Ari Vatanen: 40 years ago, victory in the World Rally Championship with Pirelli
For some years now the World Rally Championship – WRC for short – has lined up on the starting grid a small number of teams and a limited number of drivers. During the 1980s there were up to 15 teams with around sixty points-based drivers. That is why the championship success of Ari Vatanen, 40 years ago, deserves a suitable celebration: the Finnish champion was, until 2017, the only private driver to carry off the trophy. He achieved that with a Ford Escort RS1800 from the Rothmans Rally Team, which used Pirelli tyres. An extraordinary enterprise in a memorable year for the rally. You only have to recall two other events to remember it: the first win by a female team in history (the Italian Fabrizia Pons and her French colleague Michelle Mouton in the San Remo Rally) and the first appearance of that remarkable car, the Audi Quattro, the first with four-wheel drive, which was destined to become one of the most brilliant technical solutions for standard production cars.
Also worth reading: Ari Vatanen – His way in the rally world
A string of Winners
It needs to be said that Pirelli was not a newcomer at the very top levels. Accompanying Lancia in their triple from 1974 to 1976 (when the only prize at stake was the Constructor's trophy), the Manufacturer from Bicocca subsequently supplied the tyres for the Fiat 131 Abarth which won the World Championship in 1977 and 1978, when they introduced an FIA Trophy for drivers, which ended up in the hands respectively of Sandro Munari and of the German Walter Rohrl. Then again in 1980, still with the same car and Rohrl who won the World Drivers' Championship, created officially the previous year. In 1981, for the start of the competition there were actually 14 Manufacturers and at the end of the season a good 70 drivers had secured at least one point in the Championship, spread over 12 challenges.
Together with David Richards
Ari Pieti Uolevi Vatanen is a deserving figure in the World Rally Championship. Born and raised in Finland – the land of the rally drivers – in 1970, he makes his début as a professional at just eighteen years old and four years later takes part for the first time in the World Rally Championship 1000 Lakes Rally. The turning point is when he joins the Rothmans Rally Team, a rich private stable, which uses Fords, and a meeting with David Richards, at the time a 28-year-old Englishman with considerable ambitions which he succeeds in realising, given his important managerial career in F1 and in the automotive sector. The team starts to find its feet in 1980, winning the Acropolis Rally. The following year comes the masterpiece. With three wins (the Acropolis Rally again, the unprecedented race in Brazil and the famous Thousand Lakes in Finland), they finish the classification with 96 points, beating on the very last challenge – the RAC in Great Britain – the French pair Guy Frequelin and Jean Todt (yes, the actual chairman of the FIA and ex- technical director of Ferrari), who are obliged to withdraw with their Talbot Sunbeam Lotus.
The king of the ‘Dakar'
After this triumph, Vatanen again raced in the WRC championship, winning six challenges (one with the Opel Ascona 400 and five with the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16) and contributing in 1985 to the title of Trans-Alpine Manufacturer amongst the constructors. Then a terrible accident during a practice run in Argentina side-lined him for almost two years. On his return, he had the clever idea of trying his hand in theParis-Dakar Raid, immediately achieving victory with the 205 T16 in 1987. Vatanen won this competition four times, with Peugeot in 1987, 1989 and 1990, and with Citroën in 1991. Very probably he would also have won the 1988 edition, but amazingly his car was stolen just when he was leading the race. In any event, today he still holds the record for stage wins, with a round 50. With Peugeot, Vatanen also won the Pikes Peak, with a time that remained unbeaten for seven years. Alternating a few rallies alongside the raids, the Finn carried on competing until 2008. He also became involved in politics, twice securing an election for himself to the European Parliament, first for a party from his country of origin and then for a French one, given that he has lived in the South of that country for around twenty years. In 2009, he attempted to scale the heights of the FIA but was beaten by Jean Todt: nevertheless, he had won the real battle on the roads of the world in 1981.