Two Rally World Champions, one of the most successful Cross Country Rally co-drivers, the most successful woman in rallying and a 15-time Enduro Champion – the Volkswagen factory team is an interesting cocktail of fascinating personalities and seven nations.
The Volkswagen factory drivers Mark Miller/Ralph Pitchford (USA/South Africa), Carlos Sainz/Michel Périn (Spain/France), Ari Vatanen/Fabrizia Pons (Finland/Italy) and Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz (South Africa/Germany) have a common goal: They want to fight together as a team for victory for Volkswagen in the Dakar Rally, the toughest and most famous cross country rally (6 to 21 January). “We have a strong team of experienced and highly-motivated drivers” explains Volkswagen Motorsport Director Kris Nissen. “The team spirit is extremely strong, all eight drivers and co-drivers work well together.”
Ari Vatanen – EU delegate, family father and four-time “Dakar” winner
The former Rally World Champion Ari Vatanen bolsters the Volkswagen team since September 2006. “To be able to compete for Volkswagen in the Dakar Rally is a dream come true”, explains the 54-year old Finn. With four wins to his credit, he is one of the most successful drivers ever to appear in the marathon classic. Vatanen, who lives with his wife Rita in the Provence in France, jumps between his rally and test commitments and his duties as EU delegate. “Since I don’t compete in many rallies each year, I can dovetail both responsibilities very easily”, he explains. Vatanen was one of the big stars during the 1980s in the World Rally Championship. He was forced to make an 18 month break following a severe accident in the 1985 Argentinean Rally and made his comeback by starting a new career in cross country rallying. “I feel like an artist, I can choreograph my life in motorsport as I want. I could never imagine having an office job”, explains the father of four grown sons and daughters.
Carlos Sainz – World Champion and record winner in World Rally Championship
When Ari Vatanen won the Rally World Championship in 1981, his current team mate Carlos Sainz was just starting his career. Like Vatanen, the Spaniard also celebrated many great victories in the World Rally Championship – he was Rally World Champion in 1990 and 1992. With his 25 victories “El Matador”, as his admiring fans call him, held the record for the most wins till the middle of 2006. However, Sainz, who swapped to cross country rallying in 2005, is not only a rally driver, but also a thoroughbred sportsman: He was Spanish Squash Champion in his youth, played football successfully and was also successful in circuit racing. The father of two daughters and a son remained loyal to the beautiful game – in his hometown Madrid he is still involved with the Real Madrid football club. In addition, he follows the fledging kart career of his son Carlos.
Michel Périn – precise right-hand man
With 23 wins in only 47 events – including three Dakar Rally wins – the Frenchman Michel Périn is one of the most successful co-drivers in cross country rallying. Like Carlos Sainz and Ari Vatanen, Périn also originates from the World Rally Championship where he acted as co-driver and team manager. The 49-year old rally professional’s strengths: His precision and meticulous preparation brought him five titles in the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup. Périn is often the subject of amusement and deep admiration from colleagues and journalists alike as he prepares his road book in minute detail the evening before the following stage. “I was interested in geography and maps as well as motorsport as a child. As co-driver I can unite my two interests. However, I’ve never dreamed of driving myself”, explains Périn, whose partner Marie-Christine also worked as a rally co-driver earlier.
Fabrizia Pons – outstanding co-driver
She is inconspicuous and professional – and with five victories in the Word Rally Championship the most successful woman in modern rallying. The Italian Fabrizia Pons earned her reputation in the 1980s as co-driver for rally legend Michèle Mouton. However, since making her cross country rallying debut in 1995 the 51-year old professional co-driver has forged a successful career. She recorded two overall wins in desert rallies together with her current driver in 1995. “It’s simply wonderful to be working with Ari again”, said Pons excitedly, when she once again formed a team with Vatanen in autumn 2006. The Turin based Italian has a diverse range of hobbies and interests away from the cockpit: She loves swimming and skiing, and sings soprano in a choir. But she has a soft spot for animals. “I love all animals and have three cats, a hamster and a goldfish myself”, explains Pons. “If I hadn’t got involved in motorsport I would have perhaps studied veterinary medicine.”
