The stars of the FIA World Rally Championship will take to the season’s fastest roads on Neste Rally Finland (July 26-29) to battle for supremacy in one of the most spectacular events in motorsport.
This year’s rally features a heavily-revised route but the demands remain much the same over the high-speed, tree-lined gravel roads of central Finland around the host city Jyväskylä.
As always, large numbers of spectators from Finland and the rest of the world will head into the forests to watch the drivers and their cars flying over the many jumps and crests along the route.
Radical route revisions bring new twists and turns
Finland is blessed with many thousands of kilometres of spectacular rally roads and Neste Rally Finland organisers have used that to devise a significantly different route for the 2018 event. As much as 40 per cent of the roads have not been part of the rally before, while up to 65 per cent has changed compared to 2017.
One familiar feature will be the mixed-surface Harju stage within Jyväskylä itself to kick off proceedings on Thursday evening. Friday begins with the returning Moksi stage, while the brand new Ässämäki test is run between visits to Urria and Äänekoski. The afternoon starts with a revamped Oittila before repeats of the morning’s stages and Harju.
Saturday features four stages all run twice. Among them is Pihlajakoski, the only stage that is completely unchanged from last year, as well as Päijälä and new tests Tuohikotanen and Kakaristo, the latter using sections familiar from Ouninpohja. The rally concludes on Sunday with Laukaa – run in the opposite direction to 2017 – and Ruuhimäki, with a dramatically-changed version of last year’s shakedown stepping up to become the Power Stage, complete with a huge jump at the end.
Home heroes and championship challengers ready for battle
Last year, the home crowd had a new home team to support: the Toyota squad run by Tommi Mäkinen and based in Puupola, just 15 kilometres from the service park. Driving a car developed on local roads, Esapekka Lappi became the latest Finn to win his home event. This year, Lappi and fellow Finn Jari-Matti Latvala (a three-time winner of the event) have been joined in the team by Ott Tänak of neighboring Estonia, already a winner this year in Argentina.
On the basis of 2017, one of the Toyota drivers’ strongest rivals could be the 2014 Future Rally Star of Finland, Teemu Suninen, who battled for the podium in only his second World Rally Car start 12 months ago. He lines up in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta, as does Elfyn Evans – who came second in Finland last year – and Sébastien Ogier, the 2013 winner.
For Ogier, the main goal will be to make up ground in his bid for a sixth consecutive title, after rival Thierry Neuville increased his advantage to 27 points with his final-stage triumph last time out in Sardinia. Neuville, along with team-mates Andreas Mikkelsen and Hayden Paddon, will hope to improve upon their Hyundai team’s low-key showing in Finland in 2017.
Citroën recently dropped the 2016 event winner Kris Meeke from their line-up, but they do have Craig Breen, who scored a superb maiden podium in the same event. Mads Östberg has stepped into Meeke’s shoes and is twice a podium finisher in Finland, while Khalid Al Qassimi has been a regular visitor since making his top-flight debut there in 2007.
Young Finns with high hopes
The WRC2 and Junior WRC support categories are home to the up-and-coming rally stars who hope to follow Lappi and Suninen into the major league. Once again there is a strong Finnish presence in WRC2 this year, including Jari Huttunen, who succeeded Suninen as the 2015 Future Rally Star. Last year, he took a dominant win on his WRC2 debut on his home event, which led to him being signed up by Hyundai as a development driver.
Look out too for Jyväskylä’s own Kalle Rovanperä, the 17-year-old son of past WRC rally winner Harri, who makes his first start on his home event, driving for the factory Skoda Motorsport team. The competition in WRC2 in Finland is strong, and includes Rovanperä’s Škoda team-mate Ole Christian Veiby, M-Sport-run Gus Greensmith and Citroën driver Stéphane Lefebvre.
Watch too for Toyota proteges Takamoto Katsuta (a shock winner in Sweden earlier this year) and Hiroki Arai, who have completed much of their training on Finnish roads and have local navigators in Marko Salminen and Jarmo Lehtinen. Conversely, experienced Finnish driver Jarkko Nikara and Japanese co-driver Sayaka Adachi join them in a third Tommi Mäkinen Racing-entered Ford Fiesta. There are also WRC2 debuts for Finnish championship leader Eerik Pietarinen and last year’s Future Rally Star Emil Lindholm.
