Centurion Latvala leads Ford's gladiators into battle in Finland
Ford's Flying Finns will bid to extend their winning run in Rally Finland when the fastest and most spectacular round of the FIA World Rally Championship lifts off [this] week. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen claimed a maiden victory on their home event in 2009 for Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila followed their tyre tracks to win last year.
Victory for a Finn in Rally Finland (28 - 30 July) elevates the winning duo to superstar status in a country where rallying is second only to ice hockey in popularity. For Latvala, winning the iconic event in his Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car would spark a double celebration as this will be the 26-year-old's 100th WRC start, the youngest driver in the sport's history to reach the milestone.
Hirvonen, too, has his eyes set on a second reason to celebrate after next weekend's rally. The man who lives close to the rally base of Jyväskylä will carry the home town support, and victory would provide the icing on his birthday cake, as he turns 31 the day after the finish.
Rally Finland is the eighth round of the 13-event series, and marks the end of a six-week break. Most of the action is packed into just two long and arduous days on Friday and Saturday, with a short opening leg on Thursday to whet the appetite. The distance is shorter than most rounds, but a greater intensity means both outright speed and endurance will be factors in deciding the outcome.
The rally is one of the jewels in the WRC's crown. Huge crowds will pack the forests to view the action and Ford's all-Finnish line-up will generate passionate support for the team's Fiesta RS WRCs. A revised route means the second leg will be new to the current generation of WRC gladiators, but the rally retains its mix of hard, wide and fast roads combined with narrower, more technical sections.
What hasn't changed are the characteristics of the smooth gravel speed tests which make this one of the most difficult events in the calendar. The blisteringly fast roller-coaster roads are littered with awesome stomach-churning jumps, which frequently hide bends over the crests.
I'm competing in front of family and friends and it provides an extra boost for me to try to win.
They demand extreme bravery from the driving seat, and pinpoint accuracy in the delivery of pace notes from the co-driver's side, and it is essential to select the correct line before 'take-off' to ensure maximum pace through the following curves. Finns who nurtured their careers on roads of this nature have an advantage over 'outsiders', and only seven non-Finns have won in the rally's 60-year history.
Hirvonen, second in the drivers' standings, acknowledges he feels an extra buzz ahead of his home rally. "Rally Finland is special," he said. "I'm competing in front of family and friends and it provides an extra boost for me to try to win. It also brings more expectation, as the Finnish fans support Jari-Matti and myself and they want to see one of us win. It's more pressure, but good pressure.
"The new stages will be interesting. I drove some of those roads in 2001 and 2002 when I competed in the national championship, but it was a long time ago and I can't remember them. Perhaps during the recce before the rally I will start to recall some sections. A win here is important, not just because it's my home rally, but also because I need maximum points for the championship," added Hirvonen.
Latvala completed two days of testing in Finland on Wednesday, before Hirvonen took the wheel for two further days, and was impressed with the Fiesta RS WRC. "The car has become increasingly more stable as the season has progressed and it feels great on the fast roads and jumps," he said. "It's such a quick rally that a driver must know his limits and be sensible. You don't want to be frightened at the wheel, but you must be able to feel the fear and recognise where those limits are.
To reach 100 starts feels strange. For me, a driver who makes his 100th start has been in the sport a long time, but I'm only 26 and don't feel I've been around a long time. Perhaps I have!
"The pace is such that every error in Finland is magnified, and to win you need to have a perfect drive from the first corner to the last. These are the most difficult gravel roads in the world on which to compete and so much thought has to go into the lines and braking points for jumps. The perfect jump is not too high, with the car landing on all four wheels, like a cat. It requires a higher level of concentration than any other rally.
"To reach 100 starts feels strange. For me, a driver who makes his 100th start has been in the sport a long time, but I'm only 26 and don't feel I've been around a long time. Perhaps I have!" he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr return to the championship for the first time since Rally Italia Sardegna in the team's third Fiesta RS WRC. Al Qassimi is nominated for Team Abu Dhabi and will aim to improve on ninth place in 2009, his best Finland result from four starts. "The last four years with Ford Abu Dhabi have been my best in motorsport, and I hope to celebrate Abu Dhabi's fourth anniversary with the team and WRC with a strong result," said Al Qassimi.
- Michelin's Latitude Cross gravel tyre will be used by the Ford Abu Dhabi drivers and will be available in soft compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
- Seven privately-entered Fiesta RS WRCs supplement the three official entries. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin and Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are nominated by the M-Sport Stobart Ford team, which has also entered Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor and Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet. Dennis Kuipers / Frederic Miclotte and Rene Kuipers / Annemieke Hulzebos are entered by the FERM Power Tools World Rally Team. Finns Jari Ketomaa / Mika Stenberg complete the entries.
- The rally is the fifth round of the S-WRC support category. Four registered Ford Fiesta S2000 cars are entered, headed by Martin Prokop / Jan Tomanek, who lie second in the championship. It is also the third round of the FIA WRC Academy, the sport's new training programme for young drivers, which is supported by Ford. Sixteen crews will compete over the first two days of the rally in identical Fiesta R2 rally cars, which have been supplied by Ford and prepared by M-Sport. Forty of the 124 competitors are entered in Ford cars.
- The team will unveil a new two-floor team headquarters. The ground floor contains a large open area for guests, a kitchen and toilets. The first floor has four meeting rooms, a physiotherapists' room, two offices for engineering staff and a centre area for team personnel. The HQ has 14 TV screens across all areas, showing stage times, maps and promotional information. It will take a team of 24 staff four days to erect the facility and two days to take it down again.
Although Jyväskylä's Paviljonki exhibition area is again the rally hub, route changes take the event south to Lahti, covering roads not used in the WRC since the 1980s. Thursday's opening action covers three stages close to Jyväskylä, including the popular Laajavuori test around the ski jumping arena. The second day journeys down the west side of Lake Päijänne, the stages around Lahti taking the event just 80km from Helsinki. After remote service in the city and a super special stage at the city's Jokimaa trotting track, the route heads back to Jyväskylä along the eastern shores of the lake. The final day heads west of the town to more familiar territory, tackling stages near Keuruu, Korpilahti and Petäjävesi used last year. Drivers tackle 21 stages covering 314.39km in a route of 1355.21km.