Following a month-long hiatus, the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) is back in style with arguably the most anticipated event of the year, the blisteringly quick stages of Neste Oil Rally Finland. Revitalised following the mid-season break and an extensive six-day test with the Ford Fiesta RS WRC, the Qatar M-Sport crews are ready to rally on this Scandinavian classic.
Characterised by high-speed straights littered with ‘yumps’ (and jumps), every driver dreams of taming the Finnish stages and this year’s event will be more challenging than ever. A revised rally route will see stages such as Torittu and Himos return to the fixture as well as some more familiar tests being run in the opposite direction. Pacenotes will need to be word-perfect on these somewhat unfamiliar roads, demanding total trust between driver and co-driver as they launch their cars over crests at full speed.
Yet the most daunting challenge remains one of the most famous and notorious stages of the year – Ouninpohja. Run twice on the rally’s final day, this high-speed rollercoaster has become synonymous with the Finnish event. Incorporating some 169 jumps over 33 kilometres, Ouninpohja is the ultimate test of nerve, commitment, speed and skill.
The 25-year-old spent the summer break supporting his countrymen at the Swedish round of the European Rallycross Championship on the Norwegian border before travelling to his own pre-event test in Finland. Finding a good set-up on their two-day test, he and Swedish co-driver Jonas Andersson will be looking to push their advantage from the very first stage next week as they strive to get their 2013 campaign back on track.
Despite the super-quick stages suiting his fearless style, Rally Finland has become something of an ‘Achilles heel’ in the repertoire of Østberg’s team mate Evgeny Novikov. Having said that, the Russian remains confident of a turn of fortune at this year’s event. Novikov spent the mid-season break swapping the pedals for the pacenotes as he co-drove mentor and manager, Mikhail Lepekhov, at Rally Rostov Velikiy in Russia. The experience will have given the youngster further knowledge and experience before being reunited with regular co-driver Ilka Minor for an event where precise pacenotes are inherently linked to a strong result.
Speaking of strong results, Qatar World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville has had a string of them so far this season. Partnered by fellow Belgian Nicolas Gilsoul, the pairing secured three podium finishes over the first half of the season – a feat which sees them well-placed in the drivers’ championship. The Belgians are determined to prove their worth this year and despite only contesting the specialist stages of Rally Finland on one previous occasion, the duo should not be discounted for a strong result.
Indeed Neuville’s determination is ever-present; using the mid-season break to gain as much seat-time and experience as possible. As well as taking to the wheel of the Ford Fiesta R5 for the Geko Ypres Rally, the 24-year-old starred as a guest driver in the ‘25h BeTrophy’ at Spa-Francorchamps, helped set-up a newly-delivered Fiesta R5 and Ford Fiesta R200 in his native Belgium and even mentored his brother, Yannick, as he drove a Ford Fiesta R2 at Rallye de Luxembourg.
Another driver who has made seat-time a priority of late is Welshman Elfyn Evans. Having secured a sensational sixth place finish on his debut with the Fiesta RS WRC last month, the youngster is ready and eager for a return to the WRC 2 category with M-Sport’s latest challenger – the Fiesta R5.
Despite being instrumental in the testing and development process, Evans and co-driver Daniel Barritt have spent the past weeks gaining further knowledge of the car ahead of Rally Finland – an event he won as part of the FIA WRC Academy category last year. After leading the Nicky Grist Stages, the pairing ventured to Estonia for further testing alongside 2003 Rally Finland winner Markko Märtin and his MM-Motorsport team’s brand-new Fiesta R5s.
Mads Østberg said:
“Finland is a very special event and there is nothing else like it on the calendar. For a driver, it’s the speed and the jumps that make it. Whereas the other gravel rallies are quite tight and twisty with narrow roads, Finland has wide, open roads where you can really push the top-speeds. We have quite a few rallies in Norway with similar characteristics, so hopefully that will be a bit of an advantage for us next week.
“We had a really good test this week and both Jonas [Andersson, co-driver] and I are feeling well prepared. I think we’ve made some big steps forward with the set-up and the car feels great. The most important thing in Finland is to be on the pace from the beginning, so this test should certainly have helped with that. Of course it’s not just the set-up that you need to be on top of. As a driver you need to be used to the speed, the jumps, the placing of the car, everything from the very first corner.”
Evgeny Novikov said:
“It has been a good summer break – I navigated for my manager Mikhail [Lepekhov] in the Russian Rally Cup which was a lot of fun – but now I am ready to get back behind the wheel myself.
“Rally Finland is an event I really enjoy. There are always a lot of spectators and a lot of support for all the drivers. It’s also a really challenging event, but I think that that’s part of the enjoyment.
“Knowledge of the stages is very important. The stages are extremely fast so you need to know how to enter the corners and how to use the exits. Of course a good set-up is important from the start – if you are struggling in the beginning it is very difficult to make the time back.
“A good pacenote system and complete trust in your co-driver is also really important. Although this will be my first Rally Finland with Ilka [Minor, co-driver] I have no worries about that! We work really well together and there is a lot of trust between us when we’re in the car.”
Thierry Neuville said:
“We had a really good test this week – two full days working alongside Mads [Østberg] and the car feels great. We were able to really work as a team – sharing our thoughts and experiences – so I am really looking forward to this rally. It is always a special event. There are always a lot of spectators and a lot of WRC entries which makes for a good competition.
“It’s a very fast rally with the best jumps of the year. Depending on the weather, start position can be really important. The grip can be good running first on the road so it is important to have a good run in Qualifying with a car that is well set-up from the very beginning.
“Good pacenotes are also essential. We have a new system this year so although we will take the time to check the notes at high-speed on the first loop – inevitably losing time to the front-runners – I’m confident that we will be able to show our true pace over the second pass.”
Elfyn Evans said:
“So far, the car feels fantastic. It’s been a bit of a break since Portugal, but I can’t wait to get back competing in WRC 2 with the new car. Again, it won’t be an easy event. There will be a lot of very quick Scandinavians looking for the win, but we’ll try our best and see what happens. This is an event I really enjoy and we won here last year [as part of the FIA WRC Academy], so hopefully we won’t be too far away.
“It’s a very fast event – the fastest of the year in fact – and you need to have total confidence in yourself, your co-driver and your car. To prepare we have been testing on similar roads in Estonia with Markko Märtin and the MM-Motorsport team. Markko in particular was really helpful. He knows what it takes to win in Finland, so it was a great opportunity for me to get some advice from someone like him.”
Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team