Neste Oil Rally Finland Support Classes Preview
Juho Hanninen will start Neste Oil Rally Finland aiming for a quartet of class victories, a run that extends back to 2008 when he claimed maximum Production Car World Rally Championship points as a wildcard entrant.
He was a wildcard entrant again in 2010 when he won the Super 2000 World Rally Championship division at the wheel of a Skoda Fabia.
Following the capture of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge title later that season, Hanninen is now a permanent fixture in the SWRC, the world championship’s fastest support category, which he leads by 11 points after four rounds.
“For the last two years it hasn’t been so crucial to me because I haven’t been fighting for a championship,” said the Red Bull-backed Finn. “This year I really have to think about the championship. Everyone is expecting I am winning the rally again and, of course, I will try but it won’t be easy against drivers like Ott Tanak, who will be very fast. I don’t have any other goal than to win but I know I have to get a perfect weekend to do it.”
Ford Fiesta driver Tanak, meanwhile, will be desperate for strong points in Finland after he crashed out of the last month’s Acropolis Rally while leading. The Estonian showed his ability on the Finnish stages last season when he top scored in the PWRC section of the gravel event but his exit in Greece means he’s 21 points shy of Hanninen’s current total.
Bernardo Sousa has a new co-driver in fellow Portuguese Paulo Babo and will be a contender for a podium finish, as will ace Czech driver Martin Prokop, who like Sousa pilots a Fiesta. Young Estonian Karl Kruuda, who returns to his Fabia after contesting the non-championship Rally Estonia earlier this month in a Fiesta, will also demonstrate good pace.
Promising German Hermann Gassner partners Hanninen in the Red Bull Skoda team as he continues his acclimatisation to Super 2000 technology. Like Gassner, Eyvind Brynildsen has yet to fulfil his obvious potential in his Petter Solberg Engineering-run Fabia but is more than capable of running at the front if fortune finally favours him.
Frigyes Turan will make his Rally Finland debut on a high after securing an SWRC podium finish in Greece in the MM Motorsport Fiesta his team-mate Tanak helps to prepare and maintain when he’s not competing behind the wheel.
Albert Llovera has previous Rally Finland experience and will be hoping to increase his championship total aboard his Abarth Grande Punto, which he shares with Spaniard Diego Vallejo. The Andorran’s car is equipped with hand controls as Llovera is paralysed from the waist down following a skiing accident in the 1980s.
Juha Salo remains an unknown quantity at the wheel of his R4-specification Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, which is eligible for SWRC points as it is designed to be more competitive against the Super 2000 machines that dominate the class. Salo is a Rally Finland veteran and will be hoping the high-speed and flowing nature of the stages will hand his turbocharged car the edge over his normally aspirated rivals.
Hayden Paddon might have raced to the top of the Production Car World Rally Championship standings with back-to-back victories in Portugal and Argentina, but the Subaru driver faces a new threat on the fourth round of the series in Finland.
Included on the entry are two local aces, Jarkko Nikara and Riku Tahko, who will both be determined to steal Paddon’s thunder and take crucial points away from the rapid Kiwi, who shares the title lead with Czech Martin Semerad.
Nikara, who like Paddon is a former Pirelli Star Driver, has taken over Anders Grondal’s registration for his home rally and is eligible for full PWRC points. Although his Mitsubishi Lancer is the older-generation Evolution IX version, the Finn has always shone on the Jyvaskyla-based event.
While Tahko is a relative unknown in world championship circles, the 26-year-old has previous Rally Finland experience and is a frontrunner in his hugely competitive domestic series. He has been handed one of two wildcard entries by the event organisers, which makes him a contender for points aboard his Lancer Evolution X.
New Zealander Paddon, meanwhile, can call on some previous event experience having taken a podium finish in the PWRC on last year’s Rally Finland. He says he wants to improve on the third place recorded in 2010.
“Of course we’ll be trying for more,” said Paddon following his test in Finland on Sunday. “It’s going to be very tough but it is good to come back to an event we have prior experience of. I made the mistake of being too conservative with the pace notes last year, so this year I know we can attack the roads and crests a lot more.”
