Teams’ contesting this weekend’s eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) have only two days in which to complete the spectacular high-speed gravel road jumps and bumps of Neste Oil Rally Finland which runs from 29 to 31 July.

Set between two tarmac World Rally events, the gravel-based Neste Oil Rally Finland is the shortest event on the 13-round 2010 calendar, taking advantage of new regulations that provide flexibility around each day’s competition distance. Finnish organisers have elected to complete the typical three-day itinerary in just two days with the rally finishing Saturday evening. Teams now have a new challenge to complete all 19 special stages, or 310.29 km, in this timeframe.

Rally Finland celebrates its 60th running in 2010 and uses well-known roads through forests around host city Jyväskylä, north of Helsinki. While the country basks in settled summer conditions, drivers face stomach-churning jumps over crests and hidden bends. The accuracy and delivery of pace notes must be exact, and selecting the correct line before 'take-off' ensures maximum pace through the following curves.

The event is traditionally dominated by Finnish drivers and the sizable entry list of 102 teams includes local stars such as BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team duo Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who won here in 2009, and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila. The Ford drivers start third and fourth respectfully for the first day due to their championship placings behind current WRC leader Sébastien Loeb and Citroën team-mate Sébastien Ogier. Hirvonen and Latvala, in their Ford Focus RS WRC cars, head 54 Finnish teams contesting the rally.

“The two-day format will be interesting,” said Hirvonen, who turns 30 on Saturday. “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,”

Four-time World Rally Champion Juha Kankkunen and co-driver Juha Repo from Finland compete in the rally one more time as a special entry with the Stobart M-Sport Ford Rally Team.

Finns Kimi Raikkonen and co-driver Kaj Lindstrom make their first start at the event in the Citroen C4 WRC having previously contested the rally in a Super 2000 car.

Loeb has a 65 point advantage over Hirvonen in third place on the drivers’ standings, and the Frenchman believes victory in Finland isn’t necessary. The six-time WRC champion has only won the event once – in 2008, when he became just the eighth non-Nordic driver to do so since 1959.

“For the three gravel rallies to come, I don’t think there’s so much pressure for me,” said Loeb. “I don’t need to win those rallies. When I start a rally I always try to fight, but for sure there’s less pressure for that.”

Other than the timetable, the rally remains largely unchanged in terms of route since 2009. It starts on Thursday evening with a special stage in Laajavuori on the outskirts of Jyväskylä. The service park returns to the popular Paviljonki exhibition area in Jyväskylä, with Friday's action based west and north-east of the town and Saturday journeying south-west for tests near Jämsä and Mänttä. There will be an unofficial podium ceremony at the end of the last stage for live television with the prize-giving and finish podium held at the Paviljonki exhibition area from 7:45 pm Saturday.

The event is also a round of the Production and Super 2000 World Rally Championships (PWRC and SWRC) with the five young Pirelli Star Drivers also joining the field. This includes New Zealand pairing Hayden Paddon and co-driver John Kennard. For four of the Pirelli-backed drivers, including Paddon, Rally Finland is a new event. Like some of his Pirelli team-mates, Paddon is contesting the full PWRC series and aims for the best possible points haul in this competition despite being new to Finland’s rollercoaster roads. Paddon topped the PWRC field at his first and only PWRC event this year, Rally New Zealand, and this sees him fifth in the overall PWRC drivers’ standings behind competitors who have all completed two events.

“Rally Finland is one of the events we have been really looking forward to from the start of the programme,” said 23-year-old Paddon from Geraldine. “My co-driver has a summer cottage in Finland and he has competed there in the past, so his knowledge of the place will be invaluable to me. I was brought up on fast roads in New Zealand, so Finland should suit me and they’re the kind of stages I prefer. One of the things I have to do when we get there is to work out how long the car is going to stay in the air over those jumps; that’s really important for the notes.

"At the end of the day, I’m not going to get too worked up over the character of the rally or what challenges lie in wait, ultimately my aim is the same: to be fastest. After spending the first couple of stages getting used to the conditions and the jumps, we want to target Ott [Tänak, a Pirelli Star Driver team-mate] as we know he’ll be extremely fast on the event – and we’re also targeting a PWRC podium. Achieving this kind of result will set us up well for the rest of the year. Since the Rally of Portugal we won the Asia Pacific Rally Championship event at home, the International Rally of Whangarei, which helped us keep our eye in over the summer.”

Currently the PWRC standings are headed by Portugal’s Armindo Araujo (Mitsubishi Lancer), but he isn’t contesting Finland, leaving second- placed Swede Patrik Flodin (Subaru Impreza) to close the current eight-point deficit.

Similarly, SWRC points leader Xevi Pons from Spain (Ford Fiesta) won’t contest Finland, leaving second-placed and local driver Jari Ketomaa to chase down the 28 point difference. Ketomaa has won the previous two SWRC rounds, in Portugal and New Zealand, and the three-time Finnish Rally Champion is one of the favourites to take the SWRC victory on home soil. Czech driver Martin Prokop has already racked up two podium finishes in the SWRC class and is currently just two points from snatching third position in the championship from P-G Andersson. Last year Prokop finished the Neste Oil Rally Finland in fourteenth position overall and took victory in the Junior World Rally Championship class.

With all teams using the soft Pirelli Scorpion control tyre, tactics are likely to see some only carry one spare at times – from the two allowed – in an effort to save weight. The smooth surface reduces the risk of punctures, especially for the front-running cars during the first run over repeat stages. Unknown will be the rate of tyre wear which could disadvantage those who pick saving weight over superior grip.

FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers (after 7 of 13 rounds)
1,  S Loeb, 151 pts                  
2,  S Ogier, 100 pts                 
3, M Hirvonen, 86 pts                 
4, J-M Latvala, 80 pts                 
5, P Solberg, 78 pts                 

FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers (after 7 of 13 rounds)
1, Citroen Total, 232 pts
2, BP Ford Abu Dhabi, 185 pts
3, Citroen Junior, 125 pts
4, Stobart M-Sport Ford, 98 pts
5, Munchi's Ford, 40pts

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