HELSINKI, Finland - Following a month-long hiatus, the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) is back in style this week with arguably the most anticipated event of the year, the blisteringly quick stages of Neste Oil Rally Finland.
Characterised by high-speed straights littered with ‘yumps’ (and jumps), every driver dreams of taming the Finnish stages and this year’s event, which starts on Thursday and ends on Saturday will be more challenging than ever.
A revised rally route will see stages such as Torittu and Himos return to the fixture as well as some more familiar tests being run in the opposite direction. Pacenotes will need to be word-perfect on these somewhat unfamiliar roads, demanding total trust between driver and co-driver as they launch their cars over crests at full speed.
Yet the most daunting challenge remains one of the most famous and notorious stages of the year – Ouninpohja. Run twice on Saturday, this high-speed rollercoaster has become synonymous with the Finnish event. Incorporating some 169 jumps over 33 kilometres, Ouninpohja is the ultimate test of nerve, commitment, speed and skill.
Commonly known as the ‘Gravel Grand Prix’, Rally Finland has always favoured the Scandinavians, and that is something Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team’s resident Norwegian, Mads Østberg, will be hoping to take advantage of in his Fiesta RS WRC. Although a Finnish podium has eluded Østberg in the past, his regained confidence means that this is something he’ll be looking to rectify.
The 25-year-old spent the summer break supporting his countrymen at the Swedish round of the European Rallycross Championship on the Norwegian border before travelling to his own pre-event test in Finland. Finding a good set-up on their two-day test, he and Swedish co-driver Jonas Andersson will be looking to push their advantage from the very first stage next week as they strive to get their 2013 campaign back on track.
Despite the super-quick stages suiting his fearless style, Rally Finland has become something of an ‘Achilles heel’ in the repertoire of Østberg’s team mate Evgeny Novikov. Having said that, the Russian remains confident of a turn of fortune at this year’s event.
Novikov spent the mid-season break swapping the pedals for the pacenotes as he co-drove mentor and manager, Mikhail Lepekhov, at Rally Rostov Velikiy in Russia. The experience will have given the youngster further knowledge and experience before being reunited with regular co-driver Ilka Minor for an event where precise pacenotes are inherently linked to a strong result.
Speaking of strong results, Qatar World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville has had a string of them so far this season. Partnered by fellow Belgian Nicolas Gilsoul, the pairing secured three podium finishes over the first half of the season – a feat which sees them well-placed in the drivers’ championship. The Belgians are determined to prove their worth this year and despite only contesting the specialist stages of Rally Finland on one previous occasion, the duo should not be discounted for a strong result.
Indeed Neuville’s determination is ever-present; using the mid-season break to gain as much seat-time and experience as possible. As well as taking to the wheel of the Ford Fiesta R5 for the Geko Ypres Rally, the 24-year-old starred as a guest driver in the ‘25h BeTrophy’ at Spa-Francorchamps, helped set-up a newly-delivered Fiesta R5 and Ford Fiesta R200 in his native Belgium and even mentored his brother, Yannick, as he drove a Ford Fiesta R2 at Rallye de Luxembourg.
Another driver who has made seat-time a priority of late is Welshman Elfyn Evans. Having secured a sensational sixth place finish on his debut with the Fiesta RS WRC last month, the youngster is ready and eager for a return to the WRC 2 category with M-Sport’s latest challenger – the Fiesta R5.
Despite being instrumental in the testing and development process, Evans and co-driver Daniel Barritt have spent the past weeks gaining further knowledge of the car ahead of Rally Finland – an event he won as part of the FIA WRC Academy category last year. After leading the Nicky Grist Stages, the pairing ventured to Estonia for further testing alongside 2003 Rally Finland winner Markko Märtin and his MM-Motorsport team’s brand-new Fiesta R5s.