Finland is the second home of rallying (in chronological terms only, without Sebastien Loeb, France would barely have a claim to being the first) but of late the natives have been rather lacklustre. A country so used to success is in the doldrums, and have recalled an old national hero to try and brighten the mood.
While Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala look to reclaim some honour on home turf for the works Ford team, the satellite Stobart team has an even bigger name representing them this weekend – Juha Kankkunen.
The four time world champion is making a one-off appearance alongside his former co-driver Juha Repo, and have set their sights on a Top 10 finish.
“It’s going to be great to drive again and I’m very excited to attend the jubilee event as a part of the Stobart M-Sport Ford Rally Team.” said Kankkunen. “It is also a fantastic opportunity to enjoy a World Rally Car, especially after knowing they’ll disappear from the series after this season.
“I haven’t spent much time in the latest generation cars and I know there’s been a lot of changes, but I don’t foresee any undue surprises. My target is a place in the top 10 and to battle with Kimi Raikkonen. Juha last competed in this rally in 2003 where he finished 11th so he also eager to finish inside the top 10.”
Back to the two younger Finns, Hirvonen is hoping to get Loeb back for the thrashing he has been handing out lately, by taking consecutive 1000 Lakes wins.
“I’m looking forward to defending last year’s victory because I want to keep the title in Finland. Defending the title on your home rally definitely brings more excitement in the run-up to the event,” he said.
“The two-day format will be interesting. Recently, Sunday’s final leg has contained very few kilometres and the result was effectively decided by what happened in the previous two days. With just two legs this year, the battle could continue through to the final stage of the rally.”
Latvala was similarly talkative about the new format, so neither driver actually seemed to be talking up their chances of beating Citroen for the first time since New Zealand.
However both can take comfort from Loeb’s approach to the weekend – if they can put up a strong fight, they’ll likely win.
“I really wanted to win this rally. Now that I've achieved this objective, I see things a bit differently,” said Loeb. “This year I'll be starting with sixty-five points in hand over Mikko. I can afford to control my lead as there are three more asphalt rallies to go this season. But that doesn't mean that I'm not going for the win! To do that, though, I have to feel completely at ease.”
Citroen have a Finn of their own as well, one Kimi Raikkonen. He already has experience of the event from his outing in a Fiat Punto Abarth S2000 last year, so for the first time this year he can drive from experience.
“The experience from last year is certainly going to help, but there is such a performance gap between a Super 2000 machine and a World Rally Car that it's almost like driving a different rally,” he said. “I'm really looking forward to getting started. When I was in Formula One, I never got the chance to race in front of my home crowd. I know that there are going to be loads of fans out in service and by the side of the stages.”
Last but not least is Petter Solberg – he may be an independent driver now, but with a C4 plus plenty of knowledge of the event, he could be in with a shout of claiming his first win since 2005. With Loeb looking to back off if the pressure becomes too much, Ogier making sure he stays on the road to score manufacturer points and Latvala playing the supporting role to Hirvonen, it could be a straight fight between the two.
This being the jewel in the crown of rallying, Finland has attracted plenty of support series entries – especially in the SWRC.
Championship leader Xevi Pons may not be present this weekend but it does little to detract from the abundance of potential winners.
Local hotshot Jari Ketomaa is the man of the moment, coming off the back of two consecutive wins in his Ford Fiesta S2000. The question is, can anyone stop him from making it a treble?
“Rally Finland is one of the hardest and fastest rallies of the season and it will be very tough this year with so many Scandinavian entries that are familiar with the stages,” Ketomaa said.
First and foremost of said entries is ironically a driver not even in the title hunt – IRC championship leader Juho Hanninen. He will be driving his usual Skoda Fabia S2000 – and with no championship challenge on the line, he will be going at full tilt for the whole rally. He also won the Group N class here last year, so will undoubtedly be near the front.
Per-Gunnar Andersson is also back in a Fabia after his outing with Stobart Ford at Rally Bulgaria, and a win here would put his championship challenge back on track after a somewhat disappointing result last time out in Portugal. He’ll have stiff competition from countryman and fellow Skoda drive Patrik Sandell though, the 2006 JWRC champion looking to bounce back from a string of lacklustre results.
Back to the Finns, Janne Touhino is looking to bounce back from his poor form so far this year, and his home rally would undoubtedly be the best place to do it. Matti Rantanen has a solid record on home turf – he came 5th for Munchi’s Ford last year, and is the other wildcard entrant along with P-G Andersson.
There are even more drivers to look out for – all in Fiestas. Nasser Al-Attiyah is a former PWRC champion, and Martin Prokop is the reigning JWRC title holder, so both are serious threats at every event. Michal Kosciuszko was one of Prokop’s main rivals last season, and the young Pole is looking to improve on his two podiums so far this year.
Even outside of the registered points scorers there are drivers to watch – Toni Gardemeister is back in action in yet another Fiesta, as is Anton Alen – plus BRC regular and one of Finland’s most promising youngest talents Jarkko Nikara will be driving a Peugeot 207.
You’d be forgiven for thinking there have only been three PWRC rounds this year instead of four – none of the title contenders were present in New Zealand so the natives locked out the podium. However the winner of that round was Pirelli Star Driver Hayden Paddon, who has scored another national class win since then, and could have a decent crack at first place.
However there is one man he’ll certainly struggle to keep up with – Patrik Flodin. The Swede has been on brilliant form this year – winning two from two in the PWRC class as well as wins at national level. He may be 8 points behind reigning champion Armindo Araujo, but he also has a rally in hand over him.
Flodin may be the favourite coming into this rally, but as well as Finnish wildcards Juha Salo and Jukka Ketomaki to deal with, he also has Markko Martin‘s protege Ott Tanak to beat.
When it comes to Rally Finland, Estonians are about the best non-Scandinavians out there (Martin was only the third non-Scandinavian to win this event), so as long as Tanak can keep his Pirelli Star Driver-run Mitsubishi on track, he could be on course for a good result.
“I will drive more slowly,” he said. “I know how important the finish is. The two accidents earlier this season were not the same kind of accidents, but I have to focus on getting through the rally and, if I can build a gap, on how I control the gap.”
Even outside of the points registered Group N cars there are a couple to watch – Joonas Lindroos is locked in a championship battle at home with Salo so will be looking to take another scalp after winning the last round of the regional championship, and former works Ford driver Roman Kresta is in a privately entered Lancer.
“Rally Finland is one of the hardest and fastest rallies of the season and it will be very tough this year with so many Scandinavian entries that are familiar with the stages. We've had two fantastic weeks of weather in Finland so I'm hoping this continues for the rally – it will be a fantastic event for the spectators.”