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Sprinting will not just be the preserve of the planet’s best athletes next week when Ford’s rally aces journey to Finland for the fastest round of the FIA World Rally Championship.  The Finnish fixture is one of the shortest in the series’ history and Ford World Rally Team’s drivers know its increased intensity will push the emphasis even further towards pure speed.
Rally Finland (2 - 4 August) is affectionately known as ‘The Finnish Grand Prix’ as drivers do battle through the Scandinavian forests at average speeds of up to 135kph.  The 2012 version will be a sprinters’ paradise with just 303.52km of competition, the least scheduled for a WRC round since accurate records began.
Such is the pace in the country regarded as rallying’s spiritual home, that after 500 WRC rounds since the series started in 1973, eight of the 10 fastest rallies have been in Finland.
Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila know exactly what is required to succeed.  The Finns won on home ground in 2010 and finished on the podium in each of the last three seasons.  Team-mates Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson are eager to gatecrash the Finns’ dominance of their home rally.  The Norwegian driver finished second in 2003 and third the previous year.
“This is a sprint in the truest sense,” said 27-year-old Latvala.  “The pace is such that time differences are small and if you make a mistake there’s no opportunity to regain the seconds lost.  Every error is magnified.  Pre-event testing is more important here than elsewhere because you must start the rally 100 per cent happy with the car set-up and feeling,” added Latvala, whose two-day test ends today.
Latvala and Solberg’s Fiesta RS World Rally Cars will carry a special one-off livery highlighting Ford’s EcoBoost engine technology as part of a worldwide initiative in August across Ford’s motorsport programmes.
The 1.6-litre turbocharged engine that powers the rally cars draws on the knowledge of Ford’s advanced EcoBoost technology, which provides increased fuel efficiency and decreased emissions on its latest production vehicles.  The livery will also feature on cars in other disciplines, including the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series and the Chinese Touring Car Championship.
Rally Finland is one of the jewels in the WRC crown.  It comprises a mix of hard, wide and fast roads combined with narrower, technical sections and huge crowds will pack the forests to view the action.
The characteristics of the smooth gravel speed tests make this one of the most difficult events in the calendar.  The blisteringly fast roads are littered with roller-coaster, stomach-churning jumps, which frequently hide bends over the crests.
They demand extreme bravery from the driving seat and pinpoint accuracy in the delivery of pace notes from the co-driver.  It is essential to select the correct line before ‘take-off’ to ensure maximum pace through the following curves.  Finns who nurtured their careers on roads of this nature have an advantage over ‘outsiders’ who require many years’ experience to fully adapt to the driving style.
“When you approach a big jump at 180kph it’s essential to kill the speed before take-off,” said Latvala.  “If the speed is too high, the aerodynamics will force the back of the car down and the front, which is lighter, will rise.  The tactic is to brake, perhaps drop a gear, and accelerate full throttle over the jump.  Braking over the jump itself means the suspension isn’t free and the landing could be bad.”
The final leg brings the return of the classic Ouninpohja test, run to its full 33.01km distance for the first time since 2007.  Regarded by many as the best special stage in the sport, the first 23km are held over wide, fast roads with many huge jumps, before a spectacular hairpin bend sends competitors back into the forest on narrow, more technical sections.
Solberg set the stage record in 2005 and the 37-year-old Norwegian is happy to see it back on the schedule.  “The rally will be decided over those roads.  It’s incredibly demanding and difficult.  It’s not so technical in the traditional sense, especially on the wide roads.  But the speed is so high that if your line isn’t correct over the jumps, it’s easy to make a mistake which can end your rally,” he said.
“It’s an amazing feeling to complete that stage knowing you have driven as well as you could.  Relief, happiness, confidence – they’re all feelings you experience when you have mastered Ouninpohja.  Without doubt, it’s the best stage in the entire championship,” added Solberg, who was bubbling with enthusiasm after completing what he described as one of his ‘best-ever’ tests on Wednesday.
Team News
* Michelin’s Latitude Cross gravel tyres will be used by the Ford drivers and 40 of these will be available in soft compound only.  Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Eight privately-run Fiesta RS WRCs are entered.  Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk and Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet are nominated by M-Sport Ford World Rally Team, while Adapta World Rally Team’s Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson return after missing the previous round.  Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino make their third WRC start of the year and Martin Prokop / Zdeněk Hrůza crew the Czech Ford National Team car.  Three Finnish crews complete the list, Jari Ketomaa / Mika Stenberg, Matti Rantanen / Mikko Lukka and Sebastian Lindholm / Timo Hantunen.  Thirty-nine of the 86 entered crews will drive Ford cars, spanning 19 different nationalities.
* The rally marks the third round of the Ford Racing-supported FIA WRC Academy.  Eleven young drivers will campaign identical Fiesta R2 cars over 17 of the rally’s 18 stages.  The series is led by Britain’s Alastair Fisher / Daniel Barritt.
* The full 2012 Ford World Rally team merchandise range is now available following the launch of the new clothing series.  Featuring T-shirts, polo shirts, fleeces and shell jackets, the range appears mainly in Ford motorsport blue, with white and black kinetic design panels.  A limited edition range of merchandise will also be launched to celebrate the EcoBoost livery in which the team’s Fiesta RS WRC will compete.  Sneak previews will appear on Ford’s WRC social media channels.
Rally Route
Route modifications have brought an itinerary that again journeys south to Lahti, but includes two full days around Jyväskylä, which hosts the single service park at its Paviljonki exhibition centre.  Virtually all the locations are familiar, but some stages will be used in a reverse direction to keep crews on their toes.  After an early afternoon start on Thursday, competitors convene at Lahti’s picturesque harbour before tackling three stages as they return to Jyväskylä.  A long day on Friday covers territory mainly west of the city before ending with a super special stage at the Killeri trotting track.  The final leg includes classic tests south-west of the rally base near Jämsä.  It closes with two passes over Ouninpohja, the second pass comprising the Power Stage with bonus points on offer to the fastest three drivers.  An evening finish awaits in Jyväskylä after 18 stages in a route of 1625.69km.   

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