But in the next test, Las Bajadas, things went badly wrong. Vatanen crashed out and began a fight for life which would go on for weeks. He was caught out by a hole which had washed away in heavy rain between the recce and the rally.
“We had been through this stage four times on the recce,” said Vatanen, who was crowned world champion four years earlier. “I remember, there were some animals, some cows, in this place on our first time in the recce and I wasn’t confident enough. Terry and I went back through there again.
“I don’t remember the accident, but Timo [Peugeot team-mate Salonen] told me after that he noticed a change in the colour of the mud and he managed to slow down his car enough.”
Ari didn’t. The car rolled off the road. The accident was bad enough, but what was worse was his seat breaking from its mountings, leaving the Finn crashing around inside the car.
Without the comfort of the safety tracking currently used in the FIA World Rally Championship, the team only knew something was amiss when Vatanen’s 205 T16 failed to arrive at the finish.
Team principal Jean Todt dispatched the helicopter to find the car. What they found was a wrecked Peugeot and Ari suffering from multiple injuries. He was transported to the helicopter on the car’s sump guard, taken to a local hospital and evacuated to Cordoba by an Argentine Air Force helicopter.
Vatanen was then flown to Helsinki in a private plane where he slowly recovered from a fractured cervical vertebra, eight broken ribs, a punctured lung and damaged lumbar vertebrae – any of which could have proved fatal. A broken ankle was painful, but not deadly.
His recovery was one of the biggest stories in the WRC and his return to drive a 205 T16 as a course car on the 1986 Rallye Sanremo was welcomed around the service park.
Vatanen’s competitive WRC return came in 1987 when he drove a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth to second place on his home 1000 Lakes Rally. He continued his career, driving for Mitsubishi, Subaru and Ford before retiring at the end of 1998.