This year’s Future Rally Star of Finland is Henri Hokkala, whose prize is a debut in the Junior WRC class. He goes up against the likes of Swedish drivers Denis Radstrom and Emil Bergkvist, Frenchmen Jean-Baptiste Franceschi and Terry Folb and Estonian Ken Torn. All participants in the championship drive Ford Fiesta R2 cars.
Sébastien Ogier: “For so many people this is the highlight of the year and it’s easy to see why. There is an atmosphere here that you don’t get anywhere else and the roads were tailor-made for rallying. This is the fastest event on the calendar and at those speeds, it’s mere tenths of a second that you’re fighting for. We know that the car was strong here last year and we had a good feeling on the test, but this is a rally that doesn’t forgive even the smallest of mistakes.”
Teemu Suninen: “Having come so close last year, the top-three is my ultimate goal. It could be hard to achieve, but we will try our best. At the end it’s such a small margin that decides whether you finish third or sixth! We’ll start the rally as we mean to continue – driving flat-out.”
Jari-Matti Latvala: “I am really looking forward to Rally Finland. It is a good opportunity to start the second half of the season in a positive way. I have always felt really good support on my home event, and this is even more the case now that we are driving a car that has been built here. I could really feel last year that everybody was behind the team and willing us on.”
Esapekka Lappi: “Rally Finland is always a special event and even more so after our victory last year. I am really looking forward to it. There is more pressure this year. From my side, I am expecting a good result and I think everyone else is too, so we really need to perform. I think it will be tougher to win it this time, though. The competition will be tougher, both from inside our team and from the other teams as well.”
Jari Huttunen: “I’m looking forward to putting on a spectacular event for our home fans. I feel really comfortable with these conditions and we know we can be strong on gravel. It won’t be easy with such a competitive WRC2 field, but we are ready to show our ability to put together a strong rally – from beginning to end.”
Kalle Rovanperä: “Driving a factory entered Škoda Fabia R5 at Rally Finland is really very special for me. We had a good pre-event test and I am very confident with the settings of the car. In Finland, it is very important that the car is stable and easy to control in the high speed corners and the huge jumps.”
NESTE RALLY FINLAND 2018 IN NUMBERS
Competitive distance: 317.26 kilometres
Total distance: 1109.58 kilometres
Longest stage: 23.92 kilometres (Päijälä)
Shortest stage: 2.31 kilometres (Harju)
Entries received: 71
Nationalities represented: 22
WRC appearances: 45
Most wins (during WRC era): 7 (Marcus Grönholm)
2017: Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC)
2016: Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Citroën DS3 WRC)
2015: Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)
2014: Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)
2013: Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)
2012: Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (Citroën DS3 WRC)
2011: Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (Citroën DS3 WRC)
2010: Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Ford Focus RS WRC)
2009: Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen (Ford Focus RS WRC)
2008: Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (Citroën C4 WRC)
1 Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Ford Fiesta WRC
2 Elfyn Evans (GBR)/Daniel Barritt (GBR) Ford Fiesta WRC
3 Teemu Suninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) Ford Fiesta WRC
4 Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Anders Jaeger-Synnevaag (NOR) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
5 Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Nicolas Gilsoul (BEL) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
6 Hayden Paddon (NZL)/Sebastian Marshall (GBR) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
7 Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN)/Miikka Anttila (FIN) Toyota Yaris WRC
8 Ott Tänak (EST)/Martin Järveoja (EST) Ford Fiesta WRC
9 Esapekka Lappi (FIN)/Janne Ferm (FIN) Toyota Yaris WRC
10 Mads Østberg (NOR)/Torstein Eriksen (NOR) Citroën C3 WRC
11 Craig Breen (IRL)/Scott Martin (GBR) Citroën C3 WRC
12 Khalid Al-Qassimi (UAE)/Chris Patterson (GBR) Citroën C3 WRC
RALLY ESSENTIALS (all timings local)
Starts: 18:37, Thursday 26 July, Service Park, Paviljonki, Jyväskylä
Finishes: 14:31, Sunday 29 July, Service Park, Paviljonki, Jyväskylä
Headquarters: Jyväskylä Paviljonki Lutakonaukio 12, FI-40100 Jyväskylä, Finland
Service park: Paviljonki, Jyväskylä
Shakedown: Vesala (4.26 kilometres), 08:00-09:30 (for P1 drivers), 09:30-11:30 (for P1-P3 drivers, optional), 11:30-13:30 (non-priority drivers), Thursday 26 July
Photo: Toni Ollikainen/AKK