Ford's newest rally car, the Fiesta ST Group N, will make its world championship debut on this weekend's Rally Finland. Two of the showroom specification vehicles, which have been designed and built by British-based preparation company M-Sport,...
Ford's newest rally car, the Fiesta ST Group N, will make its world championship debut on this weekend's Rally Finland. Two of the showroom specification vehicles, which have been designed and built by British-based preparation company M-Sport, will be used by rally organisers for safety car duties on this 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Ex-Formula 1 star Mika Salo will drive one of the two-litre, two-wheel drive Fiesta ST Group Ns, which has recently been homologated for international rallying by the FIA.
Often referred to as the 'Finnish Grand Prix', Rally Finland is unquestionably the fastest of the season. Smooth, wide, undulating gravel stages enable drivers to reach speeds of more than 200kph, while the numerous 'yumps', the famous jumps that punctuate the route, demand the ultimate in confidence and pace-note accuracy. Technically, the event is a difficult one. Jumps can launch a rally car 50 metres through the air and lead directly into blind crests and sixth gear corners.
Formerly known as 'The Rally of the Thousand Lakes' the event runs through stunning Finnish scenery and around the numerous lakes that gave the rally its original name. Finland is regarded as the spiritual home of rallying and it is estimated that a fifth of the entire population turn out to watch their nation's round of the World Rally Championship. Since it was first run in 1951, local knowledge has proved a major key to success. Locals grow up building a detailed knowledge of the specialist conditions and, as a result, only three drivers from outside the Nordic region have ever claimed victory (Spaniard Carlos Sainz in 1990; Frenchman Didier Auriol in 1992 and Estonian Markko Martin in 2003).
Once again, the base for this year's rally is the university town of Jyvaskyla: home to many of Finland's greatest champions. The rally starts on Thursday 4 August with a sprint around a Superspecial stage at the Killeri horse-trotting track. The rally comprises three legs, 355 competitive kilometres and 21 timed stages. The winning car is expected to cross the finish ramp at 1450hrs on Sunday 7 August.
Can Sebastien Loeb yump on to the top step of the podium for the seventh time in a row and for the eighth time this season? Or, will he back off and rest on his laurels and his 25 point lead in the driver's championship? Ever since the Xsara WRC's maiden flight here in 2002, Citroen has patiently fine-tuned its understanding of this unique terrain to make its car increasingly competitive, a claim borne out by the progress of its stage times and results in recent years. To prepare for this year's rally, Citroen Sport's test team made full use of the four days of on-site testing permitted by the regulations.
Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena: "I really want to win this rally," says a confident Loeb. "It's a legendary event that very few non-Finns have won and I'm on a good run at the moment. However, I have no intention of driving absolutely flat out. That's not my style. I'm not the sort of driver who goes crazy. It's not in my nature to take what I have noted as a 5th-gear corner in 6th in the belief that it'll be OK. In the last stage in Mexico, as well as in Argentina after my spin, I was close to the limit but I still kept it tidy. Scrambling round a corner doesn't suit me and it doesn't pay. So I will drive in my usual way, pushing as hard as I feel I can to begin with, then seeing where we stand and after that adapting ours tactics as necessary. In Finland, we will see early on whether we have a real chance of winning."
Francois Duval/Sven Smeets: "To finish, but in a better position if possible. In Argentina, we allowed our rivals to pull clear on Day 1. After that, we played a waiting game which ended up not paying because nobody ahead of us retired. In Finland, there will be a lot of quick locals in WRC cars. Don't expect us to be that well placed on Day 1. We will endeavour to be as consistent as possible"
Subaru will enter a two-car ream on Rally Finland. The two Impreza WRC2005's will be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). Both Petter and Chris will be eligible to score points in the 2005 FIA Manufacturers' Championship. Petter has competed in Finland six times before. His best result came in 2003 when he finished second. Currently second in the battle for the 2005 World Championship for Drivers', Petter is aiming for a strong points finish next week. The Subaru team's latest signing, Chris Atkinson, tackled Rally Finland for the first time last year. He finished the rally in 33rd place at the wheel of a Group N specification Subaru Impreza. Next week will mark Chris's Finland debut at the wheel of the more powerful WRC specification Impreza.
Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: "Finland is a great event and one of my favourites of the year. There's a good atmosphere, it's well organised and the stages are incredible. After Argentina the feeling in the car is pretty good now, and I'm hoping that the final preparations at the test this weekend will mean we're very competitive on the rally. I've got my fingers crossed that everything will be perfect for a good rally, but for this one it's a little bit cautious too. For sure you have to attack, but it's not a good idea to start Finland feeling over confident. I'm ready to give it my best shot, and I hope it will be a good show for the spectators. A lot of my supporters come across from Norway and hopefully we can give them something to cheer about."
Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: "I'm really looking forward to it. I completed the route last year in a Group N Impreza so I've already got some experience of the stages, which I think will be of some benefit. But in Finland you really can't underestimate the value of experience. It's one of those events that you need to do time and time again before you get close to the experts. The roads are pretty challenging, very fast, with lots of blind crests and jumps, but they're a type of road that I like. The speed doesn't faze me; I guess it's something I've become comfortable with after so many events in Australia where the roads are often just as fast. I'm hoping to get a good set-up at the pre-event test on Friday, one that will enable me to push a little harder on the rally and show some good speed."
BP-Ford World Rally Team plans to maximise local experience when it lines up for arguably the most specialised event in the FIA World Rally Championship in Finland next week. The team has recruited Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen to join fellow countrymen Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen behind the wheel of Focus RS World Rally Cars as Ford's nominated drivers for the Rally Finland (4 - 7 August). Hirvonen drove a Focus RS with the official Ford team in the 2003 championship. He has returned to the driving seat of the car again this season, piloting a privately-entered Focus RS to fifth on the Acropolis Rally of Greece last month after leading during the opening leg. Hirvonen, who celebrates his 25th birthday on Sunday, lives in the rally base of Jyvaskyla and is keen to make the most of his Ford nomination.
Toni Gardemeister/Jakke Honkanen: This will be the 10th Rally Finland for 30-year-old Gardemeister, for whom a top three result in his Castrol-branded Focus RS would mean much. "Monte Carlo and Finland are the two rallies where a top result is special," he said. "And, being a Finn, it would mean a lot to me to finish on the podium. It will be a difficult event because there are so many fast drivers. But it will be exciting to drive on my own roads, in front of my own fans, with the prospect of obtaining a good finish. "I know most of the stages quite well and there are only a few roads that I'm not so familiar with. I'm used to the Finnish roads so they don't seem so difficult to me. The most important aspect is not to lose momentum. They are so fast that lifting off the throttle, even briefly, can cost a lot of time. The Focus finished second here last year. It has not changed so much since then so it should still be well-suited to this event," he added
Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen: It means a great deal to me that I have factory support again for my home rally," he said. "I know everyone in the team, I work well with them all and I'm so happy to be back. I've never driven the current specification Focus RS and there are many things that will be different compared to the 2003 car that I've been driving. But I have a day's testing on Sunday and I think that will be enough to learn. I know already that the Focus suits my driving style and my target is to score points for Ford and to be as close as I can to Toni at the top of the leaderboard. If I'm close to him, then I can be in the top five. "There are two things that have to be absolutely right for this rally. It's important to be 100 per cent sure of how the car handles and a driver has to get the correct driving line over the crests. The stages are so fast that good confidence is vital and that comes with a car that handles well. And before taking off over a jump, a driver needs to know where he is going to land. Once you're in the air, it's too late to change your mind! There is no room for mistakes," he added.
