Ari Vatanen: motor sport, media personality and intimacy

As every year for the past 27 years, Peter Auto and its Tour Auto Optic 2000 makes us relive the glorious hours of this race through the splendid roads of France. Legendary drivers as Lucien Bianchi, Gérard Larrousse, or Michèle Mouton have driven breathtaking cars like the Ferrari 250 GTO, Porsche 911 R and Lancia Stratos for over 50 years of Tour de France Automobile. By the way, David followed the 2019 edition as press and Felix as mechanic, if you haven’t read their adventures yet, now is the time to do so. I mean, read this instead and you’ll read their testimony right after (I promise I’ll put the links). And you know why you have to read it before?

Because I had the chance to be Ari Vatanen’s co-driver onboard his BMW M2 Heritage Edition during the very last day of the Tour Auto Optic 2000!!

Tour auto with Ari Vatanen, François Chatriot and Jean-Michel Venturi

Since the race was relaunched in 1992, famous drivers have been invited to take part in the race. Their role is simple, get up very early and drive the roadbook before all the competitors, be sure the road is safe and clear, but also give a reference time for the special stages. Yeah, they lead the rally. For this 2019 edition, François Chatriot, Jean-Michel Venturi and Ari Vatanen were entrusted with this task.

Let’s get to know each other: François Chatriot, aka « the Doctor », is a multiple French rally champion, driving a legendary BMW M3 E30. About that, I strongly advise you to watch this video of Chatriot onboard this famous BMW at 1990 Tour Auto (you won’t regret it, especially if you are from South-East France like me). This year, it was François who set the reference times for all the Tour Auto stages.

Jean-Michel Venturi, for his part, has made the race’s roadbook for 27 years now. In other words, it’s to Jean-Michel that I will ask to realize my next holiday itinerary, and no longer to Waze.

Finally, Ari Vatanen, whom I am sure you all already know, two-time UK rally champion, world rally champion, four-time Dakar Rally winner, and among other things, record breaker of the Pikes Peak hill climb race in 1988. My second film advice will be to watch Ari Vatanen’s video at Pikes Peak. You already know this video? It doesn’t matter, it’s a great driving lesson to watch regularly with delight. This sequence has always impressed me, I remember my father speechless every time it was on television. For us it was an illustration of surpassing oneself’s limits and obviously motor sport’s ones.

Anyway, as ambassador for BMW, Ari is one of the Tour Auto leaders. Here is the perfect opportunity to meet him and share an insane day with a champion.

Onboard the BMW M2 Edition Heritage with Ari Vatanen

(From there, the article should be read with a light and charming Scandinavian accent).
It all starts around 4:30am, the time we get up to join the BMW France team and have a breakfast. After four days of rallying and about 1200 km covered, it’s not as easy as it was at the beginning. Except when you know that you’ll spend your day with Ari Vatanen. 

On his side, Ari seems always in a good mood. From 4:50am he starts making some jokes about his very first coffee of the day. He knows how to give courage to everyone. François Chatriot is not the last either, with a child’s look that will say something stupid, he grabs my arm and tells me about his plans to customize a Renault Traffic truck: priceless moment. A few minutes later we leave the hotel. What a surprise when I noticed that a fan was waiting for Ari outside the hotel. The man had waited there for several minutes, braving the night and the cold, to meet, discuss and get a photo signed by the champion.

Following this unexpected meeting, we settled into the BMW M2 Competition Edition Heritage, I grabbed the roadbook and the race day started. It’s still a little dark in Tours and I get back on track with the roadbook. Sitting next to Ari Vatanen, I’m under a little pressure. In fact, I put pressure on myself, I’m driven by a great rally champion and I wouldn’t want Ari Vatanen to get lost because of me.

Warming up between motorway and petrol station

After a few kilometers, everything is better. First because we all follow the car ahead from the closed park, then because Ari and I started to know each other. When we entered the highway, it was still morning’s small talks. You know it’s not easy, I have this strange feeling of meeting a great adventurer uncle that I’ve seen in all the family photo albums, whose exploits you’ve been told about, but that you’ve never really met. I think it’s actually because Ari has entered into French “popular culture”. So you feel like you know him and in fact, not really. However, he doesn’t know you, not at all, and that’s what you should always keep in mind.