Dirk von Zitzewitz – career on two and four wheels
“I dreamt of becoming a racing driver when I was a small child”, explains the 38-year old Dirk von Zitzewitz. The co-driver to South African Giniel de Villiers contests his fourth Dakar Rally in the car classification. However, Dirk von Zitzewitz started his career on two wheels: He was German Enduro Champion 15 times, and finished fifth in the motorbike classification in his first Dakar Rally. In 2002, he made his debut as co-driver – and tasted success on four wheels immediately. “As motorbike ride you learn to read the lie of the land”, believes Dirk von Zitzewitz. “And this helps me today in my job as co-driver.” Dirk von Zitzewitz also studied architecture like his team mate Fabrizia Pons. “But I quickly decided to pursue a career in professional motorsport – and never regretted it”, he says looking back. “I love cross country rallies because the challenges are so varied, you have to produce a top performance over the course of many days, react to the circumstances and also often improvise.” Dirk von Zitzewitz, who lives only a few kilometres from the Baltic Sea, spends his spare time with his wife Sabine and Labrador Hugo. “I feel at home in north Germany. It’s important to me that the sea is close by.”
Mark Miller – from racer to investment manager and back
The American Mark Miller is a man of principals: In his youth he sacrificed a promising enduro career to concentrate on his studies. The successful investment manager later traced the path in reverse and withdrew step by step from the investment business over the last few years to devote his entire energy to his motorsport career as Volkswagen factory driver. Miller is just as uncompromising in his personal fitness programme and works together with a personal trainer in the USA. The success speaks volumes: On his “Dakar” debut in 2002 he won a ‘one make cup’ together with former his co-driver at that time Dirk von Zitzewitz. Miller also started his career on two-wheels, and later recorded a class victory in the famous “Baja 1000” off-road rally in the USA. As Volkswagen factory driver in 2006 he finished fifth in the “Dakar” with Dirk von Zitzewitz as “Co”.
Ralph Pitchford – newcomer at Volkswagen, experienced in the desert
The South African Ralph Pitchford is a perfect example of the career opportunities available in cross country rallying: The 44-year old co-driver for Mark Miller began his career working as a mechanic for various motorbike teams and also competed in enduro races in his spare time. Later he also worked on rally cars. “A co-driver withdrew at short notice and I got my chance”, he explains. On his “Dakar” debut in 2006 he guided his driver to 15th overall. “I love cross country rallies, especially the people and the informal atmosphere.” Pitchford encounters a row of old acquaintances in the Volkswagen factory team: He has been a friend of both Mark Miller and Dirk von Zitzewitz since his days as active motorbike rider. Pitchford remained true to his two-wheel routes: In his spare time he organises enduro tours through South Africa’s fascinating landscape.
Giniel de Villiers – from touring car star to cross country professional
The South African Giniel de Villiers also started his career in another discipline: The 34-year old motorsport professional contested his first touring car race in 1993. He was South African Touring Car Champion five times, before making a successful jump to cross country rallying in 2000. In 2006, he finished second in the Race Touareg – the greatest success to date for a diesel powered vehicle in the Dakar Rally. de Villiers and co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz number among the favourites in 2007. “I think I’m addicted to adrenalin”, he laughs. “I can’t imagine anything other than a career in motorsport for me.” de Villiers is strong ties with his home, the Stellenbosch wine region in South Africa. He describes himself as an “outdoor type”. His hobbies fit such a description: Off-road motorbikes and golf, he also competes in mountain bike races. The fascination of cross country rallying: “We get to know places that you would normally never see, and I love the desert.” The “Dakar” suits him: The drivers trek through the wilderness and sleep in tents beneath the starry African night sky for two long weeks.
- VW Motorsport