On the Road with Ari Vatanen

Three days on the road (and factory floors) with Fortaco’s co-driver, Ari Vatanen.

Ari wants to drive. Can you really say no when a World Rally Champion and four-time Paris-Dakar winner wants to sit behind the wheel of the rental car? After all, he’s not only a better driver, but we might learn something, as well. Besides, it’s an Opel Insignia. How fast can it go?

We’re in Finland, on an 800-kilometer road trip from the Tampere Subcontracting Trade Fair to spend a day in the Fortaco factory in Kurikka, before moving on to Kalajoki, and then back home. Although he’s behind the wheel, Ari is a co-driver for Fortaco, an expert on safety and teamwork, something he picked up not only as a champion rally driver, but with ten years spent in the European Parliament.

Safety at 90 percent

Just north of Tampere, Ari is already making safety observations. What started as an four-lane motorway has shrunk into a two-lane road with lamp posts that are close to the highway. “I regret that my country is doing safety at only 90 percent,” he says. “If a motorcyclist spills here he can easily lose his life against those posts. It doesn’t cost that much extra to add a guard rail.”

In 1985, Ari’s Peugeot hit a mudhole going flat out in the Rally of Argentina, his seat broke, and the car rolled multiple times, leaving him with fractured lumbar vertebrae, a broken tibia, and life-threatening internal bleeding. Both he and his co-driver were medevacked, and he spent 18 months in recovery. As the rally drivers say, “To finish first, you first have to finish,” and Ari takes safety seriously. “You often don’t need more rules,” he says. “But you need to take seriously the ones you have.”


It’s only a two-hour drive, but Ari wants his pulla, the sweet roll that is an integral part of the Finnish kahvitauko, or coffee break. “A road trip just isn’t complete without one,” he says. Ari likes his coffee. He drinks about seven cups per day, and he is a connoisseur of Finnish roadside coffee—“let’s avoid ABC truck stops,” he says. To this visiting journalist, all Finnish roadside coffee tastes the same—watered down and nearly diabolical. But Ari can taste the difference.

He’s recognized in the coffee shop just as he was at the Tampere trade fair. The journalist asks him if it’s not tiring to be mobbed like a rock star, fans wanting to relive an old memory or be photographed with him. “It’s quite the opposite,” he says. “When I was driving, I was just chasing my own dreams. But somehow it inspired others, too. All these people are so sincere that talking with them actually gives me energy.” 

Ari may know automobiles, but he perhaps understands people even better, which is one reason he’s visiting Fortaco factories. The company is growing, but its management knows a factory is nothing without a motivated team.


When we arrive at the Kurikka plant, a man in a welding cap is waiting at the gate. His name is Ari Siirtola. “My son saw on the internet that you’d be here today,” he says. He presents Ari with a white pen. “I rode my son’s moped to work today for you to sign. He has no idea I’m doing this. He’ll be surprised enough that he won’t be able to concentrate in school.” Ari loves the idea. He pens a message to 14-year-old Elmeri on the Suzuki’s gas tank.

Welder Ari Siirtola, driver Ari Vatanen, and Elmeri’s moped.

Inside the factory he meets Hanna Voutilainen who is in her fourth career. She worked as a cleaner, a caterer, switched to nursing, and now she’s a welder. Under the guidance of Fortaco’s welders, Ari welds his name on a cabin part. He meets Teemu Lamminmäki, a forklift driver who has owned 57 Fords. Why so many? Did he wreck them? “I only crashed two,” he laughs. He just loves Fords, something Ari can understand, since his first professional drive was a Ford Escort RS1800. Ari also meets Jarmo Kasari, who has competed in over 30 rallies as a co-driver.

With Hanna Voutilainen and the cabin part he signed. (Don’t worry. It goes on the wall, not in a customer’s cabin.)

Everyone seems to have a personal connection to Ari, and it’s time to move on to the next factory. But as someone who’s risked his life inside of vehicles, Ari has some appreciation for well-built steel structures. He’s got plenty of questions himself, and we’re not going anywhere quickly.


The next morning, after stopping at a Shell station for a coffee and pulla, we arrive at the Kalajoki factory. General Manager Jyri Paavola greets us at the door. Inside, his management team gives us a safety briefing, politely explaining that Kalajoki is now 1,500 days without an accident, and they don’t want us to ruin it.

Kalajoki is known for its welders who assemble 35-ton trays that carry Wärtsilä engines. On the shop floor he meets a welder, Kai Saukko, and in conversation they discover they have a mutual friend in nearby Merijärvi. Right then and there Ari tries to call their friend, Johannes, but he doesn’t pick up. “The world is not small, but Tuupovaara is very big,” says Ari, naming his hometown. We are almost 500 kilometers from Tuupovaara.

Kai and Ari, trying to reach mutual friend Johannes on the phone.

Another welder, Aaro Heikkilä, drives a BMW and wins Ari’s approval—Ari is a BMW ambassador. Ari strikes up a conversation with Gabor Toth, originally from Hungary, who plans to attend the Kokkola rally that evening to watch a friend race. “He drives a Lada,” says Gabor, “but it’s got a Toyota engine.”


Before leaving, Ari films a welder recruitment video for Fortaco. “I’m Ari from Tuupovaara,” he says, removing a welding helmet, “and I just joined Fortaco as an apprentice welder.” Ari likes to joke around. “If it’s too serious,” he says, “it won’t connect with people.” His sense of humor is self-effacing. He has described himself as a “clown” or a “chauffeur.” But this clown chauffeur is a consummate professional. Whatever he’s doing, he is fully engaged.

He’s behind the wheel again, this time moving toward Tampere. He talks about all those he met who made an impression. “I’d like to see Elmeri’s face when he sees that moped.”

There are dozens of speed cameras on the road. He’s a safe, courteous driver who follows the law, though he thinks the government should more clearly post speed limits if they’re going to put speed cameras so close together. He tells a story about a ticket his friend recently received, the Finnish policeman dressed as a mushroomer, holding a plastic bucket in one hand and a speed gun in the other.

But at some point he can’t resist showing us what the Opel Insignia can do. “Say you’re on a two-lane road and a driver in the opposite lane overtakes and occupies your lane. Moving to the right is always better than a head-on collision, and you can almost always find a place.” He wants to show us what the car’s electronic stability control can do, how it allows you to turn the wheel while braking heavily, pulling into a bus stop in just a few meters when you’re going 100 kilometers per hour. “You don’t need any special rally skills,” he says, standing on the brake and turning right into a bus stop without burning any rubber. “You just have to be mentally prepared for it and know the car can do it. Modern cars are amazing.”

Ari is ready for more. But our stomachs aren’t quite sure. So he drives onward. It’s just a few kilometers until our next pulla.