FINLAND LIKE A SECOND HOME FOR KIWI, WRITES COLIN SMITH
Rally oldtimers still lapse occasionally and call it the Rally of the 1000 Lakes.
The high-speed, undulating roads mean the event has also earned the nickname “Finnish Grand Prix”, but in these days of corporate conformity it’s officially titled WRC Rally of Finland.
It’s the gravel rally highlight on the calendar, an event that attracts a high-quality entry and is decided by split-second competition between crews who can blend full-throttle bravery with millimetre-perfect car placement.
This is the event at which rallying becomes a fully three-dimensional challenge — not just sequences of left and right turns to be attacked using maximum acceleration or braking levels but also demanding supercross-like timing to fly the car over multiple jumps.
Kiwi interest centres on Hayden Paddon, who is competing in Finland for the sixth time. He has shown well on previous outings in Group N Production and Super 2000 machinery and, last year, for the first time, in a WRC Hyundai i20.
Many observers believe Paddon’s drive to eighth place in Finland last year was one of the key factors in securing an expanded programme with Hyundai this year. Paddon brings the best form of his life to Rally Finland after his recent second in Sardinia and fifth in Poland. But in his usual quiet way he is keeping his goals realistic.
“Rally Finland is probably one of my favourite events of the year,” says Paddon.
“It is quite a lot like New Zealand in places — there are lots of very fast sections and a lot of jumps, while the atmosphere is second to none. It’s also probably the event at which we have the most experience.”
The battle should be fierce. The front-running Volkswagen Polo trio of Sebastien Ogier (France), 2014 winner Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland) and Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway) are likely to figure while their main opposition could come from Ford M-Sport’s young Estonian star Ott Tanak. He showed superb pace on the fast roads of Rally Poland.
Paddon’s Hyundai teammate Thierry Neuville (Belgium) will also be chasing a podium finish while Citroen’s Kris Meeke (GB) and Mads Ostberg (Norway) both need a good result.
Among the extra entries are Finland’s Juho Hanninen and Norway’s Henning Solberg, in Ford Fiesta WRCs.
And there’s a wildcard: Russian driver Aleksey Lukyanuk has secured an M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC for the event.
Lukyanuk has a big YouTube following for his spectacular in-car footage from East European events and more recently in the European Rally Championship. He also starred in Finland in 2013, pushing a Group N specification Mitsubishi Lancer EvoX as high as 12th overall on his WRC debut before losing time with a puncture. Whether Lukyanuk’s talent can transfer to the techniques demanded by a WRC car — and under the pressure of a one-off WRC appearance — could be one of the stories of the event.
There are 17 WRC cars on the entry list. There is also a very strong WRC2 entry — 23 crews — although series leader Jari Ketomaa will miss his home event due to an eye injury.
The new force in WRC2 is the Skoda Fabia R5, driven by Esapekka Lappi (Finland) and Pontus Tidemand (Sweden) to a 1-2 finish in Rally Poland ahead of Ford, Citroen and Peugeot opposition.
The action begins with a Thursday evening run (Friday morning NZ time) through the 2.27km Harju super special stage.
The Friday itinerary features nine stages totalling 157km while Saturday’s eight stages provide another 130km.
On Sunday there are two runs through the famed 14.4km Myhinpaa stage, the second pass being the power stage.