A few ordinary questions to break the ice, so I ask him what his first car was. He answers me that he first drove his mother’s car, an Opel Ascona (which ended up on the roof, as he explained on Top Gear France) then an Opel Kadett Rally with which he started racing. He adds that today’s cars are amazing compared to these. Safety, comfort and assistance onboard dazzle him every day. Even in this BMW M2 Competition, which is one of the most sporty in the current BMW range, he feels comfortable, even if it’s not worth his SUV from the same brand (his daily car). And of course, a moment of silence settles in, I didn’t really expect us to talk about SUVs.

In my wild imagination, I thought we would talk about racing cars, but looking back it was just a fantasy, great champions are people like any other. They need normal cars to do normal things. A few seconds later, he turns around and says to me « What are you driving? », I answer him: « Guess ». He looks at me from the corner of his eye for a few seconds and says, « I think you drive in an old English car ». Oh, I was bluffed! He had me figured out at first sight, I didn’t think it would be that easy to read inside me. So I told him about my Austin Mini, about my history with this car and we started sharing anecdotes about this mythical car. His greatest fascination was knowing that I drive my Mini on a daily basis. I think he thought I was crazy, passionate and brave. He told me to be careful when driving it, and it’s rare we talk about that topic on RoadRugCars.com, but he’s right. Safety first.

We then headed to a gas station to fill up with gas and coffee. After this well-deserved break of a few minutes, Ari asked me if I would like to drive the BMW M2. Of course. He answers me that he will give me the wheel a little later, he starts the car and moves quietly towards the exit. When I arrived at the exit ramp and at that precise moment, I don’t really know what happened in his head and in mine, but the M2 Competition found itself catapulted, Ari’s hands grabbed at the wheel and sliding the car slightly along the curve between the two blocks surrounding the lane. Then gradually the car slowed down and Ari relaxed until he reached the entrance on the highway. So much mastery and precision in such a short time, I was totally astounded.

Ari Vatanen on the Bugatti at Le Mans Circuit

A few kilometers later we were at the edge of the Bugatti Circuit. As you had already guessed, a coffee was in order, an opportunity to talk with the BMW France Team, always with the utmost care for Ari and me. While waiting for the circuit to open, I take some pictures in the dissipating fog. From the corner of the lens, I see Ari leaning on a car and gesticulating amicably. Around him two young people came to ask him some questions. He, with his usual good mood and sense of contact, began to tell them everything (with passionnate hand movements to illustrate it all).

But it’s time to get back on stage, François Chatriot, Jean-Michel Venturi and Ari Vatanen enter the scene. I stay by the side of the track to take a few photos of the cars on the circuit. As soon as the wheels of their cars leave the pit lane, the inline-six engines sound free. Quickly we notice three different styles. At the wheel of his BMW M4 Competition, Jean-Michel seems precise, constant and cold in his driving. Ari and the M2 are insane, they go fast, very fast, too fast, and they slide at almost every turn. Finally, François Chatriot is testing his limits and those of the M2 Competition. As he got out of the car, he looked at me and said with sparkling eyes, « This b**** has a tones of grip ! » I obviously burst out laughing. Then he added with a big smile, « But seriously, it’s crazy, all these driving assistances are amazing! I give everything and it asks for more and more… », « I can tell you that my Renault Traffic doesn’t drive like that ». I laughed even harder. Ari Vatanen, for his part, makes track initiations. Over and over again. What a machine! And the craziest thing is that each of his passengers comes out with a big smile, a hand on the shoulder and an autograph.

Then the champion comes back to the pits and opens his window in front of me. He booked me the last two laps! So I put on a helmet and he drives me on one of the most mythical circuits in the world: the Bugatti Circuit. When he came out of the pit lane, he told me « You’re going to see, circuit isn’t really my thing ». Then we arrive immediately in the Chicane Dunlop, and there, I’m obviously a little shaken. The BMW M2 goes up in high RPM and Ari passes the higher gear on the fly. On the fly, yes, but in his own way. Ari Vatanen doesn’t use paddle shifters like you and me, he uses the gear lever! A heavy brake before the turn at La Chapelle, it downshifts by tapping on the stick, the car plunges forward and the tires squeal! At the Museum’s curve you can feel the car at its limits, it squeaks, then you drive towards the Garage Vert. At that moment Ari says « Arg, I was bad there ». Me in my head « Oh, yeah? » too focused on the amazing experience I was having. Now it’s the top speed of this technical demonstration, we get to Chemin aux Boeufs, it relaxes slightly to pass the chicane and I’m shaken more. Finally, we arrive at the S of the Garage Bleu and there it’s a festival of drift and smoke, what a pleasure! Better than any roller-coaster!

After so much emotion, wouldn’t we have deserved a coffee? You guessed Ari Vatanen’s answer.

