We all know that Ari Vatanen is a great rally driver – in his late 1970s, early 1980s heyday he was the archetypal balls-out driver, and in between trashing the occasional car he found the time to thrill fans and win the 1981 World Rally Championship.
In the intervening years he’s not lost his touch behind the wheel either: to this day he remains a fixture on the annual Paris-Dakar Rally, an event he has won four times. If nothing else, those victories show that he’s learnt to temper some of his on-the-limit enthusiasm with a slightly more measured approach.
But does this qualify him to be FIA president?
Alone, of course it doesn’t – but as well as being a great driver,
Vatanen’s spent years trying to be a great person (I interviewed him
once, in a dusty, humid tent in Mauritania, midway to Dakar, and he
smiled as he told how he’d spent the boat trip from Europe to Africa
reading a book on self-improvement, as other drivers partied). From
1999 until this year was using this to good effect as a popular Member
of European Parliament (oddly given that he’s a Finn, he worked as an
MEP representing a region in France), and he’s also acted as a trustee
of the FIA Foundation, so he knows his way around the place.
Although he’s now stood down from MEP duty, it’s clear he made an impression. Take this testimony from fellow MEP Richard Helmer: “He’d be great in the job [as president of the FIA].
“Ari was an MEP in European parliaments, and had a distinguished career. He was highly respected, especially on automotive issues. I am very sorry that he is not coming back in the parliament — I should have enjoyed working with him.
“But I wish him well in seeking the top job at the FIA. If you can win the Paris/Dakar Rally over and over again, winning the top slot at the FIA should be a walk-over. Good luck.”
Sadly, it won’t be that simple, not least because a certain Max Mosley changed the rules of election in 2005, so that anyone wishing to stand for the FIA presidency had to gather a body of supporters to back their campaign.
When you’re as popular as Vatanen that sounds simple enough, but persuading national representatives to come out in public and support your campaign against the incumbent – and notoriously, shall we say, combative – president isn’t so simple. Mosley may be a figure of mockery in the wider world, but he still wields an iron grip on the inner workings and members of the FIA.
Vatanen, no doubt, will view this as just another challenge.
Critics will highlight Vatanen’s eccentric side. The fact he’s a climate change sceptic will scare many off putting him at the head of a body as influential in motoring circles as the FIA, and you can be sure his opposition will be keen to rake up as much fuss about this as possible.
But that’s to miss the point – he’s engaging, persuasive, strong and a born leader. In my view he’s the right man for the both because he understands what it’s like to compete at the highest level, he’s a proven political force and because he represents values that the FIA much needs right now.