A strong result in Finland will be vital for Semerad’s title bid. Having not nominated the next round in Australia as one of his scoring events, the Czech student will be anxious to leave Finland in touching distance of Paddon prior to the resumption of their battle on the penultimate round in Spain in late October.
Other drivers looking to make up lost ground in the title battle are Patrik Flodin and Michal Kosciuszko. Swede Flodin will be one of the favourites to win in Finland aboard his Subaru Impreza as he battles back from a disappointing start to his campaign. Kosciuszko is new to the PWRC for 2011 but the young Polish driver has yet to show his true pace in his Ralliart Italy-run Lancer, the team responsible for guiding Armindo Aruajo to the last two Production titles.
Peruvian champion Nicolas Fuchs, Russian Dmitry Tagirov and Ukrainians Veleriy Gorban and Yuriy Protasov will also be in contention for strong results in Finland.
Like Tahko, Mikko Pajunen has also earned a wildcard entry and will be a contender for honours in the FIA Production Cup for drivers of 2WD cars in his Renault Clio R3. However, he will face a strong challenge from British talent Harry Hunt, the current class leader, who starts the event rejuvenated following a test in Finland last weekend where he was able to finalise an optimum set-up for his Citroen DS3 R3.
With double winner Egon Kaur stretching his advantage at the top of the FIA WRC Academy Cup standings, Neste Oil Rally Finland could prove pivotal in the race for the 500,000 Euros scholarship, which will be handed out to the eventual champion.
Kaur, the winner in Portugal and Italy, is 32 points in front of his nearest rival and determined to increase his advantage on the high-speed stages around Jyvaskyla and Lahti aboard his Playboy Estonia Rally Team-backed Ford Fiesta R2.
To prepare for the fast straights and blind crests that litter the competitive route in Finland, Kaur took part on the non-championship Rally Estonia recently and was in contention for victory until he dropped time with a broken driveshaft.
He had planned to compete alongside co-driver Mait Laidvee in Finland but will instead continue with Erik Lepiksson following a late change. Lepiksson was co-driving Kaur when they won in Sardinia in early May.
“Erik and I can’t wait for Neste Oil Rally Finland,” said Kaur. “We are completely focused and ready to defend our lead in the WRC Academy Cup. Mait will be supporting us all the way and together we want to seal a hat trick for Playboy Estonia Rally Team.”
Several other Academy regulars were competing in Estonia with Pirelli Star Driver Craig Breen and Northern Irish talent Alastair Fisher both impressing in second and third respectively in class A6. Both will be frontrunners in Finland as they look to make up lost ground in the title battle.
“The aim has to be to get on the podium,” said Fisher. “We’ve not had the best of starts to the year so it’s important we leave Finland with some solid points. Hopefully we can achieve that.”
Australian Brendan Reeves, currently third in the Academy Cup standings behind Argentine Miguel Baldoni, prepared for Rally Finland by contesting the Asia Pacific championship-counting International Rally of Whangarei in New Zealand recently where he finished sixth overall in a Mitsubishi Lancer.
“The competition in Finland is going to be the toughest so far as the cars are well sorted and a lot of the drivers have experienced them before,” said Reeves. “But I can’t wait for the challenge to begin.”
Victor Henriksson, fourth in the drivers’ standings, has previous Finland knowledge and is one of a number of drivers capable of ending Kaur’s dominance. Others include Swede Fredrik Ahlin, Italian Andrea Crugnola, German Christian Riedemann and Czech Jan Cerny.
Australian Molly Taylor will also be a contender. The Pirelli Star Driver has recruited Seb Marshall to replace former co-driver Rebecca Smart and the pair got their partnership off to a successful start on Rally Estonia.
“Estonia was the first real rally that [I have done with Seb] and it was a huge task for him to do such a fast event on notes that he hadn’t worked with before,” said Taylor. “Aside from our electrical problems it all gelled really well, so that definitely helps with the confidence coming into an event like this.”
Miko-Ove Niinimae, Timo van der Marel, Yeray Lemes, Jose Suarez and Sergey Karyakin will also be in action in the WRC Academy in Finland although two drivers, Matteo Brunello and Calle Ward, have left the series since the second round in Italy.
All Academy drives use identical Ford Fiesta R2s prepared by the British M-Sport operation and run on Pirelli control tyres.