On the road to the special stages of Tour Auto Optic 2000

After a 3rd or 4th coffee in the morning, a crowd bath with fans following him even to the toilet, it’s time to hit the road. Indeed, we have about 400 km to cover, in order to reach Deauville (and always by the small roads, it’s funnier). On his way to the BMW M2, Ari met a fellow Finn. He was delighted to share a few minutes of discussion in his mother tongue (I can’t help him in Finnish). Then when leaving the Circuit, Ari stops the car and opens his window. What’s he doing? He waved at the car we were passing. He asks to the woman to roll down his window. The man at the wheel has heart-shaped eyes, delighted to talk to a rally champion. So she does it immediately. Ari is speaking to a Peugeot 205 GTI owner. He tells him that his right front light no longer works. Then he gives him a big smile and adds that he has a very nice car. The owner and his wife are thrilled, of course. It’s very likely that they only retained one piece of information, however, Ari helped them and made them happy. Ari Vatanen finally gives them a thumb-up, says goodbye and drive. A few seconds later he confesses me « That’s amazing how many vintage Peugeots we can see here ».

After these emotions, I discovered another Ari Vatanen. A quiet, serene Ari, to sum up an Ari in « cruising » mode. His big hands on ten and two, Ari is enjoying the ride. But not as you imagine. Each village that we cross the man is amazed. Several times he tells me « Oh we have to come back here with Rita » (his wife). I must admit that it’s a real pleasure to admire the landscape between a circuit and a special stage after four days of rally driving.

This slightly winding road through the fields is the perfect opportunity to chat with our rally champion. Jovial in nature, as you may have already understood, Ari is happy to share, but always with great modesty and restraint. Passing in front of a truck, he confesses to me his passion for these vehicles. Huh what? Did he really say that? Indeed, he is passionate about the almost invisible utility it has in society. That is to say, you and I rarely see a truck when we go into a store. We meet some of them on the highway but let’s say it’s not really our universe, but you can imagine, all the products we find have been in a truck once or several times before arriving in our hands. That’s what’s a bit « magical », thinking about the journey a product has made. And that’s why Ari Vatanen told me « You know, trucks are like the veins of society ».

As you will have understood, between two roadbook’s indications (which I’m following very carefully), we are talking about everything and nothing. Ari is shocked by the price of building, using and maintaining railways compared to airports, he is also very serious when it comes to road safety (which is quite understandable), and very admiring of the agricultural professions. If you didn’t know it, Ari Vatanen was an MEP, first for Finland, then for France, which explains this real fascination for society, its mechanisms and the people who take part in it. Well, not really, since a lot of politicians don’t care, but MEP Vatanen does.

Along the way, I’m still quite surprised by the number of people waiting for us. Since the beginning of the Tour Auto, there have been a lot of spectators by the roadside. At the end of the race I find that there are more and more of them. At every crossroads, there are a few people waving at us, applauding us, taking pictures of us. I (almost) no longer need a roadbook, just follow the spectators. But imagine you’re in Ari Vatanen’s car? Your name is stuck next to his on the wing. The effect is tenfold! The number of people who seemed to expect Ari to come is staggering.

This is confirmed by arriving in a small town stage of the Optic 2000 partner. When we enter the square, the crowd vibrates. They’re waiting for Ari. The car in the middle of the road, the crowd surrounds it and Ari and I go out for a few minutes. With the time lost in Le Mans, we are in the connection zone in the middle of the Tour Auto competitors. Too bad for them.

Indeed, the cars behind us are stuck until Ari signs autographs, takes pictures and thanks everyone. Why thank everyone? Simply because one in three people offered him a present. Whether it’s a simple kiss, a homemade sausage (very good by the way, Ari made me taste it) or old rally photos from the 1980s. What a surprise when he saw the pictures, he was thrilled! Ari seems really touched by everyone who remembers him, who compliments him and thanks him for his sporting career. Some of them are almost crying when they meet Ari Vatanen, they thank him for having transmitted to them the passion of motorsport. Funnier, some people come up to him and ask him if he remembers them « Marie-France in 1982 at Monte-Carlo, you signed my t-shirt, remember? ». Of course not, but Ari still has the same reaction, a kind smile and two or three anecdotes from that time that make Marie-France and her colleagues extremely happy.

After spending about fifteen minutes taking pictures and signing magazines, Ari asks me to call him to leave. It’s very difficult for me to extract him to leave again, but Ari needs a real break. We park a few hundred meters further in front of a bakery. He wanted to taste a local product, so we had a strawberry tartlet each and… a coffee! We were happy as children after school.

