The fastest, most accident-prone rally driver in the world is coming to New Zealand for a major rally and is looking for someone to occupy the co-driver’s hot seat. You are New Zealand’s top co-driver, mid-forties, married with children. You contemplate his world championship record – seven starts, seven retirements, four through crashes – and decline the chance. Right? Wrong. You call Masport boss Doug Benefield (the owner of the car to be used), ask for the job, and get it. So reports David Thomson and Martin Holmes in the book “The New Zealand Rally” about Jim Scott, well known team manager, competitor relations officer, co-driver and walking storehouse of rally knowledge.

Jim Scott almost took a World championship rally win with Ari Vatanen in 1977.

In 1977 Jim Scott was one of New Zealand’s best, if not the best, navigator/co-driver, having won the New Zealand Rally twice previously with Scot Andrew Cowan – in 1972 in a Mini Clubman GT, and in 1976 in a Hillman Avenger. So, who better suited to sit beside the world’s fastest (albeit most desperate) rally driver, Ari Vatanen, than Scott himself? It wasn’t a job that anyone would have taken on lightly, but Scott was prepared to take the risk. His input could have given Vatanen an outright win in the event (and it almost did), as well as giving them both their first world championship win. With a reputation like Vatanen’s, Scott’s family were naturally very concerned about his well-being and the story goes that he rang home after every leg of the rally to let his family know that he was okay. “Mother was very interested, but with all those reports coming in over the radio along the lines of ‘Vatanen’s been off again’, I could understand the concern. I used to ring up and let people know we were still in one piece,” Scott is reported to have said at the time. 1977 was the year that Ari Vatanen and Jim Scott so nearly won the Rally of New Zealand, in a brilliant drive that ended with the pair in second spot. Had the rally lasted one more stage, the 25-year-old Finn and the New Zealander 25 years his senior might have snatched victory from the works Fiat 131 Abarth, driven by Fulvio Bacchelli and Francesco Rossetti. In 1977 Fiat came to New Zealand with three works-entered 131 Abarths in a bid to gain a lead over Ford in the World Manufacturers Championship. So keen were Fiat to turn the tables on Ford that they shipped three cars to the Shaky Isles, along with nearly 500 tyres and truckloads of spares, the whole assault rumoured to have cost $400,000, a figure unheard of in 1977. The plan was for one vehicle to win the event, while the other two would be foils to prevent Ford from picking up points. Along with Bacchelli, Fiat had Markku Alen in the second car and Simo Lampinen in the third, collectively a highly experienced trio. The Vatanen/Scott Escort RS1800, prepared by Masport in NZ, was the only real challenger to the Fiats, apart from a similar Masport Escort driven by Blair Robson. Vatanen, with the innocent Scott alongside, was expected to be the equal of the Fiat steamroller, despite his reputation for being astonishingly quick but likely to have huge accidents. Fiat weren’t looking forward to the 2000 kilometre event, for it was almost twice as long as most European rallies of the era. Right from the start the Fiats battled it out with Vatanen, but once the longer stages commenced, the Finn opened the Escort up and took the lead. As many people had predicted, Vatanen put the Escort off the road and lost 23 minutes getting the car out of a paddock and back onto the road, seemingly putting himself and Scott into an unwinnable position. Bacchelli, then in front, extended his lead to nearly six minutes over teammate Lampinen. Alen had overheating problems and dropped back, but was still ahead of Vatanen and Scott, who were back in 32nd position. Putting their accident behind them, Vatanen and Scott showed what they were capable of by winning nine of the following 10 stages to take them from 32nd to 8th outright. Of course, it was too good to be true and on the next (overnight) leg, Vatanen tipped the Escort up on two wheels on the first stage, breaking the suspension as it landed. His string of fastest times from the previous night were lost there and then. Nevertheless, they continued to mix it with the Fiats and by the end of the leg they were back to within 21 minutes of Bacchelli and, amazingly, in fifth position. However, there were legal wrangles going on in the Fiat camp – Lampinen was found to be carrying a two-way radio in his car in contravention of the regulations, and Alen was clocked by the police doing 132km/h on a public road. Vatanen and Scott put all that behind them and concentrated on the job at hand. Winning nine of the next 11 stages, they were beginning to open up a chink in the Fiat’s armour and by the end of the leg, both Bacchelli and Alen’s 131s were leaking copious quantities of oil. The marathon fourth leg of the rally, all 22 hours of it from Gisborne to Rotorua, was where Vatanen was to make his mark. Crashing yet again in an early night stage, it all came together for the pairing on the 102 kilometre Pehiri-Rakauroa stage. Starting behind the Fiats, Vatanen blitzed the field, overtaking all three Fiats in the stage. Jim Scott recounted after the rally that the Finn’s performance was pure artistry. “We caught the first set of tail lights about halfway through and this just seemed to set Ari alight to a level of expertise even higher than he’d been before,” he recalls. “It wasn’t long before we caught the second car and passed it, and as we passed Bacchelli, Ari just said ‘Now I die happy’.” The famous Motu stage was next and Bacchelli won that after the Escort holed an oil tank. But the Italian left the road a little later, putting Vatanen and Scott up into third place, less than 10 minutes behind the leading Fiat, a minute behind Lampinen, and half a minute ahead of Alen. With just one leg left in which to catch Bacchelli, Vatanen won six of the next nine stages and looked set for victory when the leading Fiat lost its oil pressure and Bacchelli took a wrong turn. The gap between the Ford and the Fiat was down to just over two minutes, but the leading Fiat required major work on its engine so that it could make the start of the final stage in Auckland. Bacchelli crawled through the stage to win, admitting afterwards that had there been one more stage in the event, there was no way they would have completed the stage with the engine in such a poor condition. Alen took third place, 20 minutes behind Vatanen, with Lampinen fourth. Vatanen, the Finn, and Scott, the New Zealander, had so nearly won the event after a mighty drive through the field, comprehensively splitting the Fiat’s 1-3-4 finishing result. It might not have been Jim Scott’s finest hour, but it was undoubtedly the most exciting ride in his rallying career. The next time Vatanen appeared in Rally New Zealand, he had enlisted the aid of the legendary David Richards as his co-driver. Jim Scott had groomed Vatanen well, that pairing going on to bigger and better things in the future. Not too many people can claim to have co-driven for Ari Vatanen in a major international event, but Jim Scott was one of them. It must have been one hell of a ride!

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