Sitting on a bucket seat with a substantial-looking rollcage behind him, Ari Vatanen looks to be in his natural element.
But this isn’t a return to front-line competition. Instead, it’s a drive in the most extreme road-going car yet to wear a BMW badge. And after a 30-mile blast across rain-sodden roads near his home in Provence, the M4 GTS has created a strong first impression.
“It’s a beast, an absolute beast,” Vatanen says in his soft Finnish accent. “When I think of how hard you had to work in cars with 300bhp, even 200bhp, it’s amazing how far things have come.”
Vatanen is now a BMW brand ambassador in France, which is excuse enough for me to make the long trek to see what he thinks of the GTS. Sitting in the passenger seat has been a tick against the bucket list and confirmation that the skills of the former world rally champion haven’t faded. He adapts almost instantly to this M4’s unfamiliar righthand drive layout and his spacial awareness is evident in the way he uses what seems like every millimetre of the limited width of the winding roads in the Gorge de la Nesque, traction control fluttering as it tries to deliver the engine’s peak 493bhp onto the wet surface through cold Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s.
How does it compare with the Ford Escort RS1800 in which he won the 1981 world drivers’ title? He laughs: “Of course, it’s faster. Much faster. But it probably would not be quite as good on gravel.”
SIDEWAYS TO VICTORY
I was too young to see his Vatanen’s Group B heyday in anything other than television highlight packages, where I remember his Peugeot 205 T16 looking impossibly lithe and agile compared with the hulking Audi Quattros that were usually chasing it. The first time I saw him up close was at the 1992 RAC Rally, where, after waiting for hours in a dank Welsh forest, his Subaru Legacy came through the corner I was standing at faster and at a far more extreme angle than anything else, even the identical car of young teammate Colin McRae. He went on to finish second and has been one of my motorsport heroes ever since.
The Finn’s mercurial talent and sideways-everywhere driving technique won him a following out of kilter with his raw tally of victories: the 1981 WRC drivers’ title and 10 international rallies. No one ever made a Mk2 Escort or the 205 T16 look more exciting, and his talents ranged far beyond the WRC. There were four Paris-Dakar victories (a fifth lost only when his car was stolen) as well as the assault on the Pikes Peak hillclimb immortalised in the short film Climb Dance. This created the ‘Vatanen salute’, replicating the moment when low sun caused him to shield his eyes and opposite-lock the 600bhp 405 T16 one-handed next to the massive drops at the top of the course.
He has lived in France for two decades and seems to be recognised pretty much everywhere he goes, even without the help of a bright white M4 GTS and its audible-fromspace soundtrack. When we stop in a small village for coffee, a woman approaches and chats with Vatanen for several minutes, before parting with an embrace. Vatanen translates a summary: “Her mother is 88 years old and still drives, but she is much too fast, so they call her ‘Granny Ari’.”
BMW isn’t high on the list of brands you’re most likely to associate with Vatanen, but he says there is some genuine competition pedigree behind his ambassadorial role. “Few people will remember, but I did the 1000 Lakes in a BMW in 1988,” he says, “as well as the Andros Trophy and some other ice racing. I even shared a car with Nigel Mansell at the 24-hour race in Chamonix.”
Although Vatanen has spent plenty of time in the regular M4, this is his first go in the GTS and he is fascinated by how different it is. Also by the need to top up the tank for the water injection system that lies under the boot floor, with his questions about how the system works quickly outstripping my limited knowledge. “This is aerospace technology,” he says. “I love that, and the fact they have put it onto a car.”
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.”
Although proudly Finnish, Vatanen is enormously fond of his adoptive homeland and keen to sing its praises, especially for driving. “There are not many straight roads here. They are all twisty and in beautiful countryside, even when it is raining like this. They are normally in fantastic condition. You can have fun in the most basic rental car or in a beast like this. And, of course, when you stop, you will have a proper coffee, a proper meal.”
Spending time with Vatanen is a huge pleasure, and one that disproves the adage about never meeting your heroes. His intelligence is wide-ranging. He’s as happy to talk about politics or the future of road safety as he is about his considerable motorsport success – happier, even. The M4 GTS is a hell of a car and Provence an amazing place to drive, but I know I’ll be remembering our conversation for far longer.
Photography by Thomas Salt