The man who won the Dakar Rally 4.5 times - Exclusive interview with Ari Vatanen
Rally God Ari Vatanen won the world's toughest and most famous rally raid 4 times, but he always mentions 4.5 victories when it comes to Dakars.
And he does it for a good reason. Besides getting to Dakar from Paris in the fastest time 4 times (1987, 1989, 1990, 1991), The Flying Finn could have easily claimed his 5th (at that time 2nd) victory in 1988, however something unbelievable happened. His race-leading Peugeot got STOLEN before the 14th stage...
Now everyone who is not familiar with the story starts wondering how on earth could something like that happen in motorsport, but as writers usually do, I too will reveal the most exciting bits in the second part of the article.
At first I asked the 1981 World Rally Champion to recall the story of the very beginning of his Dakar adventures, which later turned out to be very successful. Although the record of the most victories in the car category is obviously also held by Stéphane Peterhansel aka Mr. Dakar, but with his four wins, Vatanen is second on this prestigious list. Moreover at the record list of stage wins, the Finn is the first with a total of 50! However the beginning of his participations at Dakar was not quite simple at all.
A fantastic comeback to racing
His first Dakar in 1987 is one of the most special event in Vatanen's life, because he was racing for the first time since his horrible, nearly fatal accident at Rally Argentina in 1985. When I asked him about which one he considers his biggest victory among the four at Dakar, he gave a clear answer.
“Of course the first, because I was back in life, that’s where life number two started. To survive and be alive after my crash in Argentina, and being able to start in Paris-Dakar one and a half year after my accident was something I couldn’t believe it can happen anymore.
"It was a nice bonus that I won it for the first time, but the real amazement was simply to start as I was just back to life. At that time I thought everything was over. I experienced of course big victories, but big losses too. Life is made of both. And you need both of them in order to remain a human being." - he said.
After the huge accident he had in Argentina, we would think that he sat off for the Paris-Dakar Rally after many months of preparation, but actually there was no time for it. Obviously that's why winning the event for the first time wasn't a goal, and because the invitation to take part in Peugeot's brand new Dakar project came when Vatanen still wasn't fully recovered from his accident.
“I was still recovering from my injuries until the end the summer. In autumn we did some testing in Africa and in France, and that’s it, it was a jump into unknown! I’ve never been driving on that part of the world, so I was very lucky to win it, but also only to be there.
“You cannot say “I’m going to win this now”, you can just hope, but it was a real jump into unknown, so I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be a very colourful adventure.” - he remembered.
When the leading car got stolen...
After the great success in the previous year, Vatanen also seemed unstoppable in 1988. When they got to Mali, Vatanen's lead was over two hours, so everyone thought that nobody can take away the victory from him. However in Bamako something really unimaginable happened, and it's still pretty unique in the history of motorsport, especially at this level of racing. The race-leading car got STOLEN.
"It was Parc Fermé, but it was in a big football stadium in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and lots of people were still servicing the cars early in the morning. And the crowd also saw that they are working on my car as well, and heard one of my mechanics wanted to go for a drive with it. There were hundreds of hundreds of people and the place was also full of cars. A lot of them were going in and out of the football stadium, and when they saw my car going, everyone thought somebody is going for a test drive, so nobody was looking after it.
"At that time the cars were not that much kept away from the audience, and when it was forgot to be locked, and somebody gets in, just turns the ingestion on, pushes some buttons, and he's off! Easy. And that’s exactly what happened.” - Ari Vatanen told, when he was asked about the circumstances.
“Eventually we found it hours later, but in the meantime these gangsters rang Jean (Todt, head of Peugeot Sport at that time) and were asking money for the car. There was a meeting place, Jean went there, but they did not come. Then we found the car ourselves. Of course you can’t hide a yellow rally car! It’s a fantastic story.”
So far it was unknown who were those gangsters who stole Vatanen's Peugeot 205 T16, but now, many years later, it was also revealed.
“No, not anymore!" - answered Vatanen when asked about if the criminals are still unknown as we all knew until now. "We know who have done that! Some very questionable mercenaries, military people, who do things for money…"
The reaction of Jean Todt and the team
“Of course when they called him he was very surprised, and we all were very surprised. From then on we always had guards and security people with us. But it’s a good story, and it couldn’t happen anymore now. But you know, that’s how it happened in those days.” - said the Finn, who is Dakar's "4,5 times winner" for a reason.
If you would like to read the other parts of my interview with Ari Vatanen, make sure to join Tarmac and Gravel.