Roman Kresta/Jan Mozny: Kresta's only experience of the Finnish roads came in 2002 when he tackled the recce. "It's a very, very special event," he said. "It's impossible to develop a full idea of the nature of the roads until you drive them at a competitive speed. But from that recce, I could see just how hard they are to master. They're incredibly fast and flowing and they look fantastic to drive. But driving quickly and driving competitively are different, and I understand why people say that it takes several visits to this rally before a driver can become competitive. It's important for me to drive quickly, but cautiously, so that I can finish and gain as much experience as possible.
Currently second in the Manufacturers' championship standings, Peugeot Sport is looking to return to its winning ways in order to keep its chances alive of conquering another world title. The tenth round of the 2005 calendar, Rally Finland, stands out as a first class opportunity to achieve that objective. The Peugeot 307 WRC will be driven by Marcus Gronholm, winner of this event four times in the past five years. The only year the Finn failed to win, it was his new Estonian team-mate Markko Martin who took the honours. The 307 WRC, which won last year in Finland, will clearly be in good hands, especially since a third car has been entered for local star Sebastian Lindholm.
Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: "Our main rival has been so strong this season so far that he even seems capable of beating us on our home event. Even so, it won't be easy for him and it will be up to us to make the most of that. Every year, I feel unbeatable going into 'my' rally, but this time I get the feeling we will need to be particularly strong and focused if we want to win."
Markko Martin/Michael Park: "This rally is unique," says the Estonian. "I like it a lot. Given that my country is so close and that it doesn't organise a round of the World Championship, it's almost as though this was my home round. I really hope to score a top result. I have always been quick in Finland, and I know the 307 WRC - which won here last year - will be very competitive."
The ©koda Motorsport World Rally Team will enter three cars for Rally Finland (August 4-7) with Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha and Jani Paasonen/Jani Vainikka nominated for points on the tenth round of the 2005 World Rally Championship. A third ©koda Fabia WRC 05 will be entered on the event for Janne Tuohino/Mikko Markkula.
Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha: This is a real drivers' rally and it takes place in forests full of enthusiastic spectators. It is very difficult for visiting drivers because only after three days do you start to understand the challenges. You have to be full of confidence to do really well.
Jani Paasonen/Jani Vainikka: Last year was my first drive for ©koda Motorsport but I enjoyed it very much and finished sixth. I hope that I can do at least as well as that this year. It's my home event so I always look forward to it and want to get the best result possible
Janne Touhino/Mikko Markkula: We had a really good test in Finland a few weeks ago that was probably the best test I have ever had with the Fabia WRC. I am fully confident and really want to get started!
After the South American winter, the FIA World Rally Championship contenders return to the European summer for the tenth round of the series. Rally Finland (August 4-7) is one of the most spectacular events on the 16-round calendar and the Mitsubishi Motors WRC Team will be fielding the all-Finnish crew of Harri Rovanpera/Risto Pietilainen and Italians "Gigi" Galli/Guido D'Amore in the Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05s. While the event is also a qualifying round of the FIA Junior World Rally Championship, but no fewer than 15 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution drivers will be fighting for Group N honors.
Harri Rovanpera/Risto Pietilainen: "This is a special event for me with good feelings because of the amount of friends and fans", said Rovanpera. "For me it is one of the best rallies with the best stages; sure it is not the easiest to drive though. Lots of drivers know it well now, I think everyone likes it and all the drivers - not just the Finns - are fighting for the top positions. I am really hoping for a podium position, but we have to make it through all three days; last year I was leading before an accident, but now the Lancer WRC05 gets better and better and hopefully we can show our pace again and get a good result. Our test in Finland was good, although the weather was wet and difficult, but I think we have made good progress with the suspension and I'm quite confident. The engine development is also a good point; our car speed should be good on these fast stages".
Gigi Galli/Guido D'Amore: "Testing in Finland was good; my first time on these stages in a world rally car", said Gigi. "Wow, it was an amazing experience! The jumps, crests, big sideways, very nice.! For me, it was like a great present to drive the car on these stages. We had some good results from the test but obviously we don't know how the other teams are progressing. What I can say is that I feel very confident at the moment and the car is just going to improve more and more".