When Montblanc launched its last big collection – the revisited and revamped TimeWalker family – the brand decided to go to the very heart of rallying for an opinion. If the former World Rally Champion Ari Vatanen liked them, they knew that they would be on to a winner.

The legendary Finn’s love of motor racing is perhaps surprising considering that in 1960, when he was just eight years old, while heading to the local church with his parents and siblings, the family car was involved in a collision in which his father died. But children have a way of coping with horror and, too young to fully understand what had happened, Vatanen vowed to tame the car, an aim he has battled to achieve ever since.

After the death of his father, Vatanen’s mother refused to have a family car for four years. But she relented, a decision that coincided with the first-time rally driving arrived in the family’s neighbouring village of Tuupovaara. “It was mid-June 1964,” Vatanen recalls. “As the rest of my family slept, I rode my bicycle to a viewing spot and sat on the bank for four hours in a beautiful ‘nightless night’. The light in Finland at 2am in June is incredible, it makes you dream. And then I heard the rally and saw the cars kicking up dust. It blew my mind away and just my body remained on the bank.

“From then, I would regularly get up at 2am and take the family car. I taught myself to drive when I was six, in an old Grey Fergie tractor. It felt like I was mastering something and all I wanted to do was drive. It was as though I was in a bubble away from the rest of the world. I didn’t think about the future, I just wanted to throw the car sideways – always braking as late as possible, allowing no time for calculating anything. I would go flat out on a corner just to see what happened. A rally driver has to hate braking. When you are passionate no equation exists, others think you are crazy but you have to try and con yourself that you are rational.”

Ari Vatanen wearing the Montblanc TimeWalker Chronograph.

Busy Bs

With his particular attitude to life and racing, Vatanen was primed for becoming an integral part of the 1980s-rally series known as “Group B”, which was later banned following a number of high profile fatal accidents. “It was unreasonable and too fast,” says Vatanen. “It was a case of beauty and the beast, and sometimes the beast took over. It was reckless and frightening and that excites people. It is what anyone wants from life, regardless of background. We all tend to live in the middle of the road but we only genuinely remember the things in life that create emotion –  that was Group B, and 30 years later people still talk about it.”

All about speed, Group B rallying was a world apart from all other regulated motorsport. It was captivating for spectators who could hear the raw power and see the drivers struggling to contain it. When accidents happened – and they happened often – they were dramatic. “It was really too fast and fire-prone,” says Vatanen. “It was getting out of hand. When Henri Pauli Toivonen crashed in Corsica in 1986, everything changed. His last recorded words that day were ‘this car is faster than my brain’. We thought we could handle it, but at that speed it is easy to make a mistake. We loved the risk but we weren’t foolhardy and slowly we realised it was getting too much.”

In 1985, Vatanen had an accident in Argentina that almost ended his career, as well as his life, yet even then it never occurred to him to step away from the sport that consumed his life. “It’s not a desk job that you force yourself to do even if you don’t want to – nobody would put their neck on the line if they didn’t really want to do it. I was away from racing for a year and found myself in a tunnel of depression. Eventually, I woke up, I saw life in real colours again and the urge came back. As scared as she was, my wife Rita encouraged me to go back – she knows what is essential in life and she knew I had to do it. People ask if having a family changed how I viewed driving. That implies that before children I had an irresponsible attitude. My kids gave me a pride that I was responsible for them, but driving is second nature.”

Interestingly, but unsurprisingly given his insider knowledge, Vatanen’s belief in instinctive driving is slightly shaken when we talk about his son, who has followed him in to rallying. He says that when Max is racing, he can’t sleep. “It makes me realise what Rita had to go through,” he says with a slight sadness.

Vatanen proved to be the star of the show at Race Retro 2017.
Ari Vatanen and Terry Harryman celebrating victory at the 1985 Monte Carlo Rally. Courtesy of McKlein.

Rally Timers

Rally driving is one motorsport where a reliable timekeeper is essential, as races are against the clock rather than it being a simple case of first past the finish line. Vatanen credits his sport for his love of timepieces, which began in the early-1990s when he was sponsored by French jewellery brand Fred. Fred first gained international acclaim in the 1930s for its collections designed by Jean Cocteau and later as the jeweller that provided the necklace for Julia Roberts to wear to the opera in Pretty Woman (1990). Vatanen was presented with one of the company’s signature Force 10 watches with metal cable strap and later taken to the Basel Watch Fair as a guest of Fred. “I then realised the incredible craftsmanship,” he says. “I am naturally interested in engineering and fascinated by everything from the tools used to the delivery of complications. My love for watches stems from then.

