1985: Ari Vatanen’s near-death experience
As a motorsport sponge as a kid, you had to have heroes, didn’t you? Be honest! If you were anyone like me, your heroes were spectacular, yet never World Champions: Ronnie Peterson, Gilles Villeneuve, Tom Pryce. I was all F1…
My brother alerted me to another new hero, when he taught me about rallying and Ari Vatanen, a Finn and an accident waiting to happen but never seemed to. On the limit x10. Anyone who goes through a cattle grid flat-out, with a flat tyre having just scraped the wall and barely a lift gets my vote – see the video 1min 50. Even co-driver Terry Harryman interrupts his pace notes with an “Dear God!” Watch the whole video, and become a fan like me.
The Finn’s spectacular ways won him the 1981 World Rally Championship, and won me as a huge fan as a teen. A bit like Colin McRae, his ability was way beyond his statistics. Both he and McRae deserved much more than a solitary championship title. I was lucky enough to get to know both of them.
But let’s stick With Ari for now. “All or nothing” doesn’t even come in to it. It was “all” every time.
I was fortunate enough to be asked to update the English version of his book, Every Second Counts, in 1988, and my brother and I spent three wonderful days pinching ourselves as we sat in his house in Berkshire talking nonsense – and a lot of it talking some extremely serious stuff.
Ari had a frightening accident in Argentina in 1985, and suffered serious injuries. Worse, while he was recovering from the multiple bone breaks (cervical vertabrea, crushed knee, eight ribs and smashed ankle) he became depressed. After three blood transfusions in the Cordoba hospital, he became convinced that he had contracted AIDS, a disease that at the time few people knew much about.
An eight-hour operation on his knee was successful, but left the Finn with doubts. “For a long time I didn’t know how close to death I had come,” he says. The doctors warned his wife Rita that despite the operations the physical recovery was only just beginning.
His healing became complicated. “I had swollen glands in my throat and a hoarse voice from the tubes during his operations,” he says. “I began to worry if I had cancer. The stronger I became physically, the stronger my fears grew.
“I remembered times drinking tap water on the Safari Rally in Africa, and that’s when the idea I had AIDS really struck,” he adds. “Then I remembered all the blood I received in Argentina. Every magazine I picked up seemed to have something about AIDS in it. I read about a Paris-Dakar rider who died after he received blood. That just made it worse.”
The depression lasted, and only a few people knew of the torment he was experiencing. One of them was his Peugeot Sport team boss Jean Todt – ironically a man he would go head-to-head against for the FIA presidency in 2009.
“Jean Todt was a tremendous help,” says Ari. “Through everything at the time he said should I compete again, he would provide a car.”