The Vatanen Salute and the AMG A45S [w/video]


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Climb Dance is, undoubtedly, one of the best motorsport/motoring videos of all time. It is almost five minutes of pure, unadulterated speed. The video starts with a Randy Weston piano solo and features no dialogue. Climb Dance can be considered the grandfather of all modern-day motorsport videos. The coolest part for many is, of course, the Vatanen Salute.

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If you haven’t seen Climb Dance, you really should. This multi-award-winning piece captures Ari Vatanen’s record-breaking run at the 1988 Pikes Peak Hill Climb in a Peugeot 405 T16. There are no special effects, no second takes, no rehearsals, just a world rally champion wrestling an immensely powerful car up a treacherously steep, gravel mountain pass.


But what is the ‘Vatanen Salute’? I hear you ask. Well, at a certain point in the video the Flying Finn lifts his hand to block out the setting sun. This defining moment, known to fans as the Vatanen Salute, came flooding back to me recently when I was behind the wheel of a Mercedes-AMG A45S. 

I smiled as I did, channelling the driving hero on a late afternoon ‘WRC tarmac stage’ blast. Handily I was behind the wheel of one of the hottest road-going hatchbacks to ever go on sale to the public. My significant other asked about my slight grin so I had to tell her about Climb Dance.

Rally legend

Famous Hillclimb video aside, Ari Vatanen is well known for his exploits in rallying. But few know that the Finnish legend was the last privateer to win the world rally championship. His 1981 campaign would deliver his only title at this level. He excelled in the Group B era. However, a horrible crash nearly ended his life. As a result, he spent 18 months in recovery and wouldn’t return to this form of racing again.

Although, the Finn did return to motorsport. He went on to win the Paris-Dakar Rally four times. “I actually think I won four-and-a-half times because, in 1988, my 405 was stolen in Bamako when I was leading by more than two hours,” he told Car and Driver in 2011. And set a record time at Pikes Peak.

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Winning ways

The link between Vatanen and the Mercedes A45S isn’t just that I tried to emulate that famous sun-block on an autumn evening. Many may not know that Mercedes had a rather successful attempt on the world rally stage.

The German manufacturer won the Ivory Coast Rally in 1979 (water splash pic above). The unlikely race machine was a Mercedes-Benz 450SLC, not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about rallying. Mercedes dominated the event with a 1-2-3-4 finish. Hannu Mikkola and Arne Hertz claimed overall honours. The team followed up with a 1-2 in 1980.

Almost a works effort

Spurred on by the successes of 1980, Mercedes decided that it would enter the world rally championship full time from 1981. They had built four 500SLC Rally prototypes (silver car pictured). None other than Herr Walter Rohrl handled the testing duties. In addition, his teammate from 1981 would be, you guessed, Ari Vatanen.

Unfortunately, Mercedes-Benz management had a last-minute change of heart that saw the program axed. This meant that Rohrl had to compete in a privately entered Porsche on the world stage in 1981 while Vatanen went back to a Ford Escort RS1800, which he owned. Vatanen claimed the ’81 crown while Rohrl did the same in ’82.

What if…

Many of these thoughts were running through my head after my late afternoon drive in the A45S. As the car and driver cooled from an enthusiastic drive, my mind began to wonder. The A45S is the epitome of the hot hatch genre. It is, of course, not the first of its ilk. The hot AMG follows the likes of the famous Lancia Delta Integrale, Subaru Impreza WRX STi hatch, and many others just like it. 

It has a front-mounted 2,0-litre, turbocharged engine that produces a massive 310 kW/500 N.m, while torque is directed to all four corners. It even looks the part. Massive alloys complement a squat stance. There are even some aerodynamic bits on the front bumper and a rally-style wing atop the hatch. 

Check out our track video review of the Mercedes-AMG A45S at this link.

The best of the lot

The Mercedes-AMG A45S can be considered a rally rep. And a bloody good one at that. It follows the same recipe as many that have come before it, but it does so with the engineering and financial might of the Three-Pointed Star.

Brands such as Lancia, Subaru, and Mitsubishi have all turned their back on this performance sub-segment. Instead, AMG has picked up the baton and scooted off down the special stage with pops and cracks coming from the exhaust outlets and the occasional wastegate whoosh thrown in for good measure.

Engine aside, the A45S has a properly set-up suspension and an effective torque vectoring system. Spring and damper rates are firm, but not teeth-jarringly so. Power is handled by limited-slip differentials for maximum corner grip. A handy side effect of the LSD is to help tuck the nose into an apex rather than wash wide under power. The test unit had a mismatched set of Michelin footwear front and rear, which made it even more ‘happy’ at the rear end, an ideal rally car set-up. It’s a real driving machine, the A45S. And I can’t help but wonder how effective it would be as a rally car.

A fitting creation

I imagine that the A45S would have been the end result if Mercedes had followed through with its world rally efforts. It would have raced through the Group B era and fought the horsepower wars against Audi, Peugeot and Ford. I’d like to think that even after Group B was banned Mercedes would have stayed to slug it out against Lancia, Toyota, Subaru and Mitsubishi.

Who knows, perhaps Climb Dance would have featured a highly modified Mercedes scrabbling for grip up Pikes Peak. Though I like to imagine it would’ve still been the Flying Finn giving the Vatanen Salute in the late afternoon sun of Colorado.


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By Bethann