Take forces for the special stages

A few dozens of minutes later we enter in Alençon, the largest city in the region. Surprisingly we arrived safely to the city centre. In a calm and anonymous manner. That was before Ari told me « It wouldn’t be serious to make donuts here? » and I told him « Absolutely not but it would be terribly cool ». At that moment he pulled the hand brake and pressed the accelerator! Vroomm vroooooom vrooommmm after 3 or 4 laps in noise and smoke, half the city knew we were coming and rushed around the car. A discreet entry that undoubtedly delighted all his fans (you definitely have to watch our story on Instagram to believe it). In this delirious crowd, one fan was even more a fan than the others. How is that possible? Coming with his Peugeot 405 Mi16 (civilized version of the 405 T16 Grand-Raid Ari was driving in the Sahara) and having it signed by Ari Vatanen. What!!! Yes Ari signs everything, even the youngtimers and always with a smile, surprised by nothing. I mean, yes, just after he told me, « It’s crazy, don’t you think? » I answered him « Indeed it’s amazing how popular you are, doesn’t it sometimes bother you, everyone? », « No, no, I give them back what they gave me ».

After lunch and coffee (of course), we cross the crowd and we are back on the road. After a few kilometers, Ari asked me if I wanted to drive. Of course! I quickly understand that he wanted me to drive so he could rest a little. Passenger seat in a reclining position, Ari puts his earballs on and falls asleep instantly. Pinch me, I’m driving one of the greatest rally champions asleep in one of the most extreme little sedans of the moment. My only concern now is to drive soft enough not to wake him up. The M2’s furious Sport + exhaust mode didn’t really help. Fortunately there is a Comfort mode (for once, I think it’s the only time it’s been useful to me). My second concern, « How can he sleep after drinking so much coffee? », a real mystery.

A special rally stage with Ari Vatanen

After this moment of calm and serenity, I poked Ari Vatanen’s arm, we almost reached one of the last stages of the Tour Auto 2019. Ari takes the wheel again and we follow the competitors towards the race, the real one. When we get to the crossing point, a lot of competitors are already queuing up to start. In fact, we are in the middle of the regularity list. By shaking hands, signing autographs and taking pictures, we are really behind the competition. Too bad, it’s not a big deal, representing it as well as possible is part of the BMW ambassador job. In any case, we must wait until all the competitors registered in regularity have passed before we can go on the stage. About 50 cars are waiting, enough to make a new crowd bath.

As usual, Ari is taking care of everyone but I’m still discovering a new facet of his personality. After signing all the spectators’ rally plates, he leaned over the glass of each competitor who was about to start the race. He took a few minutes with each of them to ask them how the race was going and to give them some valuable advice: « Brake as late as possible, as in life », « I hated Saab all my life, Volvo is fine », « It’s not difficult, it’s always straight ». Of course, we had a good laugh, as did the drivers and guests as Dominique Chapatte (famous car show TV host) aboard a BMW M1 or Patrick Peter (the rally organiser) in his BMW 8 series. I think Ari Vatanen is really close to people. We feel that he likes to listen to people, to share with them a very small part of his life and experience. He definitely has a sense of contact.

It’s finally time for us to start the special stage. Ari, as usual, disconnects all driving assistances, switches the gearbox to manual mode, puts his hands in ten and two positions, pedal to the metal and off we go! The first few seconds are impressive, the car goes fast, very fast in high RPM and he gives great steering strokes to keep a little grip! He hits the gearbox lever and we are already in 4th gear almost at rev limiter! After a powerful brake hit, the car turns 90 degrees and squeaks in a turn! Now I hear « Mmm I’m not very good there », for me it was already good enough as it was. A straight line, the foot welded to the floor, we pass between two fields, a few dozens of centimeters from the plants! We can see no further than a few metres in front of us so high is the grass and the road curved.

 

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Une publication partagée par Big Kids Motoring Magazine 🚗🕹💨 (@roadrugcars) le

When I look at the speedometer, we are already around 130 km/h on a kind of country road on which a tractor per week usually does pass. We rush between two houses, a hump and a raised turn, enough to make us feel the force of gravity’s action. After a few minutes that seemed like an eternity of happiness, we arrived at the finish line and Ari told me « I wasn’t really into it because the car was slipping a little and I didn’t know the road well ». From my point of view as a passenger, it was already quite a lot, but I would have loved to see it even more than that. The best way to tell you what I’ve been through is to watch the following video (and again, the video doesn’t pay tribute to how he was driving, but it gives you an idea).

