Rally Finland: a massive, high-speed, tree-lined rollercoaster of a motorsport event that separates the super-hard from the very tough.
At this time of year, when I gorge hungrily on all-things Jyvaskyla-flavoured, I’m reminded why I fell so hopelessly in thrall to the World Rally Championship as a youth. My childhood memories of crazy blokes with exotic names – Markku Alén, Stig Blomqvist, Juha Kankkunen, Hannu Mikkola, Timo Salonen, Henri Toivonen, Ari Vatanen, Björn Waldegård – hurling their machines over blind crests on fast and smooth gravel roads will never leave me.
Right up there with the dry-and-sunny-into-icy-and-scary Monte Carlo, the trust-the-studs-and-lean-on-the-banks Swedish, the cliff-top-sheer-drop-Tarmac-terror Tour de Corse, the car-breaking-wildlife-strewn-epic-enduro Safari and the flat-out-in-famous-and-freezing-and-foggy-forests RAC (sorry, Rally GB in modern vernacular), Finland is a rally that the world’s finest purveyors of car control have always desperately sought to tame.
That’s been the case since the very beginning in the early 1950s – and every year since 1973 when the 1000 Lakes Rally (original vernacular) joined the World Rally Championship calendar, with the exception of 1995 when the short-lived and short-changing event-rotation scheme meant it had a year out.
Absorbing the 2015 edition using the instant-gratification success that is social media, including split times from stages and hide-behind-the-sofa onboard footage, I noticed how old-school this rally remains. It still feels like someone’s forgotten to call the fun police and that there aren’t really Finnish words for health and/or safety. Those crests, those jumps, those trees, that speed… O-ho! (which is Finnish for wow!)
Talking of that speed, factory Volkswagen driver Jari-Matti Latvala notched up his second straight home win, his third in total, aboard a Polo R WRC. And his average time for the 20 special stages was 125.44km/h (almost 80mph), making Rally Finland 2015 the fastest WRC event in history – and there have been 539 of them since the series began in ’73. That eclipses the 122.89km/h marker laid down in 2012.
It was an important win for Latvala, who beat his VW team-mate Sebastien Ogier by 13.7 seconds in a straight fight. In the context of the championship fight, however, Latvala finds himself in Ogier’s shadow for the third season on the bounce. The Frenchman has lifted the drivers’ title in both of the past two years, outrunning J-ML nine wins to one in 2013 and eight-four in 2014.
This year’s contest has Ogier five-two up after eight events and holding an 89-point lead in the drivers’ standings with five rallies to go. A third consecutive title beckons for Ogier – and only two men have done that before: Tommi Makinen (four in a row, 1996-’99) and Sebastien Loeb (nine straight titles, 2004-’12).
Those stats alone mean the pressure is piling up on Latvala, who remains engaging and enthusiastic, in true flying-Finn style. It would be great for him to eat into Ogier’s lead in the next few events so that British rally fans have more of a chance of a title-deciding event that November’s season-closing Rally GB deserves.