Rally Finland finally got underway this evening with the short 2.31-kilometre Harju stage, close to the Paviljonki service park. The opening stage was run entirely on asphalt, with the drivers nonetheless using gravel tyres, which ensured plenty of spectacular slides. On such a short circuit, there was little to choose between the top crews.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville led the way after the aperitif to the main action, despite clipping a tyre stack, with a time of 1m47.3s. The Belgian said: “We’ll see how it goes tomorrow but we’ve been working very hard for this event so I hope it will benefit. I want to bring back a good result for the team here in Finland.” Unbelievably, Hyundai has yet to finish on the podium of Rally Finland – will this be the weekend when that changes?
Rally favourite Ott Tänak was fastest on this morning’s shakedown for Toyota and won in Finland last year to kick off a sequence of three consecutive wins, but the Estonian had to settle for second on the opening stage, 0.7 seconds behind Neuville. As usual, he was calm about his prospects tomorrow, when he’ll be first on the road. “It’s going to be a tough day tomorrow: we just need to manage it,” he concluded.
His team mate Kris Meeke, who didn’t compete in Finland last year but won in 2016, was third on Harju and commented: “This is a fantastic rally. Three years ago was special, but to be part of Toyota Gazoo Racing on their home event is something special too: I’m going to just enjoy this weekend. That’s the main thing.”
The Northern Irishman finished only a tenth of a second ahead of the Citroen of reigning world champion Sébastien Ogier, who promised to: “Give it everything I have. Of course us title contenders are going to push but so is everyone else. There’s no other option.”
Two more Hyundais finished in fifth and sixth courtesy of Andreas Mikkelsen and Craig Breen, who completed his first WRC stage of 2019. Breen set exactly the same stage time (1m49.7s) as the Ford Fiesta WRC of Teemu Suninen and the Toyota Yaris WRC of three-time Finland winner Jari-Matti Latvala, classified in seventh and eighth on Harju respectively.
Suninen, who like Sami Pajari this year was elected as Finland’s Future Star back in 2014, summed up the Finnish spirit of the rally perfectly at the end of the short opening stage: “We’ll start flat-out and then try to go even faster!”
Appropriately, it was two more Finns rounding out the overall top 10: Citroen’s Esapekka Lappi in ninth (a previous winner of Rally Finland in 2017) and 18-year-old Kalle Rovanperä, who led the way in the WRC2 Pro standings, with 10that the wheel of his Skoda Fabia R5.
In the Junior WRC, Germany’s Julius Tannert was fastest: one of the many title contenders on the penultimate round of the one-make Ford Fiesta R2T championship.
Tomorrow the real action begins as the crews get onto gravel with SS2, the 19.34-kilometre Oittila stage, closely followed by the 20.04 kilometres of Moksi: a Finland classic. It’s going to be an early start, with the first car into service at 06:40 before heading to the forests.
Photo: Toni Ollikainen/AKK