Ari Vatanen superstar: arrival of the 2019 Tour Auto

While you were watching the video of our exploits, Ari asked me: « Have you ever thought about the weight of the clouds? Are they light or heavy? ». True story and juste after we were filling up with fuel (and coffee). So we stopped in a small Norman village, Sainte-Honorine-La-Guillaume. The most surprising thing isn’t to find a gas station and a bar in this village but to spend a quarter of an hour discussing cars with complete strangers. On this occasion we met Julien, a great passionate and connoisseur of rally (you can follow him here because he is an encyclopedia of French motor racing).

Credit Julien Guibert

Back on the road, Ari confides a little more in me. You understood that Ari Vatanen is both an excellent pilot and a fervent contributor to road safety. So I ask him where he got this passion for speed and also this awareness of danger. Which may seem opposite at first sight. And here is the answer I didn’t expect: « You know Nicolas, my father died when I was a kid, I was 8 years old, he died in a car accident. My father was always a pioneer. He wasn’t particularly passionate about cars but he loved technical and technological progress. That’s why he bought the latest Volvo (probably a Volvo Amazon, I’m Nico assuming that). It was equipped, for the very first time, with standard seat belts. But a few weeks after his purchase, we were with our family in the car and my father had an accident. Everyone was tied up in the car except him ». « A few years later, I borrowed my mother’s car to practice turns and drifts in front of our house ». « The accident I had when I was a kid probably made me want to control the car, push it to the limits and learn to control it completely ».

As you know, Ari Vatanen had another serious accident in his career. During the 1985 Argentine Rally, Ari Vatanen and Terry Harryman were seriously injured after having rolled many times at high speed in a Peugeot 205 Turbo 16. 18 months later, he was back on tracks. This forced stop gave one of the craziest quotes in motor racing: « I will even drive a wheelbarrow for Peugeot, if they ask me to ». I don’t know if this quote is authentic, I forgot to ask him, but it has fallen into the motor sport popular culture. Anyway, this accident also gave Ari new perspectives: « It was difficult but I came out better, more open to the world and aware of how lucky we can be ».

When I arrived near Deauville, Ari told me that I would make a good co-pilot (ultimate pride). Glad to be close to the finish line, we were 54 kilometres from Deauville and Ari told me « You know 54 km is important for me. When I was young it was the distance that separated the small town in which I lived from the big city in which I worked. Every day I did the 54 kilometres in the morning and in the evening. Later, after an entire rally in the desert, when my co-driver told me that there were 54 kilometers left, I was happy, I felt like I was going home ». Later, admiring a typical half-timbered house in Normandy and the huge field behind it, he added that French people have everything, but we are not aware of it (compared to Finland). If we became aware of that we would be the most powerful country. Unfortunately, I think he’s right.

Anyway, l’m convinced that Ari Vatanen is a deeply curious and humanist man. He´s passionate with the society that surrounds him, about the Men who compose it and more broadly about life.

Our journey ends on the seaside of Deauville with Grease’s music in the car and Ari banging his thigh in time. We have arrived after almost 500 km, 14 hours of driving, 456 autographs, 232 photos including 114 selfies and 10 coffees. At the finish of 2019 Tour Auto, Ari becomes once again the famous rally champion that everyone is waiting for. People surround him again and he gradually disappears through the crowd. Now I believe that Ari Vatanen, his exploits with Peugeot in the 80-90s and his large smile, will leave an eternal memory throughout France.

Ps 1: As promised, here are the links to David Toledano’s article, he followed the Tour Auto 2019 as press and Felix Godard as a mechanic. Enjoy!

Ps 2: I wanted to thank Ari Vatanen very much for sharing with me his last day of Tour Auto. It was for me a very nice meeting and an unforgettable experience. I would also like to thank Sandra Vidal and the whole BMW France team who offered me the opportunity to accompany them during the Tour Auto 2019 and especially to be Ari co-pilot during this insane day. We’re not really used to thanking you publicly, but this experience was so fantastic that I did an article that looks more like a final thesis. Thank you again.

8 Comments

I was Ari Vatanen's copilot at Tour Auto Optic 2000, yes it's true

  1. Ok, congrats! That’s the best interview / meeting I’ve ever read. It seems so authentic, I feel I was you all day long

  2. Quel grand homme ! Merci de nous faire rêver depuis des années, merci pour votre sincérité et pour votre engagement

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