By David C. Schilke
Rally Finland in recent tradition has marked the start to the second half of the World Rally Championship season. Centered around Jyväskylä, Finland the event is considered a crown jewel of rally. It’s an event every driver and co-driver dream to win, especially true for native Finnish drivers, who have dominated the event in its 60 year history. This year the local heroes were the Ford drivers, Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala. Unfortunately, Hirvonen may well be out of the running, while the Frenchmen Citroen drivers hold the initial first two spots after three stages of the event.
Sebastien Loeb is one of the very rare outsiders to have won at Rally Finland but his lead today is not an indication he’s about to earn a second victory. The Citroen team decided to risk a quick pace today all the while mindful of road position tomorrow. Loeb seems confident he can stay in the fight.
“I’m feeling pretty good in the Citroën DS3 WRC,” said Loeb. “We swept the trajectories in the first stage, but not quite so much in the next two. It’s obvious that first place is a handicap for the crew who’s opening the route, especially when the roads are so dry. We don’t know yet what kind of weather we’re going to have tomorrow. The positive aspect is that we’ve got a great opportunity to make the break with Mikko Hirvonen.”
It’s obvious that first place is a handicap for the crew who’s opening the route.
Loeb’s teammate, Sebastien Ogier, figured to take a slightly more cautious approach and backed off on the second stage, just enough to let Loeb take point for tomorrow. With the 2011 title in mind Ogier will take an opportunity to score better than his rival. With three consecutive tarmac rallies schedule after this weekend, the entire field knows they better beat Loeb now before he runs away in the title fight. Loeb hasn’t lost a tarmac event in years.
“We got into the groove right away,” commented Ogier. “That’s what we lacked last year to win. Today, the leg was too short to hope to open up a gap. The car feels good. Tomorrow is when the rally really begins with some very tricky new stages. There’s still a long way to go.”
The internal fight might not have resulted if Hirvonen’s plan came to fruition today. Sadly, this weekend’s birthday boy hit trouble in the first stage of the day. The Finn went off line and slid into a tree when the car stalled, inflicting serious damage. Once refired he was quickly back on track but with no mid service today he had to complete three stages with a very damaged car.
"The engine died midway through a fast, fifth gear left corner and without any drive the car slid wide and the rear right hit a tree," explained Hirvonen. "The impact damaged the brakes and suspension. Those issues caused more problems in the next stage and about 5km from the finish, the brake calliper jammed between the wheel and the damper. The wheel dragged all the way to the end, puncturing the tyre."
Hirvonen concluded the day over two minutes behind, and sits 36th in the overall, much to the dismay of Ford, Finland and himself. It will be a long battle to even make it into a points paying position now.
"It's disappointing because it's the second year in a row that I've had problems early in my home rally, although last year was due to a crash," he said. "I wanted to fight for a win and after a strong test last week, I felt that was something I could achieve. All I can do now is drive flat out through the final two days and see how far I can climb back up the order," added the Finn.
The hope for a local win now rests in the hands of Ford drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Jari Ketomaa. Last year’s winner, Latvala is now aiming to make it two years in a row. With that goal in mind he placed himself behind the Citroen pair to have better road position tomorrow.
"During the second stage the team sent a message into the car giving me a target time to ensure I was third in the start order tomorrow," said Latvala. "I slowed down towards the finish to make sure I achieved that target and the plan worked perfectly. I'm happy with my position for the morning.”
He added, "I was cautious on the opening stage and made a couple of small mistakes on the final test but nothing that cost time. All I'm concentrating on is tomorrow as I don't want to put extra pressure on myself, because this rally brings enough of that already. There was great excitement and pressure before the start, but now the event is under way I can relax and focus on my driving."
Ketomaa is tackling the event in a privateer Ford Fiesta and is already on track to make a name for himself after dominating the first stage. It was confirmed by the WRC that Ketomaa had also backed off on the second stage for road position; the Finn wasn’t keen on sweeping the roads clear on tomorrow’s long second leg.
Fifth is Petter Solberg, the private Citroen driver from Norway is still seeking his first win since running his own team. MINI broke into the top six today, their main driver Dani Sordo had the second fastest time on stage 2, a good result for the team as they go along in their first year of development in the WRC. Ott Tanak leads the Super 2000 WRC standings with 7th overall while Mads Ostberg rounded of the top eight for M-Sport Stobart.
Along with Hirvonen a few entries already encountered difficulties in today’s three stages. Most notably was Matti Rantanen, who held sixth at one point before retiring his MINI WRC in a hard crash. Both he and his co-driver walked away from the nasty off.
A lot of kilometers are on the schedule for tomorrow. Loeb will be the benchmark everyone will aim to best as he slides around on the virgin roads. Tomorrow the battle for the lead will start off between Ogier and Latvala, with the chance of Ketomaa and Solberg getting into the mix. For Loeb the only thing he can do is minimize the damage and make his attack in the afternoon loop, when he is no longer forced to be the day’s sweeper. The chess pieces are now set in their positions, stay tuned to see how it plays out tomorrow on the fastest event of the year!
Rally Finland day 1 results