Vatanen ready to grab Ford lifeline
HARD-CHARGING Finn Ari Vatanen has been thrown a lifeline by Ford to resurrect his international career in the Rally of Indonesia, the opening leg of the Asia-Pacific series which begins in Medan on the island of Sumatra tomorrow.
The 1981 world champion suffered a serious crash in Argentina which threatened to end his career but Vatanen hauled himself from the depths of despair to win four Paris to Dakar rallies, a feat unequalled in the history of that event.
In recent years Vatanen has struggled to get a regular drive but success in Indonesia could turn his career around.
The Ford Escort will have full factory backing and feature technology which hasn't yet been tried on the World Championship circuit.
'We will be running an electronic centre differential for the first time which will be used in the New Zealand World Championship round if it proves successful here,' he said yesterday.
Even though Vatanen has no guarantee of another drive with the factory team this season, he said it was possible a good result in Indonesia could get him a drive in Ford's third car in Australia and a place in the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally in October. Australia is the third leg of the Asia-Pacific and like New Zealand is a leg of this year's World Championship.
Vatanen won the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally in 1993 when the event returned to the international calendar after six-years.
On that occasion he drove for the Prodrive 555 Subaru World Rally Team who will supply his main opposition in Indonesia.
Heading the Subaru challenge will be two-time Asia-Pacific Rally Series champion Possum Bourne of New Zealand and Briton Colin McRae who won last year's New Zealand Rally, his first victory in the World Rally Championship.
Also competing for Subaru will be mainland Chinese driver Lu Ningjun who will be competing for the first time overseas.
Mitsubishi Ralliart Europe will also mount a three-car challenge featuring Swede Kenneth Eriksson, Finn Tommi Makinen and Japanese Kenjiro Shinozuka. They will all drive Lancer Evolutions.
Vatanen plays down the importance of his drive for Ford saying: 'I have many rallies to come and this is just one little step.
'I'm confident, relaxed and looking for a good result.' But there's no hiding the fact that Vatanen has the perfect opportunity to rekindle a flagging career.
At 43, he is one of the oldest drivers on the international circuit.
He is quick to dismiss the age question saying: 'I plan to drive for another 10 years. I believe I am still capable of winning another world championship.
'Look at the Rolling Stones, they are all over 50 but they are making more money than ever,' he joked.
But on a serious note, Vatanen believes he has many more rallies left in him.
Long linked with French car manufacturer Citroen with whom he enjoyed his Paris-Dakar success, Vatanen believes the company could return to the World Championship scene in the not too distant future.
'Regulations surrounding kit cars being used in the World Championship have been relaxed by the FIA [motorsport's ruling body] which leaves the way open for Citroen to become competitive again. This could be an opportunity for me in the future,' Vatanen said.
Vatanen's presence in Indonesia has added spice to an event which looked a virtual match-race between the Subaru Imprezas and the Mitsubishi Lancers.
'We are the only European factory-entered car in the field which is another incentive to do well,' Vatanen said.
'Ford realise the importance of the Asian market and are doing this rally without a main sponsor. I believe they are serious about mounting a full Asia-Pacific series next year.'