Thrilling championship fight set to hit top gear on Neste Rally Finland

The FIA World Rally Championship crews face one of the most demanding events of the year when the 2019 season resumes with Rally Finland on August 1-4.

As has been the case ever since it was devised in 1951, the rally is based in the city of Jyväskylä and takes in high-speed gravel roads through the forests of central Finland. Large numbers of spectators are expected to watch their heroes charge through the stages, famed for their many jumps and crests.

A fine-tuned route

This year’s Rally Finland route features only small changes, building on the success of the 2018 event when around 65 per cent of the event was new. The mixed-surface Harju stage in the centre of Jyväskylä will kick-off the action once more on Thursday evening.

Friday features the same stages as in 2018, starting off this time with Oittila. The quartet of Moksi, Urria, Ässämäki and Äänekoski are then each run twice either side of mid-day service in Jyväskylä, before another pass over Harju rounds out the day.

Saturday includes the only new addition for 2019: Leustu, which was last run five years ago. It completes a loop of four stages that also includes Pihlajakoski, Päijälä and Kakaristo. Pihlajakoski begins with 10 kilometres never used before on Rally Finland, while Kakaristo also has a new start last seen in 1997. Two runs of Laukaa and Ruuhimäki will decide the rally on Sunday, with the second pass over Ruuhimäki’s many jumps serving as the Power Stage.

Last year’s winner Tänak leads the field

Ott Tänak returns to the scene of his spectacular victory one year ago at the head of an incredibly close championship battle. Sébastien Ogier is only four points behind, while Thierry Neuville is just three points behind that.

Tänak’s Toyota Gazoo Racing team is chasing a third win in as many years on what is its home event: the team led by four-time world champion Tommi Mäkinenis based just a few kilometres from the service park. All three of the team’s drivers are former winners in Finland, with Tänak lining up alongside home favourite Jari-Matti Latvala (a three-time victor) and the 2016 winner Kris Meeke.

Citroën also has a pair of Rally Finland winners. Ogier, the 2013 winner, is partnered by Esapekka Lappi, who claimed a stunning maiden WRC win on home ground two years ago, and will hope for a positive result after a tough season so far following his switch from Toyota.

Neuville has been supported by a rotating cast of drivers at Hyundai this season and team boss Andrea Adamo has created a new twist for Finland, handing a chance to Craig Breen alongside Andreas Mikkelsen. Breen has a strong record on the event, having joined then-team-mate Meeke on the podium in 2016.

Overlooked for a drive with the team with which he finished fourth in Finland 12 months ago, Hayden Paddon instead landed a one-off deal with M-Sport to make his first appearance of the season. The trio of Ford Fiestas will be led by up-and-coming Finn Teemu SuninenElfyn Evans has been ruled out by a back injury, with Gus Greensmith stepping up to replace him.

Rovanperä headlines the supporting classes

One year on from an outstanding debut on his home event, local boy Kalle Rovanperä returns as the leader of the WRC2 Pro category, with the 18-year-old eyeing his fourth win in a row for Škoda. Fellow Finn Eerik Pietarinen, who actually took the WRC2 win in 2018 after Rovanperä had a damper fail in Päijälä, lines up in the second Škoda entry. M-Sport debuts its latest R5-specification Fiesta with Eric Camilli behind the wheel.

In the WRC2 class for privateers, French Škoda driver Pierre-Louis Loubet tops the entry off the back of wins in both Portugal and Sardinia, but faces strong competition from a pair of Finns in particular, both former winners of Rally Finland’s Future Star initiative. Hyundai driver Jari Huttunen will look for a repeat of his class win in 2017, while Emil Lindholm lines up in a Volkswagen Polo. Japanese driver Takamoto Katsuta will be another to watch in a new Fiesta, having been trained in Finland through Toyota’s Rally Challenge Program.

Rally Finland is the penultimate round of the Junior WRC season, with Spaniard Jan Solans leading Swedes Tom Kristensson and Dennis Radstrom. Many Finnish eyes will be on 17-year-old Sami Pajari, who makes his debut as this year’s Flying Finn Future Star. Another young Finn, Aleksi Röyhkiö, also joins the class on home soil.

Photo: Taneli Niinimäki/AKK

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