Ford's Flying Finns bid to extend victory run on home ground
Ford's all-Finnish pairings tackle their home fixture next week determined to maintain the momentum that has propelled the team to three straight wins in the FIA World Rally Championship and the lead of the drivers' series. Rally Finland (30 July - 2 August) is regarded by many as the highlight of the season and an epic contest awaits as BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's Flying Finns take to the high-speed roads on which they grew up, impatient to secure a maiden victory on their home event.
Victories in Greece and Poland last month for Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen with the record-breaking Ford Focus RS World Rally Car ensure they take a one point lead into this ninth round of the 12-rally campaign. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila won in Italy in May and the hat-trick of triumphs has revitalised the squad's season ahead of one of the sport's classic rallies.
Landing the top step of the podium in Finland, regarded as rallying's spiritual home, is one of the sport's most sought after achievements. It has a huge following and enormous crowds will flock into the countryside amid the lakes and forests near the traditional host base of Jyvaskyla -- also Hirvonen's home town -- to cheer on their fellow countrymen and visiting drivers alike.
The rally will be fought out on blisteringly fast roller-coaster gravel speed tests. Finns who nurtured their careers on these types of roads have a clear advantage over 'outsiders' who require several years' experience before they can hope to mount a genuine victory challenge. Only seven non-Finns have won in 58 years. Such are the speeds that Rally Finland boasts five of the six fastest rallies in WRC history, with the 2005 event topping the all-time list at remarkable average of 122.86kph.
The hard, wide roads are as smooth as a billiard table so it is not a hard rally on machinery. However, it is incredibly difficult from a technical perspective. Awesome stomach-churning jumps frequently hide bends over the crests, so accuracy and delivery of pace notes must be exact and selecting the correct line before 'take-off' ensures maximum pace through the following curves.
Hirvonen has twice finished second from seven starts and a good performance here would boost his challenge for the drivers' title. "The view I'm taking is that the season is now a mini-four round championship with three rallies on gravel and one on asphalt. I'm leading by a point so the outcome is in my own hands. First in the start order for the opening leg isn't the easiest position to be, but I'll have to deal with that. I lost the rally last year by dropping time from the same position on the opening leg so I need to overcome that," said Hirvonen, who celebrates his 29th birthday on the first day.
"The time differences on this rally are always so small. If a driver wins a stage by five seconds then that's a huge gap, so even a small mistake can prove costly. And the speeds are so high that a big mistake often results in an accident. When you're flat out and fighting hard for tenths of a second, you often find surprises on jumps or corners that you think you know well. The car can fly further or higher and those are the kind of surprises that can bring problems," he added.
This will be Latvala's seventh Finland start and the 24-year-old acknowledges he will feel more pressure here than at other rounds. "Driving in Finland brings more excitement than elsewhere. Huge numbers of fans line the stages hoping to see their own drivers do well. That brings more pressure, but it's a special feeling to experience that encouragement. I also have a little more pressure after my mistake in Poland, but I have the support of the whole team and that makes me relaxed," he said.
"I have a job to do here and that is to score solid points to help Mikko in his challenge for the title. Poland was a fast rally, so it should be OK to find the speed in Finland to do that. There are several new stages, which I'm looking forward to. It's sad we're not driving the famous Ouninpohja stage but Myhinpaa is on the schedule for the first time in many years and that's also a legendary test," he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third Focus RS WRC, the third Finnish start for the 37-year-old Abu Dhabi driver. "Finland will be another great test. It's always an incredible experience with some extremely technical stages, and if we can do well it will really show the progress we are making. After missing Rally Poland, I can't wait to get back behind the wheel to try to build on the points we won in Greece. We will try to rise to the occasion but always remembering that it is a three- day event and consistency will be the key to success," said Al Qassimi.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with just the one regulation tyre pattern. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in soft compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* The team completed a four-day test in Finland yesterday to finalise set-up. Hirvonen covered 554km on Monday and Tuesday while Latvala racked up 520km. Each spent the first day on narrow technical roads before tackling wider, faster sections on the second day. The test roads were close to Jamsa.
* Six other Focus RS WRCs will start. Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart VK M-Sport squad. Munchi's Ford has nominated Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc and Matti Rantanen / Mikko Lukka, and a third car will be crewed by Mattias Therman / Janne Perala. A privately-entered 2005-specification Focus RS WRC will be driven by Jouni Arolainen / Risto Pietilainen. The rally is the fourth round of the Fiesta SportingTrophy and nine Fiesta ST cars are entered.
* Team engineer Tim Jackson attended Rally Bulgaria last weekend on a fact-finding visit ahead of the rally's debut appearance in the 2010 championship.