Champion's return halted

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 October, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 October, 1994, 12:00am

RALLYING, more than most spectator sports, relies on sponsorship to remain afloat but, sadly, in these difficult economic times not all drivers are lucky enough to attract backers with deep pockets.

One such victim is last year's 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally winner, Ari Vatanen of Finland.

The former world rally champion and four-time winner of the gruelling Paris to Dakar event led a Subaru World Rally Team to a one-two-three placing last year.

But, in the fickle world of international motorsport, the Flying Finn found himself dumped from the Subaru team at the end of last season when Spaniard Carlos Sainz switched from Lancia.

When he linked up with German team Schmidt Engineering Schmidt Motorsport (SMS), driving a Ford Escort, prospects for 1994 suddenly looked bright. The team was committed to four rounds of the World Rally Championship - plus the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally.

Vatanen stormed back on to the world rally stage in the Rally of New Zealand with a cavalier exhibition of driving to be only a handful of seconds behind the big guns after the first day.

An accident on the second day prematurely ended Vatanen's comeback, but he already had his eyes firmly fixed on the 1,000 Lakes event in Sweden where he had finished second a year earlier behind compatriot Juha Kankkunen.

Again bad luck intervened on the first day and Vatanen was out after only three stages.

Unbeknown to Vatanen at the time that was to be the end of the 1994 season for the SMS Team, which laid off 90 staff the following day after the main sponsors pulled the plug.

Vatanen said: 'We simply ran out of money. The crash in the 1,000 Lakes simply was the [last] straw.

'I was very disappointed. The car was very competitive and I know that, with any luck, we could have gone close to winning a round of the World Championship.

'I was so looking forward to coming back to Asia to defend my title in a different car. I found the Chinese people so friendly and the race a real challenge. Maybe with any luck I will be back next year.' At 43, Vatanen is a veteran of the elite rally circuit but has no thoughts of quitting the sport.

'Citroen has already offered me a drive in the Paris-Dakar with an option to do the other long-distance events if I do not get a drive in the World Championship next year.

'But my heart is still in competing in the World Championship before anything else.' Vatanen is negotiating with the Belgian-based RAS Team which will have Bruno Thiry driving a Ford Escort next season.

'There is a second seat with the team but, in this business, there is always a lot of talk and promises,' he said.

In the shorter term, Vatanen hopes to get a drive in the season-ending British RAC Rally with the official Ford factory team, which includes drivers Francois Delecour and Massimo Biaision.