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Senior Six – Alen, Biasion, Blomqvist, McRae, Salonen & Vatanen Discuss 2017 So Far

8 Mins read

Central Glasgow is an unusual place to run into six championship-winning rally legends. There are no trees, no dirt roads, nothing one might consider familiar terrain for a rally driver. There is no competition this weekend. They have all congregated in the Scottish Event Campus, ready to bring their former chariots back into life for the Ignition Festival of Motoring. While there are no Quattros to fire up, plenty of other rallying icons from the 1970s to 1990s are present and ready to roar.

“I haven’t driven the Stratos for maybe fifteen or twenty years now,” explains Markku Alen, when asked if he has any envy of Miki Biasion being handed the keys to the Lancia Delta Integrale he is set to drive during the weekend’s festivities. “I drove the Delta only a month or two ago, so this is more special.”

Some pairings are what you would expect, like Timo Salonen and his championship-winning Peugeot 205 T16, and Ari Vatanen with his Ford Escort RS1800. Stig Blomqvist bucked the trend, piloting the Ford RS200 he rallied with post-championship with the iconic Audi Quattro. He didn’t seem to mind much when he was out on the track, to little surprise. The last classic car being thrown around was Colin McRae’s title-clinching Subaru Impreza, with his father and five time British champion Jimmy McRae at the wheel.

“We have been discussing which of us are old enough for our free bus passes,” quipped Vatanen in the public Q&A session in between track demonstrations. An added perk of age is not only free transportation, but the wisdom gained from years of experience in the world championship. They may have retired from the cockpit, but they are still actively engaged in rallying to this day. The fire never stops burning.

At the other end of the scale, the fire has only recently been lit for Esapekka Lappi. The WRC rookie secured his maiden victory in only his fourth attempt at Rally Finland, having gone toe-to-toe with team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala throughout the opening two days of action before the latter’s Toyota retired with an electrical failure.

“It would have been embarrassing in a way for Latvala, for the newcomer to beat him,” says Vatanen. “I can understand his frustration really. I can just try to console him afterwards; “As bitter as it is, at least you did not make a mistake. Had you made the mistake, then you would want to bury yourself.”

The very relaxed Salonen focused only on the positives. He was keen to stress how the Tommi Mäkinen Racing-prepared Toyota team had been so dominant on their home soil, and the impact their emergence had on the national rallying consciousness.

“I am very happy how Toyota came in immediately with a very fast car, built in Finland. [Toyota entering] motivated Finnish people to come and look. If you have top drivers, then it’s second most popular sport in Finland after ice hockey I believe. But if there is only French drivers at the top, then there are not so many spectators.”

The one famously chain-smoking Salonen kicked the habit several years ago, and along with it the world championship itself. Of the five former champions, he is the only one not to actively follow the WRC today, and in his irreverent style blamed the lack of Finnish success prior to Lappi and Suninen galvanising the home crowd for smaller fan numbers before this year.

“For the first first time in many years there are about three good Finnish drivers coming through. I don’t know why there was so many bad years that nothing happened. Even when there were Finnish drivers in good teams, there were no results.

“There is no excuse. They were not fast enough. The Finns who were driving a few years ago, sometimes with good luck they would win one rally or two. Compare this to say, Sebastien Loeb – he won everything for many years. He is really a great driver.”

Vatanen concurred at least with the sentiment of the sport’s popularity increasing again, noting the upswing in attendance for this year’s Finnish round of the championship.

“After some dull years, there were so many more spectators this year. Companies are buying all these tickets where they bring employees along, or they invite guests. Suddenly it’s like another gear.”

Markku Alen gives his Rally Italy-winning Lancia Stratos a rare spin around the block | Credit: Craig McAllister / CMC-Images

The most important thing from the Finnish perspective, as Alen points out, is the foundations have been laid for a potential new world champion from the small yet incredibly successful Scandinavian nation. It currently ties France for most WRC titles on 14 apiece, but fifteen long years have now passed since Marcus Grönholm‘s last title for the once-dominant home of rallying.

“Now we will have two very good young boys with Lappi and [Teemu] Suninen. Lappi understands how you win in the world championship now. He’s becoming interesting, and I’m sure Lappi has been pushing very hard in the last four rallies.

“Suninen is also still a young guy, but hasn’t had the same amount of practice. Lappi had many more kilometres of testing, and Suninen is only in the semi-factory Ford team. These two boys are really flat-out though.”

To help redress the balance, McRae was keen to point out it was not just the Finns that had a reason to celebrate their young prospects after the 1000 Lakes.

“The guy that should get the prize for the best drive is Elfyn Evans. He did a fantastic job there. If it hadn’t been for his first day getting used to the car and the tyres, he could well have won that rally.”

Finland was a notable test for the new generation of World Rally Car. Colloquially known as the ‘Finnish Grand Prix’, the 1000 Lakes was a chance for the new high-downforce, souped-up 2017 cars to fully stretch their legs. Organisers, worried about seeing the highest average speeds in rally history, installed numerous temporary chicanes, which were blasted as “stupid” by the previous year’s rally winner Kris Meeke.

