Countdown to Neste Oil Rally Finland In parts of Finland, the sun does not come up for 51 days in the winter. That's 1,224 hours of darkness. That's a lot of thinking time. And what are the Finns all thinking about? Next week, that's what: the...
Countdown to Neste Oil Rally Finland
In parts of Finland, the sun does not come up for 51 days in the winter. That's 1,224 hours of darkness. That's a lot of thinking time. And what are the Finns all thinking about? Next week, that's what: the Jyvaskyla Grand Prix, the 1,000 Lakes Rally or - as it is now known - Neste Oil Rally Finland.
The moniker might have changed down the years, but the importance of this jewel in the World Rally Championship's crown has only increased. This is the one all drivers want to win.
And, for the first time, this year they'll only have two full days of competition to prove their worth as a successor to the likes of Marcus Gronholm and Markku Alen. The organisers of the Jyvaskyla-based event have gone for a radical approach to the rally timetable, cutting Sunday out completely and adding time and distance into the two days which go before it. On the face of it, you might think this makes it less of a challenge, but in reality, with longer stages and longer days, it's an endurance rally packed into 48 hours.
The format might have altered for this season, but the roads themselves remain largely the same as last year, with only six new kilometres on the route. And, like the other 304 kilometres of the route, those six will be jam-packed with rally-mad fans from across Europe.
As much as rally drivers all want to win in Finland, rally watchers all want to come and spectate roadside for what's sometimes more akin to an air show rather than a motorsport event. It's the monstrous jumps which mark this event out as special - and the angles at which cars come into view; often with full opposite lock and two or three feet in the air as they deal with the latest in a string of corners on crests.
It's not just from a sporting side that Rally Finland works, either. Commercially, this event is blue chip WRC. The service park at Paviljonki is the template for events across the world - and the compact route the envy of organisers everywhere. This rally takes over the town of Jyvaskyla and the locals love it. Summer wouldn't be summer without those crazy men and their flying machines.
Who's going to win?
What do we think? Do we believe Sebastien Loeb? Will he really throttle back and take second or third? We'll have to wait and see.
t's fine in theory, but, like the Frenchman says himself, when the crash helmet pulled on, it brings a different mindset. Certainly, Ford is going to be a heck of a lot closer than they were in Bulgaria. Winning last year's event must surely remove some of the pressure and local expectation from Hirvonen - or does it add more? He's shown he can do it, so anything other than back-to-back wins might be viewed as a failure from the Finnish media.
Jari-Matti Latvala has another year's experience under his belt - and there's no doubting the New Zealand winner's outright speed. And this year's he's only got to string together two days rather than three.
Petter Solberg could be the one to watch, however. He's in a good place on the road if the weather stays dry and the C4 WRC has certainly shown itself to be a good car on these stages. As for Loeb's team-mate Sebastien Ogier, is it too soon to expect him to challenge for victory on an event where experience is everything? Hmm, didn't we say the same thing in Auckland earlier this season?
Beyond the main event, this rally will be a round of the Super 2000 World Rally Championship and the Production Car World Rally Championship, ensuring the action goes on all day on the stages. In S-WRC terms, local drivers Jari Ketomaa and Janne Tuohino (both in Fiestas) are likely to set the pace, while Patrik Flodin's Subaru should be at the sharp end in Production.
This year's Neste Oil Rally Finland is an extra special event for two reasons, the first is that it's the sixth anniversary of the event and secondly - and probably more pertinently to the Finnish version of the Tifosi - Juha Kankkunen is coming back for a 22nd (get that, twenty-second!) attempt at his home round of the WRC. The three-time winner of the event is unlikely to take a fourth victory next week, but is aiming for a top 10 finish in his Stobart M-Sport Ford Focus RS WRC.
All competitors in four-wheel drive cars competing in Finland will use Pirelli's Scorpion gravel tyre, which is available in a soft compound only. Crews can carry up to two spare tyres although the likelihood is one spare only will be carried, particularly on the first pass through stages as the risk of punctures in Finland is less than on other gravel rallies.