Young Max Vatanen talking about his 2014 rallying season, expectations, the Ford Fiesta R2, pace notes and his venture with legendary rally team, M-Sport. Interview.
Rallying has always been a part of our family. I have been following and spectating rallies from a very early age. But still - I wasn't much interested in driving for a long time, not until I got my driving licence at the age of 18. Then I went straight to university. But the day after I finished it, I started my first rally. From the bench to the driving seat.
It is never too easy to step out of the shadow of a great predecessor as a professional and as a person - especially when it is the next of kin in subject bearing the same last name. Expectations tend to run high.
A young lad named Max is making sure, though, that a great surname in motorsports - Vatanen - will not only be associated with a sun-blocking hand gesture for the YouTube generations of the future, and will yet again be recorded among the stars of rallying by his own merits once more, glory passed down from father to son.
Max Vatanen - son of 1981 World Rally Champion Ari - just finished his first season in the WRC-supporting Drive DMACK Ford Fiesta Trophy at a highly acclaimed 4th position while also clinching the rookie champion title for 2014 at the same time. It is an even more striking result when one considers that it has only been his second-ever season of rallying. No time for euphoria, though, according to the young Finn.
"Very successful" would be a bit optimistic expression, but let's say I've completed the "learning season". What one needs to bear in mind is that my name is associated with my father and people think I have a lot of experience, but this was only my second season of rallying. I really started from scratch.
"Consistency" - or the lack of it - is the word Max is looking for when describing his maiden season in the entry-level support series of the WRC.
There have been a lot of ups and downs. We have had good moments and speed and then not so good speed and mistakes at some points. I learnt really a lot this season, but I aim for still a bit more. Even when you have the speed in rallying, that's not enough.
Another word is "experience" that is indispensable when one's in the doorstep of the big break, which helps explaining why the young Finn is so critical about himself when it comes to describe his 2014 season.
I have not driven so much outside the DMACK Trophy rallies. I mean I had some winter rallies in Finland and then a good test in France in similar conditions. In the first round, Portugal, we started really well. On the gravel stages we were right at pace. Unfortunately we had a misunderstanding in the pace notes and rolled, but we had the speed. Then before Poland I had one tarmac rally, and there were a few months in-between, whereas most of the other guys were behind the steering wheel all the time, they had the momentum. So in Poland we had to build up the speed again, but at the end we made some great times. Finland started well, we had a good testing before. We were leading on the first day. Then, on the second day, I made a mistake, we had a puncture and a fuel-pump issue. Similarly to Spain where we had to catch up initially and it wasn't until the last stages where we were back up to full pace and developed a lead. But there was this 8km tarmac section on a gravel stage where we lost that lead. Nevertheless, I was happy with my improvement on tarmac - biggest problem of Scandinavian drivers -, considering the last day was only paved surface. At some splits we were fastest on the final stages, but there were a lot of hairpins and handbrake turns and I lost a lot of time there.
We have the raw speed, we just need to build it up for next season, learn from the mistakes and improve. And there's nothing that can substitute seat time.
The general public sees 4th position, but when you are an insider can you get to see the details. It is only rewarding when all the things come together and you win the rally.
Sheer driving talent is not merely the only requirement of a successful rally driver. The ability of creating a mental image of even the smallest details of a rally stage and turning it to a note in the music sheet of the orchestra play of rallying are the pace notes, which - when used successfully - can pay dividends. Max gives a bit of insight into his cooperation with his co-driver, Mikko Lukka.
Pace notes are really personal. If you compare e.g. Loeb and Grönholm, Loeb's notes have a lot of details, because that's how he feels comfortable, whereas Grönholm's have just really basic information. Whichever your preference is, the pace notes still have to be accurate so that you can trust them. I try to have precise ones, but I'm still a beginner so I learn a lot on the go. It's also a compromise. You can't put everything in there, because the corners come way too fast for accumulating all the details the co-driver says, but I still try to be as precise as I can.