These concerns were reiterated by the past masters of the sport, despite all being well versed in the most dangerous era of all; Group B.

“I am a little bit worried about how fast the new cars are, with high-speed corners and downforce being very high,” Alen commented. “I’m hoping everything goes well and something bad doesn’t happen.

“In our time we had chicanes, or we’d take a slow route through some private houses. Nobody likes it very much, but that’s the regulation with average speeds. I don’t know what they will do in future.”

Blomqvist was similarly cautious over the potential consequences of the cars being equipped with so much downforce, though admitted it had enhanced the spectacle of the series.

“They are really fast, that is for sure, but the thing is with the maximum speed. I think the cornering speed is so high, so if something goes wrong there can be an accident. You have to be so precise to get it right.”

“I think the cars are fantastic. They look fantastic, nothing you can compare with what we were driving in the 80s and 90s. The technology has gone so far, especially suspension, it’s really good now.”

[quote cite=’Markku Alen’ align=’right’]I am a little bit worried about how fast the new cars are, with high-speed corners and downforce being very high.[/quote]

McRae also alluded to an air of superficiality about the new regulations, saying it would harm future development of the coming generations of young talent. With the average power jumping from 300bhp to 380bhp over the previous winter, the gap between the penultimate and highest tiers on the rallying ladder have become wider than ever.

“I was against the step-up in rallying with the new cars this year. I think they should have concentrated and kept it more like what it was. I think creating all that extra downforce and larger, more powerful engines is wandering away from rallying as it should be. But then I’m old hat at rallying!

“They’re actually good to watch, they’re fantastic things and the speed is unbelievable. But it’s another bigger stepping stone as well for a young driver. The stepping stone was big before, but now it’s even bigger.

“What do the manufacturers do with these cars when they’re finished? Malcolm Wilson at M-Sport makes money from selling the cars when they are finished, then maintaining them and supplying parts for them. With these cars, if there are no drivers there with a licence to drive them, what’s going to happen? I just think it was the wrong way to go.”

The first full season of the new formula is reaching its climax, with only four rallies remaining before a champion is crowned. Title protagonists Thierry Neuville and Sebastien Ogier are tied on points, with the Belgian ahead on countback thanks to an extra rally victory in comparison to the four time world champion. Before Finland, Neuville had been the form driver in the championship battle, but the pendulum swung dramatically in the opposite direction when it came to title predictions from the Group B legends.

“Firstly, it is a really fantastic championship, because each event we have a different winner, and this is very interesting for rallying,” Biasion said. “I think that at the end of the season the more consistent driver will be Ogier, because he has experience, he knows that he has two or three events where he’s very fast, so he will probably be the winner again.”

“I think in the end it will be Ogier,” concurred Blomqvist. “He’s there picking up points more or less everywhere, except Finland because there he didn’t get much at all.”

McRae followed suit with his former rivals. “I think Ogier is still the man to beat,” he said. “He’s had a couple of bad rallies, but whether Neuville can keep up the pace or not, it’s between these two. If Ogier gets over this bad spell I’m quite sure he’ll win it again.”

Vatanen was on the same page as the rest, but admitted he had an ulterior motive to his predictions. “I have a bit of a vested interest in a way. I don’t want to die being the last Ford world champion!”

“I’m the last for the time being. I want somebody to take that burden – a positive burden of course – and it would be very good for Malcolm [Wilson]. Let’s hope Ogier will still pull it off.”

The only man brave enough to go against the grain was Alen, and even he would not lend his backing to the Hyundai team leader, instead picking a dark horse for a surprise maiden world title.

“It’s looking very tight in championship now. Neuville has the same points as Ogier, but I feel it may be Tänak. He’s not bad, he’s taking big risks and winning, but also having quite a few accidents. It’s very close. Jari-Matti [Latvala] is out now, he is too far away with four rallies to go. We will see. It’s very close still, and Tänak is going well by winning [Rally Italy].”

[quote cite=’Ari Vatanen’ align=’left’]I have a bit of a vested interest in a way. I don’t want to die being the last Ford world champion![/quote]

Regardless of outcome, the past champions were all in admiration of the current season’s unfolding story line. Four drivers from three manufacturers still have a shot at glory, a scenario in stark contrast to years past of Ogier domination and a Citroen-Ford duopoly.

“It is a really fantastic championship, because each event we have a different winner, and this is very interesting for rallying,” said Biasion.

“The championship is more open than ever,” Vatanen agreed. “If it was not for 0.7 seconds [in Argentina], Elfyn Evans would have also won. There are an incredible number of different cars competitive this year. That’s good for the sport and the entertainment.

“You don’t know the murderer until the last page.”

Interviews done, the half dozen rally “gods” – as the Ignition event referred to them – hit the track for an informal timed lap contest in modern sportscars. Vatanen immediately cried foul after Timo Salonen’s hot lap, accusing his compatriot of the heinous crime of not sticking to the designated course.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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