The FIA World Rally Championship moves back to gravel for the ninth round of the series, the Neste Rally Finland. Richard Burns (Peugeot 206 WRC) still leads the race for the drivers' title, with an advantage of four points over Spain's Carlos...
The FIA World Rally Championship moves back to gravel for the ninth round of the series, the Neste Rally Finland. Richard Burns (Peugeot 206 WRC) still leads the race for the drivers' title, with an advantage of four points over Spain's Carlos Sainz (Citroen Xsara WRC). Burns' team-mate and reigning world champion Marcus Gronholm is third, five points off the lead -- having come to within four seconds of depriving Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb of his Rallye Deutschland win two weeks ago. The series has already managed five different winners in eight rallies this year -- including a first ever WRC win for Markko Martin and Ford's Focus RS WRC03. New faces for the Neste Rally Finland include former World Champion Ari Vatanen, who is driving a customer-specification Peugeot 206 WRC. Vatanen is driving on his 101st World Rally, while World Championship leader Richard Burns celebrates his 100th event.
The Neste Rally Finland is one of the classic events of the World Championship, characterised by flat-out crests that are taken at full speed. It is often nicknamed the "Grand Prix of gravel", and is a highly-specialised rally which has only been won twice by non-Scandinavians. Accurate pace notes are crucial because of the constant high speeds, and a good suspension set-up is vital to cope with the jumps. The rally gets underway tonight with a spectator superspecial over the trotting track at Killeri.
Marlboro Peugeot Total (1st -- 95 points)
Technical: Team boss Corrado Provera is confident that all the reliability problems that affected the cars on the rough gravel rounds will not recur on the smoother flowing gravel in Finland. All three cars are running similar set-ups perfected on the team's latest Finland test. There are no technical changes.
Sporting: Peugeot has entered the Rally Finland seven times and won on six occasions, with reigning World Champion Marcus Gronholm winning for the last three years. Richard Burns led over the opening stages last year, before damaging his car after a heavy landing. Harri Rovanpera also led the event before hitting a rock and retiring. Juuso Pykalisto drives a 2003-specification car for the first time, having impressed in a customer 206 WRC last year. Former World Champion Ari Vatanen is driving the latest-specification customer 206 WRC, but says that his main aim is to finish and have fun. Peugeot still leads the manufacturers title race.
Richard Burns said: "I feel in the mood for winning this rally! But I think our biggest competitor will be Markko Martin -- he's got a good car underneath him and he's always quick here."
Marcus Gronholm said: "I think we are in good shape but it is always difficult to say what will happen in the rally. I think this will be the most difficult ever Rally Finland for me as there is such strong opposition."
Harri Rovanpera said: "It's always nice to be driving your home rally. I've led the rally a lot of times and normally had good results but I've never won. To achieve that would be fantastic so I will try."
Citroen Total (2nd -- 88 points)
Technical: The Citroen team have worked hard to ensure that the cars are as well-prepared for Finland as possible. Chief engineer Jean-Claude Vaucard says that the majority of the work has concentrated on differential and suspension settings. Colin McRae has a new car for the event.
Sporting: Citroen is contesting the Neste Rally Finland for only the second time. Sebastien Loeb finished 10th last year while Thomas Radstrom crashed out on the penultimate stage. However, Carlos Sainz is one of only two non-Scandinavians to have won in Finland in the past. A good result would boost Citroen's standing in the manufacturers' championship. Currently the French team lies only seven points behind PSA stablemate Peugeot.
Carlos Sainz said: "Finland is always a big challenge, but we are looking to consolidate our position in the championship so I need to get a good finish."
Colin McRae said: "I don't think we've got the car to deal with all the different changes in conditions on this rally, but we'll be trying our hardest. It's always an enjoyable rally to drive."
Sebastien Loeb said: "The car didn't feel so nice last year but we've done a lot of work to improve it and I hope it can be as competitive on gravel as it is on asphalt. I guess we'll only find out once the rally starts."
Ford Motor Company (3rd -- 50 points)
Technical: Ford have four cars in Finland: two Focus RS WRC03s for Markko Martin and Francois Duval, while Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala drive 2002-specification Focuses. The airbox on the RS WRC03s has been redesigned in order to prevent problems with ingesting dust that has blighted the team in the past. Martin drives his Acropolis-winning car again here.
