Ford Martini Rally Finland preview

Ford trio aims to eclipse the masters of Finland Ford Martini's three FIA World Rally Championship contenders face potentially their most difficult task of the season when the series arrives in Finland this month. It is the country many regard...

Ford trio aims to eclipse the masters of Finland

Ford Martini's three FIA World Rally Championship contenders face potentially their most difficult task of the season when the series arrives in Finland this month. It is the country many regard as the home of rallying and the Rally Finland (24 - 26 August) is one of the year's most spectacular and technically trickiest events.

Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya, team-mates Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup each hold top six places in the drivers' series in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars after eight of the 14 rounds. The team lies second in the manufacturers' standings, just six points behind Mitsubishi, and is eager to regain top position before the final five rounds in just 10 weeks that ends the season.

The Rally Finland (24 - 26 August) is one of the year's classic events. Wide and flowing gravel roads and a smooth surface ensure breathtaking speeds while the massive jumps for which the rally is so famous thrill the thousands who flock to see it. Add in stunning scenery as the route winds through the forests and around the many lakes which gave this rally its original name of the 1000 Lakes, and you have the essence of one of the great motorsport events.

It requires a driving style unmatched anywhere else in the sport - the ability to position a car to the centimetre to ensure the correct line through the fast bends and immense bravery over the switchback jumps. It is a combination that favours the locals, their mastery highlighted by the fact that only two drivers from outside the Nordic countries have won here in the rally's history.

Ford Martini's Carlos Sainz is one, victorious in 1990, and the 39-year-old Spaniard and co-driver Luis Moya are looking to add to an impressive record in Finland which has also brought one second and three third places.

"The rally is very demanding and knowledge of the roads here is important," said Sainz. "They're wide and fast, real drivers' conditions, and it's satisfying when you finish a stage knowing you've driven as well as you can. It's a big challenge, and an enjoyable one, and in a lot of ways it's the most difficult rally of the season for me."

McRae regards victory in Finland as the one major achievement missing from his career. The 1995 world champion, second in this year's points table, claimed a superb second in Finland last year, despite a relative lack of experience there.

"Finland would be nice to win but it's a tough target," said McRae. "You enter so many of the corners blind, unable to see the exit, that previous experience and knowledge provides a huge advantage. But the rally is changing and some of the traditional stages are being replaced by ones with narrower roads which remove some of the advantage the Finns have. The weather is also unpredictable. We have to expect anything although I prefer damp conditions because the moisture binds the gravel together and makes the roads less slippery than when they're dry."

Delecour is starting only his fifth Rally Finland, but has two points results to his credit, having finished fourth in 1994 and sixth last year. "For me it's the hardest rally in the championship," said Delecour. "It's virtually impossible to be fully competitive without having competed there five or six times but I really enjoy it. As a professional I enjoy the challenge of driving fast and this rally gives me the opportunity to do that," he said.

Finn Markku Alen, one of the sport's great names and winner of 20 world rallies, will also be driving a Focus in what may be his final world event. The six-times winner, now 50, will drive with the Blue Rose team and this will be the 26th time he has tackled his home event.

FIA Super 1600 Cup

Seven Ford Puma contenders tackle this third round of what is effectively the junior world championship. They are headed by Norwegian Martin Stenshorne, who lies third in the points table, after fourth and third-place finishes on the opening two events. Martin Rowe, British rally champion in 1998 and currently leading the Formula Rally series in the UK, will start his first Super 1600 round of the year but will be ineligible for points having not tackled the first two rounds. Drivers Patrick Magaud and François Duval carried out successful tests in Finland in early summer, leading to improvements to the Puma's suspension set-up.

Challenge of the Rally Finland

The rally is widely regarded as the ultimate test of a driver's ability. It is the fastest event in the championship, prompting locals to affectionately name it the 'Jyväskylä Grand Prix', and the wide, smooth roads and big jumps for which Finland is so famous, require precision driving and bravery unmatched on any other rally in the series. Experience counts for everything and understanding the intricacies of the roads are essential.

Bends frequently lie hidden over the jumps, placing a huge emphasis on accuracy of pace notes and on the driver's skill in positioning the car before the crest.

"You enter many of the corners blind in that you cannot see the exit and they're often immediately after a jump," explained Delecour. "During practice we are restricted to 90kph but on the rally most corners are tackled at well over 130kph. With such a difference it's difficult to know just what the right speed is. The temptation is to think you are entering a corner too fast and set the car sideways to scrub off speed. But then you find it was OK and by the time you have regained speed again, you've lost time."

Rally Route

The route remains broadly faithful to that used in 2000, although slight alterations make it the most compact Rally Finland in the event's 51-year history. The opening leg, centred around the rally base of Jyväskylä, omits the two most northerly stages while still running entirely to the north of the university city. The other two legs head south-west of Jyväskylä, centred around the small town of Halli. The first two days end with a short super special stage at Killeri where two cars at a time will race around the trotting track while the final day begins with a daunting near-41km test. Only once in the history of the rally has a longer stage been run. Competitors face 21 stages in all, covering 407.70km in a total route of 1678.26km. The second leg is the longest of all, comprising more than 181km.

-Ford Martini

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Series WRC