McRae and Ford bid to eclipse Finnish supremacy
Ford Martini driver Colin McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist have a burning desire to eclipse generations of Finnish dominance in the Land of the Midnight Sun during the Rally Finland (20 - 22 August), 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Although McRae, world champion in 1995, winner of 18 championship rallies and twice victorious this year, has achieved virtually everything in the sport, victory in Finland has eluded him. Scandinavian drivers, and especially Finns, have dominated the event during its 48-year history, their mastery in the spiritual home of rallying epitomised by the fact that only two non-Nordic drivers have ever received the winners' laurels.
The 1000 Lakes Rally, as this event used to be known, conjures up memories of blisteringly fast and flowing special stages with gut-wrenching jumps up and down the switchback Finnish forest roads. The name may have changed and the jumps are fewer but the event is still a classic, some would say THE classic, in the championship.
Such is the specialised nature of Finland's stages that experience counts for everything. Learning and understanding the intricacies of the roads and developing the bravery to tackle blind crests flat out are essential for a driver hoping to pose a challenge to the home competitors.
"It's the hardest rally in the championship," admitted McRae. "Because of the speed it's essential to ensure the pace notes are 100 per cent accurate. Every call must be just right and delivered at the exact moment otherwise it's easy to land in trouble. A top three finish would be great for us, an exceptional performance. We've nothing to lose as the drivers' championship is all but gone. The only way it may be possible is if we win all the remaining rallies so we must go to Finland with that in mind."
Ford Martini team colleagues Thomas Radstrom and Fred Gallagher are also in confident mood, the 33-year-old Swedish driver twice a top six finisher on what he regards as a second 'home' event. "The distance from my home in Umea to Finland is closer than to Karlstad, where the Swedish Rally is based. Before I started competing I used to spectate at the Rally Finland so I've been around these roads a long time.
"The roads are so wide and fast that you spend several minutes flat out in sixth gear. With such high speeds, positioning of the car is crucial. Just 5cm off the line when you enter a corner at 200kph can make a huge difference to your position for the next bend. And if you then have to lift off the power to correct your line, even for just a tenth of a second, you lose so much momentum. Lifting off on a rally like this costs much more time than lifting off on a slower event like the Acropolis Rally," he added.
A third Ford Focus will be driven by Norwegian Petter Solberg and co-driver Philip Mills, the pair making their first championship appearance since replacing the injured Radstrom on Kenya's Safari Rally and the Rally of Portugal in February and March.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson believes that the performance ability of the Ford Focus will make it a strong challenger. "Like Colin, I'm determined to master this event. We've twice come close to winning here with Juha Kankkunen in a Ford Escort but I think the design of the Focus gives us a big advantage over the Escort.
"It's a less flamboyant car. The engine's transverse layout puts the emphasis on the front wheels more than the rear. Consequently it's less spectacular and so follows a tidier and theoretically quicker line through the stages. It's noticeable that Colin is less spectacular but quicker in the Focus than in other cars he's driven," added Wilson.
The fast, flowing stages and huge jumps so prevalent in Finland are a spectators' delight but offer cautionary warnings for drivers and engineers. "The roads are so inviting they encourage you to go faster and faster and faster," explained Wilson, a former Ford works driver who started the rally three times. "They lull you into a false sense of security, especially when you may have had two or three near misses. Then suddenly there's one corner or jump waiting to catch you out which is slightly more difficult than the others."
The jumps will put a huge strain on the Ford Focus' suspension and transmission although advances in technology ensure the cars are more capable of withstanding the forces involved than they were even five years ago. The forces generated on the suspension of a rally car landing after a series of jumps are well known but it is the transmission that suffers the most shock loading. When a car takes off, the wheels, no longer supporting any load, rotate more quickly in 'freewheel' mode. When the car lands, the wheels must instantly slow down to the same speed as the vehicle - putting a huge strain on the whole transmission system.
Situated three hours driving time north of Helsinki, the rally is based in the heart of Finland's Lake District at Jyvaskyla, in the shadow of the town's 90m ski-jump. The lakes, from which the rally initially took its name, provide a backdrop to much of the route. Drivers face a relatively short clockwise loop around Jyvaskyla on the opening day before a long leg south-west towards Tampere on the second day. The final leg features a compact route based close to the town of Joutsa, south of the rally base.
Drivers cover 23 stages during the three days, the middle leg by far the toughest with more than 200km of competitive driving crammed into 10 stages. The final 7km test over the superb Ruuhimaki roads will be televised live with additional championship points awarded to the fastest three drivers and cars. The finish ceremony will be held at the end of the test. In total, drivers face 377km of stages in a total route of 1218km.
ROUND 10 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP, 20 - 22 AUGUST 1999
Friday 20 August: Leg 1 Jyvaskyla - Laajavuori
Start Jyvaskyla 14.00 SS1 Parkkola 11.07km 14.45 SS2 Tlillmaa 10.26km 15.25 SS3 Mokkipera 13.39km 15.56 SS4 Valkola 8.40km 17.06 SS5 Lankamaa 25.12km 17.49 SS6 Laukaa 12.36km 18.46 SS7 Hippos 1 1.69km 20.11 Finish Laajavuori 21.18 Totals 82.29km
Saturday 21 August: Leg 2 Laajavuori - Laajavuori
Start Laajavuori 06.30 SS8 Leustu 23.57km 07.27 SS9 Vaheri 1 31.03km 08.27 SS10 Juupajoki 30.39km 10.13 SS11 Sahalahti 20.48km 12.22 SS12 Siitama 14.70km 13.17 SS13 Vastila 12.42km 14.48 SS14 Ouninpohja 34.21km 15.29 SS15 Vaheri 2 31.03km 17.10 SS16 Hippos 2 1.69km 19.38 SS17 Hippos 3 1.69km 19.53 Finish Laajavuori 21.00 Totals 201.21km
Sunday 22 August: Leg 3 Laajavuori - Lievestuore
Start Laajavuori 06.20 SS18 Hauhanpohja 11.27km 07.43 SS19 Lempaa 1 28.47km 09.01 SS20 Tammimaki 1 9.27km 10.04 SS21 Lempaa 2 28.47km 11.13 SS22 Tammimaki 2 9.27km 12.16 SS23 Ruuhimaki 7.01km 15.00 Finish Lievestuore 15.50 Totals 93.76km
Rally total 377.26km