“I am touched by the pride of passing on knowledge. I was shown a pocket watch that had taken one man a year to make. It contained only the highest craftsmanship. I don’t underestimate cheap watches but, at the same time, I love that people buy expensive pieces and pass them down. Watches tell a story, they are more than timekeepers, they are solid and mean something. It is a question of integrity – a search for beauty and something stable in life.”

A couple of decades after his introduction to watches, Vatanen found himself the guest of honour at the launch of the new Montblanc TimeWalker collection in Los Angeles. With a focus on legendary rally timers, Montblanc brought authenticity to the event with a talk by a new friend of the brand. “I have been involved in many partnerships,” he says. “I bring something, the brand brings something. Sometimes I make mistakes with what I choose to do, but I am never mercenary. I do things that I want to do and for projects I believe in and that are credible.” And credibility was something that was paramount for Davide Cerrato, head of Montblanc’s Watch Department, who saw a need for a comprehensive story to unite all the watches within a collection, from the accessibly priced to the extremely high-end. With a starting point of Minerva – the brand acquired by Richemont in 2006 and now the centre of movement research and manufacture for Montblanc – and its archive of chronographs, stopwatches and timing instruments, Cerrato determined to reinvent the sporty TimeWalker collection using the mission statement “Instruments of Glory”.

Arguably, the star of the new-look family is the TimeWalker 1,000th of a Second Chronograph, a monopusher chronograph equipped with two oscillators – one for time and one just for the 1/1,000th of a second chronograph counter. The watch also has a 100th of a second counter. Highly legible, lapsed hours, minutes and seconds are read on a sub-dial at 6 o’clock; the 100th of a second is read off the outer edge of the dial; while the 1,000th of a second is read via an arced aperture at 12 o’clock.

First introduced as a concept Villeret movement in 2012, the technology has been refined and semi-industrialised, allowing it to be used in a more commercial piece – albeit one with a limited production run.

Housed in a 46mm DLC-coated titanium case with ceramic bezel, the watch is lightweight and comfortable. The red accents and trigger-style chrono pusher combine to give it a high-tech, high-performance feel.

The second TimeWalker showstopper is the limited-edition Chronograph Rally Timer Counter – a 50mm timepiece that has five guises. It can be worn as a wristwatch on a black leather strap, converts into a pocket watch by folding the lugs under the case and turning it 180 degrees, becomes a table clock via two arms below the case, and can be used as a handheld stopwatch or clipped to a metal plate that attaches to a car dashboard. An open caseback in the shape of a car grill gives a view of the manually wound monopusher chronograph calibre MB M16.29 with column wheel, horizontal coupling and a power reserve of 50 hours.

On a more accessible level are the core TimeWalker chronographs – both a simple chronograph and a dual time version – in 43mm cases with ceramic bezels. All of the watches in the collection, whether in bracelet or strap incarnation, come with a deployant clasp that can be micro-adjusted to three different positions, allowing a bit of fine-tuning for wrist size.

TimeWalker 1000th of a Second Chronograph
TimeWalker Chronograph Rally Timer Counter
TimeWalker Chronograph UTC
TimeWalker Date Automatic

If Vatanen is typical of other watch lovers, then Cerrato has been successful in creating a story around TimeWalker. On the day, we meet at UK motorsport show Race Retro, he tells me: “My interest is not superficial, I believe in the product. Montblanc has become an incredible watchmaker, which is not easy when people know you as a pen manufacturer.

The TimeWalker is the collection Montblanc needed – a young sporty look. I love them. Watches can be worn for so many different occasions and you can change your whole look with one, but for me a timepiece has to be clear, easy-to-read and classic in aesthetic. I am very proud to be associated with Montblanc.” As for what Vatanen’s future holds, he just shrugs: “Who knows? I just witness how life unfolds in front of me. Remember, I always brake late and I go sideways. I look at beetles, their wings are so small compared to their body weight that they shouldn’t be able to fly. But the beetle doesn’t know this and so he flies. This is me – and, in a way, I think it was Montblanc when they started to make watches. So, all in all, it’s a very good thing that some beetles simply refuse to believe they can’t fly.”

Montblanc is the Official Timing Partner of the Goodwood Festival of Speed which takes place 29 June – 2 July 2017.

TimeWalker Chronograph Automatic

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