ARI Vatanen's great passion to live his life to the fullest provided the motivation for him to become one of the greatest rally drivers of his time. But, if he had believed in fate, he would have turned his back on his career before he was even old enough to reach the pedals of a motor car. As an eight-year-old the former world champion and four-time winner of the gruelling Paris-Dakar Rally was involved in a tragic car accident which claimed the life of his father. To this day Vatanen, now 41, can remember that incident which shattered his childhood days. His father, a bomber pilot during the Second World War, had a passion for speed and a daredevil nature. Young Ari inherited all his father's traits and by the tender age of 12 was pleading with his mother to let him drive the family's 1,000cc Opel Kadet. Born in the small Finnish farming community of Tuupovaara, about 400 kilometres north of Helsinki near the Russian border, young Ari knew precious little about cars let alone rallying. But from that first time he slipped behind the wheel of his mother's car and gingerly eased off the clutch and tramped the accelerator, Vatanen had a passion to drive at breakneck speeds, a passion which is with him to this very day. Nearly 30 years on, Vatanen still recalls the words of his mother: ''Isn't one in the family enough.'' The words were to be almost prophetic. Vatanen was involved in an horrific accident during the 1985 Argentine Rally. He was at the zenith of his career after winning the world title in 1981 and arrived in Argentina with five successive victories to his credit. An uncharted stretch of lonely road which had subsided due to heavy rain all but snuffed out Vatanen's brilliant career in a split second when his Peugeot 205 went end over end. But for the timely arrival of a helicopter Vatanen would have died on the spot. ''I had massive internal bleeding and lost around three litres of blood. There's no doubt I would have died on the spot but for that helicopter,'' he recalled. ''Rallying is like eating a piece of cake, you always want more,'' he explained about his amazing comeback to the sport. Sidelined for 18 months and wracked with self doubt, Vatanen describes those months as the darkest of his life. He even had to survive an AIDS scare after a blood transfusion in Argentina, made all the harder to deal with because of uncertainty caused by lack of knowledge of the disease in those days. Vatanen found his lifeline in Rita, who became his wife 13 years ago and who, like Ari, has also experienced tragedy in her life. Her first husband was killed in an aircraft crash. Yet she has learnt to live with her husband's passion for his chosen sport and she helped him through his darkest days. Vatanen returned to driving in 1987 to win the first of his four Paris-Dakar rallies. ''That win was really satisfying because it was the first event I had entered after the accident,'' he said. Vatanen is the personification of a swashbuckling racing driver. Slim and well over six feet tall. He is blessed with eye-catching Scandinavian blue eyes and fair hair and has an aura of confidence and success about him. Self-effacing when talking about his individual accomplishments, Vatanen's passion for his sport comes through with his desire to constantly seek new levels of excellence. Like any great sportsman, Vatanen can rise and meet a challenge full on. He stamped himself as a cut above the rest in 1974 when he beat the great Hannu Mikkola in the Nortti Rally in his home region driving a battered Opel with close friend Vesa Vaisanen. That David and Goliath feat earned him a tiny report in an English motoring publication and was to ultimately launch his professional career. Vatanen remembers with clarity those early days. ''I beat Hannu on the Saturday and on Monday I didn't go back to school, I knew I wanted to be a professional rally driver.'' Vatanen had spent five years studying mechanical engineering but was far more interested in the end results of the engineering than labouring on a blocked fuel system. ''I remember getting a phone call from a mechanic in Wales who had read about my win over Hannu and said he had GBP300 of sponsorship money for me to drive in England.'' That was just the edge Vatanen needed, by 1976 he was with the Ford Escort works team and his drive to the top was in top gear. While Vatanen acknowledges the risks of his chosen profession, he pushes towards the brink more than most. He has developed a reputation for wrecking cars but in between the extravagant excursions into the unknown, Vatanen has forged a driving style distinctive to fans and respected by his peers. Sadly, Hongkong fans were denied seeing the Flying Finn at his best in the last Hongkong-to-Beijing Rally in 1987 when he paid the ultimate price for not having completed a proper reconnaissance of the route. He took a bend too wide in his Ford Sierra and his rally ended when he crashed into a tree. ''I will be better prepared this time,'' he warned his rivals. Vatanen still draws immense satisfaction from mounting the winner's rostrum but he has never been able to escape the darker side of his profession. Over the years four of his co-drivers have been killed taking part in other races, he reflects. And news of another tragedy reached him on Wednesday night, only hours after he had attended the press conference in Hongkong announcing the entry of the 555-Subaru World Rally Team in the re-launched Hongkong-to-Beijing event. His co-driver in that eventful win in 1974, Vaisanen, was killed in a light 'plane crash forcing Vatanen to cut short his stay in Hongkong. Journalist Vaisanen helped Vatanen write his autobiography ''Every Second Counts'' which was published in 1987. ''He was one of my closest friends in the world,'' Vatanen said before he left on Friday. But in the true professional manner which has marked his career Vatanen agreed to go ahead with the interview with me when many would have asked to be excused. Reflecting on his career and the death of his friend Vatanen said: ''Life is beautiful, but a fragile gift.'' For a man who lives on the limit, Ari Vatanen has a greater understanding of life and its importance than most. And what does the future hold? ''Winning another world title isn't really important. For the time being I want to continue competing with Subaru in the world championship. ''Maybe I will drive for another five years or so,'' he says as he turns to wife Rita for approval. A farmer in France when not on the international rally circuit, Vatanen has no intention of basking in his reflected glory as a team manager when his driving days are over. ''When I'm no longer competitive I will walk away and try something different,'' he declares. But rallying fans can at least look forward to another five years of the cavalier style of Ari Vatanen, a man who has contributed more than most to that famous catchphrase ''The Flying Finns''.