1 fans will welcome Vatanen’s bid for the presidency.
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