2017 Rally Finland: Preview – Will Tänak be Record-Breaking or Car-Breaking?


Credit: M-Sport / @World

The ‘form book‘ is a mythological guide that tells us what to expect for a coming sporting event. It runs the numbers between immediate form and past history at a certain event, telling us what to expect for its latest iteration.

No form book is going to help here. The Rally of 1000 Lakes – as the Finnish round of the championship was once known – may turn into the Rally of 1000 Mistakes.

Hyundai have a point to prove in Finland. Despite now having five wins and another 21 podiums, none of these have come in the hallowed roads of central Finland. One may suggest this is precedent of a difficult weekend ahead for the German-based team, however their previous issues have been a combination of circumstances than a singular failure on the team’s part.

Precedent is useful for one thing leading into this rally. While torrential rain tore up the stages of Rally Poland to a certain extent, it did not hamper the flat-out enthusiasm of Ott Tänak. The Estonian loves the fast and rolling stages which are a trademark of Finland, the quickest event on the calendar. Last year’s edition was the fastest WRC event on record, and given the new generation of 2017 cars are equipped more horsepower and extra downforce, the field is expected to smash that record to bits.

The worry for Tänak is the propensity for smashing his car to bits when hunting for victory. His accident on the final day of Rally Poland – running wide and clipping a tree, before hitting a second tree head-on – has confirmed a ‘curse’ will enter into rally folklore between said driver and rally. The worry is it will happen again here in Finland, given in last year’s event he ran wide and hit a signpost, again leading to a retirement.

He continues to have an ace up his sleeve despite all of this. Given his lower road position compared to championship contenders Sébastien Ogier and Thierry Neuville, he has been handed the right circumstances to be the first Estonian winner in Finland since Markko Märtin 14 years ago.

“Poland didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but we know that we have the pace and we’ll be looking to take that forward to Finland – another high-speed rally and another of my favourite events,” said an optimistic Tänak. “I think every driver looks forward to Rally Finland. When you’re on it and hook up the perfect stage there really is no better feeling – and we’ll be hoping for plenty of that next week.”

Neuville is another driver who needs to take the proverbial form book and send it through the shredder. His only podium in Finland was four years ago, at the wheel of a semi-privateer Ford Fiesta. He has not been a match for the Volkswagens and Citroëns in years past, unable to cope with various factors like Jari-Matti Latvala‘s home advantage, or Kris Meeke‘s ballsy commitment over the blind crests and jumps of the Finnish stages.

Thierry Neuville is on a six podium streak heading into Rally Finland. | Credit: Hyundai Motorsport

At long last, it appears the odds are finally stacked in the Belgian’s favour. Meeke is on the back foot, recovering from the ignominy of being benched by Citroën team principal Yves Matton at the last event, while Latvala no longer has an all-dominant car underneath him to automatically contend for victories. Neuville now pilots the car which looks the class of the field, and has a great opportunity to draw himself level with Ogier for the first time this season. He has the tools at his disposal to break Hyundai’s Finnish curse.

“We were delighted with both our own and the team’s performance in Poland,” said Neuville, referencing the team’s 1-2-4 finish in the previous round. “The car is looking very strong and with two wins on gravel already this season it has shown how competitive we can be.”

“We know that Finland can be a tricky event and that the margin of error is minimal due to the high speeds and complexities of the track, but we are confident of putting on a good show.”

The form book says he can’t win in Finland based on past seasons, whilst also pointing out he is on a hot-streak on the lead-in to the championship climax. Even when the ‘form book‘ turns out to be wrong, it might find a way to be right in the end regardless.

Ogier compromises M-Sport team-mates preparation

While Ott Tänak is one of the favourites for top honours this weekend, the preparation for the rest of the M-Sport drivers has gone far from swimmingly. All four drivers competing for the British team this weekend – Ogier, Tänak, Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen – were sharing a single Fiesta WRC during a pre-rally test, until Ogier damaged the car in a high-speed, sixth gear crash, the damage to the Fiesta so extensive it could not be repaired at their base camp in the Finnish forests.

It was Ogier’s final run before handing over to Evans and Suninen, leaving neither with any practice time before Thursday’s shakedown.

“There was nothing I could do to avoid the crash,” Ogier said afterwards. “[There was] a big rock in the line at the exit of a long flat sixth-gear corner. Although [the test] was cut short and I’m sorry for my teammates who were unable to continue, the car felt fantastic.”

While Ogier still left the test with a great feeling, Evans was left to find more creative ways of getting kilometres under his belt, with little success.

Solans streak under threat in JWRC

Another driver with less than ideal preparation for Rally Finland was the Junior WRC’ dominant force Nil Solans. Three wins from three has put him in the box seat not only for the title, but also a second batch of WRC2 prize drives for next season.

His pre-event plans were derailed by a technical failure on his Fiesta R2T at the Autogylm Ralli, an event based not far from the southern Finnish city of Tampere. Three of this weekend’s JWRC contenders were present, with Emil Lindholm winning the R2 class. Dennis Rådström – who finished second in Poland – crashed out of the event, while Solans failed to even start, a technical problem sidelining his Fiesta before even making the start.

Between the disrupted preparation and championship aspirations, Solans has admitted he will not be expecting a fourth consecutive victory to come his way.

“Finland is likely to be the most difficult event of the season and we need to consider our championship position, so the aim is to try and stay within the top-three,” he said. “The speeds are fast, everything is faster than you think so definitely the pacenotes will play an important part.”

Lindholm made his category debut last time out in Poland, winning a stage before crashing out of a potential podium. His drive in Jyväskylä is a prize for winning the Future Rally Star of Finland award, an opportunity he is looking to capitalise on with more stage wins.

“Poland was great practice for Finland and my aim next week is to finish the rally, be competitive and hopefully take some more stage wins,” he said. “Either way it will be awesome to drive in front of my home crowd and we want to put on a good show. Pacenotes are so important here with many crests and jumps and we had a good practice by winning the class on the AutoGlym Rally last weekend.”

Lindholm pointed to Terry Folb as a potential victory contender in Finland, despite the Frenchman’s disappointing luck so far this year. He had been running well in Poland until a puncture on the final day robbed him of a podium, and is looking for Finland to act as a turnaround point.

“We haven’t had the best of seasons so far as bad luck seems to be following us, but hopefully that will finally change in Finland,” Folb remarked. “We are really looking forward to the rally and it’s very enjoyable because of the speed and the atmosphere with the fans. Many drivers will be fighting for the podium and I intend to be one of them.”