Finland’s Ari Vatanen, one of the biggest names in world rallying, will be the star attraction at this year’s Classic Rally of Otago.

The 58-year old is widely regarded as the most popular rally driver ever, having won the 1981 World Rally Championship with an on-the-limit driving style that thrilled spectators the world over.

For the Dunedin based rally, to be run from April 8-10, Vatanen will return to his roots, driving a rear-wheel drive Ford Escort RS1800 similar to that in which he scored the first four of his 10 World Rally Championship victories.

Vatanen will be co-driven by the Italian, Fabrizia Pons, who has become a regular visitor to the Rally of Otago, having called the pacenotes for Michele Mouton, Alex Fiorio and Piero Liatti at the event in recent years.

The addition of Vatanen to the entry list for the Rally of Otago is yet another major coup for the southern hemisphere’s foremost classic rally.

Former World Rally Champions Bjorn Waldegard, Hannu Mikkola and Juha Kankkunen have all contested the rally in recent years, as have a number of the sport’s biggest names, including Russell Brookes, Jimmy McRae, Pasi Hagstrom, Fiorio and Liatti.

DriveSouth Rally of Otago spokesman, Roger Oakley, said that having Vatanen’s name on the entry list was the jewel in the crown for the event.

“Ari is the driver that we’ve been trying to lure to Dunedin for many years, and to finally have him confirmed for 2011 is a real coup,” Oakley said.  

“The work of Brent Rawstron and his Rossendale Wines rally team has been instrumental in achieving this, they have done an outstanding job in hosting and running these top drivers over the years”.

“Ari won the World Rally Championship in 1981, but more than this, he is a real icon of the sport and his entry is certain to attract hundreds, if not thousands, of extra spectators to the event.

“As a former factory driver for Ford, Peugeot, Opel, Subaru and Mitsubishi, he is without doubt one of the most charismatic personalities that rallying has ever known.”  

“We are also very fortunate to have the friendship the event has with Fabrizia Pons, she is a world-class co-driver and a fantastic ambassador for us,” Oakley added.

Dunedin is certainly going to be the centre of attention on the weekend of April 8-10.  The Otago Rally will be complemented by the final weekend of the renowned iD Fashion week, providing the ideal opportunity for a ‘his and hers’ weekend visit.

Vatanen’s trip to Dunedin will by no means his first competitive outing in New Zealand.

In fact, his very first finish in world championship rallying came on Rally New Zealand back in 1977 when, driving for Ford, he was the sole serious opposition to a massive four-car assault by the factory Fiat team. Despite rolling or crashing his car on numerous occasions, Vatanen never gave up in his pursuit of the Fiats, and in the end finished runner-up by a narrow margin.

“We won, but it destroyed us,” was how the Fiat team manager of the day described the experience of Vatanen’s never-say-die assault.

Vatanen finished second on Rally NZ again in 1985 driving a fearsome Group B Peugeot 205 T16. His three other visits – for Subaru in 1992 and 1993, and Ford in 1994 – all ended in retirement, though he led both the 1992 and 1993 events before striking trouble.

Outside of the world championship arena, Vatanen pursued a successful career in long-distance desert rallying, winning the Paris-Dakar Rally four times. He also pursued a successful career in politics, serving as a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2009.

After a ceremonial start in Dunedin on the Friday evening, April 8, the DriveSouth Rally of Otago begins with three night-time stages with a competitive distance of around 50 kilometres.

The rally will continue on Saturday with six daylight stages, including the popular tarmac super special stage around the streets of central Dunedin.

On Sunday, a further six daylight gravel stages will see a total event competitive distance of approximately 275 kilometres.

Along with the International Classic Rally of Otago, the event is also the first round of the New Zealand Rally Championship for 2011.

For further information on the DriveSouth Rally of Otago, go to
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