Ari's driving ambition

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 April, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 April, 1994, 12:00am

DEFENDING 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally champion, Flying Finn Ari Vatanen, has a personal score to settle when he returns in October with a new team, car and co-driver in a bid to win back-to-back titles.

The former world rally champion and four-time winner of the Paris-Dakar event in Africa is on the comeback trail after being dumped by the Prodrive team late last year after a successful season driving a Subaru Legacy and later an Impresa.

Vatanen led the Acropolis Rally in Greece, the New Zealand Rally and the 1,000 Lakes in his native Finland before either a crash or mechanical failure frustrated his challenges.

He capped 1993 by winning the gruelling 3,800-kilometre Hong Kong to Beijing event, spearheading a Subaru-Prodrive one-two-three finish.

But those deeds weren't enough for the 42-year-old to keep his job with the Prodrive team.

He was sacked by former co-driver and now Prodrive boss, Dave Richards, to make way for Spaniard Carlos Sainz, also a former world champion.

''What hurt me even more was the fact that Dave [Richards] was a friend of mine. I couldn't treat a friend the way he treated me,'' a bitter Vatanen said yesterday.

''It was hard to justify and very unprofessional because I had good results and good speed all year. He obviously wanted Sainz at any cost.'' But as Vatanen had all but reconciled himself to again returning to the long-distance African-style events with Citroen and dropping out of the World Championship scene, Schmidt Motorsport (SMS) of Germany stepped in to offer him a lifeline.

He will campaign a new Ford Escort in four legs of the World Championship - Greece, New Zealand, 1,000 Lakes and the RAC in Britain - as well as the Hong Kong to Beijing and possibly as many as three more events on the Asia-Pacific Championship circuit.

''After what happened to me I've got special incentive to do really well, particularly in the Hong Kong to Beijing where I know I will be up against two or maybe even three drivers from the Prodrive team,'' Vatanen said.

Vatanen's campaign begins at the end of May with the Acropolis Rally before the New Zealand event in July.

Apart from a new car, a new team and new sponsors, Vatanen will also have a new co-driver, Italian mother-of-two, Fabrizia Pons, who has been rallying since 1976.

No slouch in the navigator's seat, Pons has four World Championship wins to her credit and was runner-up in 1982, the year after Vatanen won his world title.