Rally Finland: Ford preview

Ford and Märtin aim to break Nordic grip on Finnish classic There is no rally in the FIA World Rally Championship that a driver would rather win than the Rally Finland (7 - 10 August) but ironically, unless you are born within the boundaries of...

Ford and Märtin aim to break Nordic grip on Finnish classic

There is no rally in the FIA World Rally Championship that a driver would rather win than the Rally Finland (7 - 10 August) but ironically, unless you are born within the boundaries of a country which is 75% forest, it is the hardest event on the calendar in which to be successful. That is the size of the challenge facing Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and co-driver Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot on the most spectacular round of the championship.

Finland is to rallying what Brazil is to soccer and the country is rallying's spiritual home. Wide, flowing gravel roads and a super-smooth surface guarantee breathtaking speeds on this fastest rally of the season. Spectacular roller-coaster jumps and stunning scenery among the lakes and forests where the action takes place acts as a magnet to thousands of fans and creates one of the sport's great events.

Technically it is an incredibly difficult rally. Precision driving and bravery are more important here than anywhere else. The awesome switchback jumps frequently hide bends just over the crest, placing a huge emphasis on a driver's ability to position the car accurately before the 'yump' to ensure the correct line on landing. Pace notes must be equally precise and because speeds are so high, the time lost here by easing off the throttle to correct the driving line is magnified more than elsewhere.

This all favours the locals, who grow up on roads of this type and whose knowledge of the stages is unmatched. Only two non-Nordic drivers have triumphed in the event's 52 years. However, 27-year-old Märtin's Estonian home lies just a short distance across the Baltic Sea from Finnish capital Helsinki and this is effectively his home event. The new Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has already displayed its ability on fast gravel roads in New Zealand and a combination of its performance and Märtin's neat and tidy driving skills seem the ideal combination for this ninth round of the 14-event championship.

"I think this is the best chance I've ever had to get a top result in Finland," he said. "The 2003 Focus RS is the best car I've ever driven on fast roads and things don't get any faster than Finland. It's a rally that is always won by the best drivers. The quickest drivers will always get good results there because it's pure flat out driving all the way and that's why I like it so much.

"Pace notes and knowledge are the most important things out there. A driver has to trust his pace notes 100 per cent and it's important to have the knowledge to know how to make them in Finland because there's a lot of guesswork involved. The speed difference between the recce and the rally is greater here than anywhere else. At 80kph on the recce a crest is just that, but at 180kph on the rally it's a big jump," added Märtin, who has started the rally six times and twice finished fifth.

The aim for Duval and Prévot is simply to finish. "Last year was the first time I competed in Finland in a World Rally Car but we retired after nine stages so I don't have great experience of this rally. Team director Malcolm Wilson has stressed how important it is to finish, to gain experience of the roads there for the future. It doesn't matter whether it's eighth, 10th or 12th, finishing is the important thing," said 22-year-old Duval, who will make totally new pace notes for the event.

"I drove in Finland in a Ford Puma two years ago and I really enjoy the rally. The long, fast corners are a great challenge and I think the Focus RS will be perfectly suited to them. I think the car is capable of winning the rally but it won't be me. I'm too short of experience," added Duval.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will drive an M-Sport-run 2002-specification Focus RS and the 23-year-old Finn is relishing the opportunity of competing on home ground. "It's my home event and it's important for me to get a good result. All my friends will be watching and of course I know more about the roads and conditions in Finland than anywhere else in the championship. But everyone goes so fast that a top 10 finish here would be a fantastic result for me," said Hirvonen.

"The rally has used some narrower roads recently but this year I think there are more wider stages again and it's so important to be accurate with the pace notes over the jumps. All the regular WRC drivers know these roads well. I've only started here once before and I don't know them quite as well, as Finnish national events don't use these stages. But I'm looking forward to the Ouninpohja test. It's a really wide road and extremely fast with many big jumps. It's flat out virtually the whole way through and I think it's the best stage in the world," added Hirvonen.

He can expect a strong challenge from fellow Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, also behind the wheel of an M-Sport-run 2002-specification Focus RS. Latvala began his competition career in Britain last year as, at 17 years of age, he was too young to hold a driving licence in his own country. This will be his Rally Finland debut.

"It means an awful lot to me to be competing at the Rally Finland for the first time and I'm lucky to have the best car to drive," he said. "It has seemed a long time coming. I'm finally old enough to compete there and at last I will be behind the wheel rather than just cheering from the sidelines. I have more experience on winter rallies in Finland, so Miikka and I competed in the Exide Rally in July to get a feel for the roads in summer conditions and were delighted to come fourth. It's given us a lot of confidence."

Team News

* Märtin will drive the same Focus RS in which he scored his maiden world rally success on the Acropolis Rally in Greece in June.

* The Rally Finland will be Michael Park's 50th world rally start.

* There are several changes to the team's gravel crew personnel. Henrik Lundgaard, driver of Märtin's gravel car, will be competing in the latest round of the Danish Touring Car Championship. The former European rally champion is part of a two-car team supported by Castrol, the backer of Märtin's Focus RS. He will be replaced by Warren Hunt, a former British Championship driver. Hirvonen's gravel crew, Jouni Ampuja and Timo Hantunen, will be replaced by Timo Kankkunen, brother of four-time world champion Juha, and Matti Janhunen. Hantunen will co-drive for Sebastian Lindholm on the rally.

* Focus RS World Rally Cars comprise more than 12 per cent of the entry list. Nine of the four-wheel drive Ford machines are scheduled to start the rally.

* Latvala, just 18, returns to school the day after the rally and faces an exam on his first day back!

Rally Route

The route follows a similar format to last year, based around the single service park in Jyväskylä. The action starts with a super special stage at the Killeri trotting track on the edge of town on Thursday evening when two cars at a time will race around the 2km test. Friday's opening leg takes competitors north before a repeat of the Killeri test in the evening. The second leg is primarily to the south-west of Jyväskylä and is the longest of the event with more than 165km of competition. It includes two runs over the awesome 33.00km Ouninpohja, a roller-coaster stretch of road full of blind crests and regarded as THE classic special stage of the championship season. Sunday's final leg runs west of Jyväskylä and is the shortest of all. The rally ends in the town after 403.34km of competition over 23 stages.

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Series WRC
Teams M-Sport