A pair of competitors of course does not go anywhere without a car. The Drive DMACK Fiesta Trophy is a one-make series, running Ford Fiesta R2 cars. I was interested to find out some more about them - where they fit in on the ladder between a production Fiesta and the full WRC car.
The R2 is the first in the range that is a proper rally car and still accessible, where you can learn the basics of driving a 'real' rallying vehicle. The R1 is not very different from a production car. There's a roll cage, slightly better brakes and suspension system, a bit different exhaust and that's it. But with R2s, drivers in the past went straight from R2 to R5, even if they are still just two-wheel drive. It is possible to transfer the knowledge to four wheel-drive cars. That's because R2s e.g. have engines more or less purposely designed for rallying, adjustable suspensions, a locking differential and the same sequential gearbox as in WRC cars. So they have everything as the 'big' cars, but they are a lot cheaper.
Quite the same way as his father, it was Ford that gave Max his big break (along with Ari's 1981 world title in the Escort). More precisely it is M-Sport that builds Max's Fiesta R2 for the DMACK Trophy. The company was founded in 1979 by then-rally driver Malcolm Wilson and operated Ford's factory effort in WRC ever since Ford turned to the World Rally Car concept as the top category of the series, starting with the Escort, through the Focus and the Fiesta. Ford/M-Sport saw drivers as Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz, Francois Delecour, Stig Blomquist, Juha Kankkunen, Marcus Grönholm, Petter Solberg, Jari-Matti Latvala, Mikko Hirvonen, etc. and even a one-off cameo entry each from Ari Vatanen and the boss, Malcolm Wilson themselves, and ultimately won two manufacturers' titles Since 2006 M-Sport World Rally Team has operated alongside the Ford World Rally Team as well, and with Ford's withdrawal of the sport at the end of 2012, M-Sport is the de facto Ford of World Rallying.
Max became more than just a driver at the Cumbria-based 'stable' only a few months ago.
I had the opportunity to work at M-Sport's facility, so I moved there after Rallye Deutschland. Amazing insight into the the behind-the-scenes work of such a team, with 200 people working there building the cars, managing the logistics of the rallies, etc. Even as a driver it was really interesting to see all that work going into it. I have had many different roles going from one department to the other, so now I understand more how the company works. I was working on the car for a few days, which was also helpful, because before my rallying career I didn't have any mechanical knowledge, but working with professionals helped a lot. Nowadays it is crucial that both the driver and co-driver had a good mechanical insight, because you don't have a service after each stage like there used to be. Sometimes a whole day can go by without a service, so it's only you, the co-driver and the tools in the car to fix a problem.
I've also done PR-events, e.g. representatives from one of M-Sport's sponsors, Castrol, were coming over and I was driving them around on a circuit in an R1, then switching places and I gave some pieces of advice. And also at Rallye France I was hosting Castrol people again, so I have done a wide range of tasks. When I get back there I will have some new, interesting projects as well. Nothing is confirmed yet, so I can't say anything. But of course I'm looking forward to possibly driving.
This is all - of course - just the beginning for Max Vatanen, he is determined to stand his ground and move forward to achieve higher goals.
Luckily there are a few more months till next season, because they go so quickly. The 2015 season should be the break-through. This season I have learnt a lot, so all the data from the rallies need to be studied in order to prepare. The aim is to race in the DMACK Trophy once again, because I will be more familiar with the rallies - hopefully with the same stages. If you look at some of the older drivers, they all did the same Sander Parn is a good example [winner of the DMACK Tropy in 2014, WRC2 driver for 2015 wih M-Sport as a prize], this was his second season, Pontus Tidemand [current WRC2 driver with M-Sport] did the same, also Elfyn Evans [WRC M-Sport driver for 2014].
One year of learning, second year to win it. You need a target.
The target is always on the top. And yes, the sun is sometimes blinding you on the way there.