Sporting: Martin comfortably led the last round of the championship before being dogged by transmission problems. Duval also finished the German event and is determined to maintain this reliability record. Hirvonen drove a Focus on home territory last weekend for the first time as part of a sponsorship day.
Markko Martin said: "This is the closest I get to having a home rally and there are a lot of Estonian fans here. However, the Estonian who is most determined for me to win is me! I think the car will be very good here and I am also confident that it will remain reliable. We stand a good chance."
Francois Duval said: "My priority is to finish the rally. If I finish sixth, seventh or wherever that's fine -- I'm just determined to see the end."
Mikko Hirvonen said: "To finish in the top 10 would be a great result for me. Although I'm a Finn I don't know these stages so well because they are not often used on national championship rounds and I've only ever competed on this rally once before."
Jari-Matti Latvala said: "This is my third rally in three weekends, but my first on gravel. I'm here to learn but on Monday I go back to school and have an exam on my first day behind a desk!"
555 Subaru World Rally Team (4th -- 49 points)
Technical: There are no technical changes to the Impreza WRC 2003 apart from a brand new car that has been built for Petter Solberg.
Sporting: Solberg was feeling ill with flu-like symptoms during the Rallye Deutschland, but is now back to full health and looking for a top result. Before the rally, Subaru held a birthday party to commemorate 10 years of the Impreza in World Rallying. The Impreza made its debut on the 1993 Rally Finland and the original team of Markku Alen and Ari Vatanen were re-united in the service area. Also in attendance were Prodrive founder David Richards and the 1993 president of Subaru Tecnica International, Mr Kuze. The Impreza has to date won 35 World Championship Rallies and taken five World Championships. But now Subaru are fourth, having just a one-point gap to Ford in the manufacturers championship.
Petter Solberg said: "I'm going to be trying hard, but this is maybe the most difficult rally of the year to win. The local guys are going to be very quick, but I have a plan..."
Tommi Makinen said: "It would be fantastic to win my sixth Rally Finland so that is my objective. I think I know these roads quite well now, but so do many drivers!"
Skoda Motorsport (5th -- 20 points)
Technical: This is only the second outing for the Fabia WRC. Two examples of Skoda's second-ever World Rally Car will be driven by Toni Gardemeister and Didier Auriol: the same cars that made their debut in Germany. New top suspension mounts have been installed after Toni Gardemeister suffered a failure in Finland, and there are new gearshift command levers as well.
Sporting: The Skoda team are in an upbeat mood after a successful pre-Finland test that concentrated on suspension and damper settings. But Didier Auriol is battling an old shoulder injury that has left him partially incapacitated. Toni Gardemeister drove carefully through this morning's shakedown and made some last-minute setting changes.
Didier Auriol said: "I'm in quite a lot of pain so I've had an injection which should help. If it carries on like this I won't be able to drive the car so we'll see what happens tonight. At the moment, everything is being done one-handed!"
Toni Gardemeister said: "The Fabia is much easier to drive than the old Octavia and that means I can go flat out! If we have a good run, I think I can take the Fabia to its first points finish."
Hyundai World Rally Team (6th -- 7 points)
Technical: The team have no major changes on the three Accent WRC3s that are entered for this event. Finn Jussi Valimaki has been nominated to score manufacturer points in the third car and has a new co-driver.
Sporting: Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix both drive the latest specification Accent WRCs having been buoyed by the German's second consecutive points finish in Germany. The team has recently re-launched its testing programme that has led to improved form. Team principal David Whitehead misses this event, as he is away in Korea securing the budget for next season.
Armin Schwarz said: "I'm happy with the car. But this is such an unpredictable rally that I don't want to make any predictions."
Freddy Loix said: "We did a couple of runs in the shakedown and I think we found a good setting. Our car will be more suited to the narrower, more twisty parts of the event as I think we will probably lose out on the fast sections.
Finland is also a round of the FIA Junior World Rally Championship. Renault driver Brice Tirabassi leads the Suzuki duo of Salvador Canellas and Urmo Aava in the points standings. Newcomers include former World Champion Ari Vatanen, driving a privateer Peugeot 206 WRC and Ford test driver Mark Higgins, who is making an appearance in a Super 1600 Renault Clio. Sebastien Lindholm, in another Peugeot 206 WRC, is starting his 20th Rally Finland, while reigning Junior World Rally Champion Daniel Sola is out in a Group N Mitsubishi.