Few events in the FIA World Rally Championship conjure up the same passions among the sport's cognoscenti as the Rally Finland (18 - 20 August). It is one of the classics, some would say THE classic, of the season and the Ford Martini World Rally...
Few events in the FIA World Rally Championship conjure up the same passions among the sport's cognoscenti as the Rally Finland (18 - 20 August). It is one of the classics, some would say THE classic, of the season and the Ford Martini World Rally Team hopes to tame the spectacular Finnish roads to maintain the momentum which has swept it into world title contention during recent rallies.
The Ford Martini squad is the team in form, entering this ninth round of the 14-rally series just a point behind the leaders in the manufacturers' championship. And Colin McRae and Nicky Grist, twice winners this season in their Ford Focus World Rally Car, and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya are firmly in contention in the drivers' series, McRae in third and Sainz just a place behind.
Based in Jyväskylä, the rally-mad population knows the rally as the 'Jyväskylän Grand Prix'. That affectionate title explains much. It is the fastest round of the championship, last year's rally won at an incredible average of almost 120kph.
The smooth switchback gravel roads are littered with stomach-churning jumps. More often than not a bend lies hidden over the crest, placing a huge emphasis on the accuracy of pace notes and also on the driver's skill in positioning the car ahead of the jumps. Learning and understanding the intricacies of the roads and developing the bravery to tackle the blind crests flat out are essential.
Unsurprisingly experience counts for everything and such has been the mastery of Scandinavian drivers in the spiritual home of rallying that Sainz is one of only two non-Nordic drivers to have won, the 38-year-old Spaniard victorious in 1990.
"Finland is always special," said the double world champion. "It's a pure drivers' rally and one of my favourites. The roads are so wide and fast that car position is crucial. If you enter a bend a few centimetres off line at 200kph, it can make a huge difference to your position for the next bend. If you lift off the power to correct your line, even for a tenth of a second, you lose so much momentum.
"It's probably the most specialised event in the championship and until you fully understand the nature of the roads and are able to ensure your pace notes are 100 per cent accurate, there's little chance of beating the Finns," added Sainz.
McRae, who earlier this month agreed to extend his Ford contract for a further two years, has tackled the rally five times but four retirements leaves him short of the level of experience regarded as necessary to take on the home drivers.
"Among the top drivers, I think it's fair to say I lack experience of the roads and it's also fair to say that for me and most other non-Finns, it's the hardest rally of all," said 32-year-old McRae. "Many things combine to make it so - the speed, the jumps, blind apexes on the bends - and the roads are hard to get used to.
"The championship is at a very interesting point now. I'm eight points behind Richard Burns and four behind Marcus Grönholm, who must be the favourite in Finland. We have to look for a top three finish in all the remaining rallies and I think we can achieve that. If we do, it will also put the team in a strong position in the manufacturers' championship," he said.
Petter Solberg and Phil Mills will drive a third Ford-entered Focus World Rally Car, the 25-year-old Norwegian driver looking to capitalise on a superb fourth overall on the previous round in New Zealand, his best result at this level. Solberg, in his first full season in the top flight, is concentrating on gathering experience for the future but, having competed on the Rally Finland last year, he has been given the go-ahead to drive flat out this year.
"It's difficult to take on the Finns and because we're re-writing our pace notes in a different style this year, Phil and I must start from the beginning again," said Solberg. "The hardest part is allowing for the difference between the controlled speed of the recce and the flat out speeds of the rally. Because the rally is so quick the differential is greater than normal and a bend that seems quite open at recce speed can become much tighter at 200kph."
A fourth Focus will be driven by reigning British champions Tapio Laukkanen and Kaj Lindstrom, the Finns hoping to shock the established stars on their debut drive in a Focus.
Tyre selection is not especially difficult in Finland. But the nature of the stages ensures sideways grip and turning-in at high speed are the main qualities for which the Ford Martini drivers will look from tyre partner Michelin. The roads are littered with blind crests and jumps followed immediately by fast or tight turns, putting a premium on tyre performance.
On landing after one of the many 'yumps' the immediate function of the tyre is to help absorb the impact while ensuring perfect stability under braking for the forthcoming bend. At the same time it must respond instantly to the driver turning into the corner and then go on to ensure maximum traction as the power comes back on.
The whole sequence is completed in an instant but is repeated countless times in the course of the rally. If the Ford Focus cars of McRae and Sainz can gain even a 100th of a second on each occasion, that can make the difference between success and disappointment at the end of one of the most competitive rallies in the championship.
This year's route is the most compact in the 50-year history of the rally. The stages to the east of Jyväskylä have been scrapped and three new tests have been added during the opening day on Friday. That first leg is primarily based to the north of the city while the other two visit stages south-west of the city, centred around the small town of Halli. The opening two legs end with a short spectator-orientated stage around an oval trotting track while the final stage of the rally on Sunday afternoon will be televised live on Finnish television. Competitors face 23 stages in all, covering 410.18km, in a total route of 1680.14km before the finish ceremony in Jyväskylä.
<pre> 2000 NESTE RALLY FINLAND ROUND 9 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP 18 - 20 AUGUST 2000
Stage km Total km Time
Friday 18 August: Leg 1 Jyväskylä - Jyväskylä Start Jyväskylä 10.00 SS1 Kuohu 7.67 10.31 SS2 Parkkola 20.11 10.59 SS3 Mökkiperä 13.39 11.59 SS4 Muittari 13.51 13.57 SS5 Konttimäki 13.08 14.20 SS6 Palsankylä 13.90 14.53 SS7 Valkola 8.40 16.21 SS8 Lankamaa 23.44 17.04 SS9 Laukaa 12.37 17.57 SS10 Killeri 2.23 20.29 Finish Paviljonki 20.57 Total 128.10 456.10
Saturday 19 August: Leg 2 Jyväskylä - Jyväskylä Start Jyväskylä 06.00 SS11 Juupajoki 30.34 07.57 SS12 Västllä 17.43 09.15 SS13 Päijälä 12.81 09.50 SS14 Ehikki 1 19.08 11.56 SS15 Leustu 1 23.58 12.59 SS16 Ouninpohja 1 34.21 15.16 SS17 Vaheri 1 25.43 16.19 SS18 Killeri 2.23 20.00 Finish Paviljonki 20.28 Total 165.11 694.90
Sunday 11 June: Leg 3 Jyväskylä - Jyväskylä Start Jyväskylä 06.00 SS19 Ehikki 2 19.08 08.29 SS20 Moksi 14.67 09.02 SS21 Leustu 2 23.58 09.41 SS22 Ouninpohja 2 34.21 11.58 SS23 Vaheri 2 25.43 13.01 Finish Jyväskylä 16.11 Total 116.97 529.14 Rally Total 410.18 1680.14