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The Time Ari Vatanen Had His Car Stolen. While He Was In The Lead… By 2 Hours.

Updated: May 25, 2021

The Dakar Rally is a legendary race. No other rally tests a vehicle as much as it. Drivers must be able to tell the limit of their machinery and tell if they are going too fast or two slow in order to finish the rally. They must choose the fastest way but also the way that is guaranteed to get them to the finish line. Race Car drivers are not wired to go slow. As a result, many drivers will never see the line, often ending their race upside down at the bottom of a cliff, especially in the case of the Dakar Rally. Ari Vatanen is a legendary driver, with 4 Dakar wins, and being the only driver to win a World Rally Championship without factory support, it is no surprise that he and the Dakar Rally have combined to make for some fantastic stories. However, in 1988 he created a timeless story for all of the wrong reasons, through no fault of his own.

Ari Vatanen en route to victory at the 1989 Paris Dakar Rally. (Peugeot)

It was 1988, Bamako, Mali. The Dakar Rally had just finished wrapping up its 13th stage and Ari Vatanen was probably about to get a good night’s rest, knowing that he had a healthy 2-hour lead on the rest of the field. Life was going well. Until it wasn’t. The following morning Jean Todt, at this point still manager of the Peugeot rally program, was awoken by a strange phone call at his Bamako hotel. It was a man who claimed to have stolen Ari’s leading car! Even worse he demanded 25 million francs for its return! Once the team confirmed the car was in fact stolen, the search began. Paying up was never an option. Eventually the car was found in a remote field. Unfortunately, it was too late as the Dakar rally had a rule stating all drivers must arrive at the starting line within 30 minutes of their scheduled departure time. As a result, he was disqualified. A disappointing end to a dominating performance. In 1989 and 1990 he managed to run a ransom free rally, to win both editions of the Dakar Rally. Few drivers have ever been through as much as Vatanen and it is highly unlikely any professional driver will ever have to deal with a stolen car midway through a race again. Despite all the headaches and heartbreak this caused, you have to admit that it made for a very unique story.

Even the greats can get it wrong as Vatanen showed at the 1987 Dakar Rally. (unknown)