Vatanen has always been fascinated by flying. His father piloted Bristol Blenheims in World War 2 and his first love was planes, not cars. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but I was too tall,” he says. “In the 1970s, you had to be less than 170cm in Finland. Then I wanted to fly for Finnair, but I was not intelligent enough, and my English wasn’t good back then. So I got into cars instead, although I compensated a bit later on with helicopters.”
As well as frequently flying choppers, Vatanen is co-president of Airbus Helicopters’ Pilots Club, and he admits to having introduced several of his rallying contemporaries to the joys of rotarywing aircraft, including former co-driver (and now head of Prodrive) David Richards, a man famous for flying himself almost everywhere.
“Helicopters can be dangerous, but they have saved far more lives than they have taken,” he says, referring to the horrendous crash he suffered on Rally Argentina in 1985 in which he nearly died. “I wouldn’t be here if Jean Todt [then Peugeot team boss] hadn’t had a Squirrel in the service area and sent it out to look for me when I didn’t make the control. They found me literally lying on the grass and took me straight to hospital. There was no way I would have made it on the roads. There wasn’t time.”
Vatanen’s relationship with Todt got far more complicated later on, when both competed to succeed Max Mosley as head of the FIA in 2009. Todt was very much the establishment figure and won after a sometimes acrimonious battle, but Vatanen says their relationship has since been mended. “Luckily, it’s all patched up now,” he says. “Jean started a new commission, the closed road commission, which is responsible for safety in rallying, offroad racing and hillclimbs, and I’m chairman of that, which I enjoy.”
Vatanen has also become the president of the Estonian Autosport Union, despite coming from a different country. “They just called me. ‘Ari, we don’t have a president. Would you do it?’ I think they wanted me because I have good contacts with Jean and the FIA in Paris. The passport isn’t the point; you must have the right competence.”
With extensive experience in European politics, Vatanen has plenty of that. He served two terms as an MEP, the first representing Finland and the second representing France. “I do miss politics more than I miss driving,” he says. “The two things can’t really be compared. I can still do driving in one way or another, although not competing. Politics is a completely different challenge. It sounds very idealistic, but it’s one where you try to be part of building a better world.”