Flying Fords carry Finnish hopes
- 15th August 2006, 3:41pm
Victory in Finland, widely regarded as rallying's spiritual home, is one of the sport's most prized possessions and the BP-Ford World Rally Team will start perhaps the most specialised event of the season with a distinct advantage. It is based on dauntingly fast roller-coaster gravel speed tests that are unique to Finland, and drivers who grew up on this type of road have an advantage over 'outsiders' who require several years' experience before they can hope to challenge for victory.
The rally is based in the university town of Jyväskylä, three hours' drive north of Helsinki, and follows hot on the heels of the Rallye Deutschland - just four days separate the finish in Germany and the start in Finland.
The wide, hard roads north and south-west of the city are as smooth as a billiard table and guarantee breathtaking speeds, with last year's rally won at an average of 122.49kph. Stomach churning jumps and stunning scenery among the lakes and forests act as a magnet to fans and huge crowds generate a crackling atmosphere. Technically, it is an incredibly difficult rally. Precision driving and bravery are more important here than anywhere else. The awesome switchback jumps frequently hide bends just over the crest so the accuracy and delivery of pace notes must be precise.
Grönholm, who lies second in the drivers' standings, is the acknowledged master of Rally Finland. This will be his 18th start and he has won five times in the last six seasons. The 38-year-old's target is clear - to take his winning tally to six in seven years.
"I don't really need to tell anyone that Finland is one of my favourite rallies, I think everyone knows that," he said. "Rallying is so huge in my country and Rally Finland is such a massive event that nothing can take away the enjoyment of winning here. I will never get fed up with that. I want to experience that again and after a good test last month I think the Ford Focus can win.
"I know the stages well but that doesn't mean I'm able to lower my concentration. The speeds are so high that just a small mistake can be extremely costly. If you take the wrong line over a crest or into a bend and have to brake where normally you wouldn't, then it takes so much longer to regain the momentum than on slower rallies. It's crucial to drive cleanly," he added.
Hirvonen cannot contain his excitement. "I just can't wait for the start," he said. "The rally is so fast and the roads are such great fun to drive. The jumps are massive and it's a great feeling to be behind the wheel of a car that is flying sideways through the air at top speed. I have my targets for the weekend but I'm keeping those to myself. All I will say is that it's a shame for me that Marcus will be in the same car because in Finland he is the man to beat.
Twenty-six-year-old Hirvonen has plenty of experience of the characteristics of Finland's roads, even though he has only started the rally four times. "I grew up on stages like these and a driver has to be fully committed on these roads. But only two of these stages are used in national championship rallies and I have only driven Saturday's stages once before in a world rally car and that was last year in a Focus. The more times you drive a stage the more you learn, so last year's experience has given me more idea about how fast I can drive the big jumps in the second leg."
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force low wear gravel tyres and teams are only allowed to nominate one tread pattern this year. The pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction. The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy. The tyres will be available in soft, medium and hard compounds.
* The M-Sport run Stobart-VK Rally Team has entered two 2004-specification Focus RS WRCs. They will be driven by Britons Matthew Wilson / Michael Orr and Finns Kosti Katajämaki / Timo Alanne. Another privately-entered 2004 car will be driven by Norway's Thomas Schie and Swedish co-driver Goran Bergsten. Barry Clark and Scott Martin will pilot a Fiesta ST in the FIA Junior World Rally Championship and the rally is also the penultimate round of the Fiesta SportingTrophy International, with 10 Fiesta STs entered.
* Just 42 hours and almost 1950km separate the finish of Rallye Deutschland and the start of Rally Finland recce on Tuesday morning. In order to have the team's recce cars available in Finland on schedule, they left Germany on Thursday and were due to arrive in Jyväskylä this afternoon (Sunday). As soon as the rally cars were released from parc ferme in Germany at 16.00, they began a 10-hour road journey to Rostock in northern Germany to take a ferry to Hanko in Finland at 06.00 on Monday. A five-hour journey to Jyväskylä will finally enable team mechanics to begin the long job of rebuilding and transferring the Focus RS cars from asphalt to gravel specification.
The schedule is virtually identical to 2005 with just a few minor changes to several stages and the re-introduction of the Jukojärvi stage on Sunday, which was last used in 2004. The action begins on Thursday evening at the short super special stage at Killeri, on the edge of the host town of Jyväskylä. The opening leg continues on Friday with eight more tests close to the town, including a repeat of Killeri. The second leg is regarded as the classic day of the world championship season. Based on wide, flowing roads close to Jamsä, it includes some of rallying's greatest stages. The highlight is two passes over the awesome Ouninpohja tests, a roller-coaster stretch of road full of blind crests and huge jumps and viewed as rallying's ultimate test of skill. Sunday's short final leg comprises two loops of two stages west of Jyväskylä. Drivers face 21 stages comprising 351.61km in a route of 1524.34km.
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