M-Sport are fired up and ready to fly as the FIA World Rally Championship ventures to the famous jumps of Neste Rally Finland.
Despite three victories and an unbroken record of podium finishes, the team are hungry for more. Having crashed from the lead of Rally Poland earlier this month, the team are determined to recover the taste of champagne next week.
Knowing Finland’s fearsome forests and the championship’s formidable competition, another victory won’t come easy but the team are more motivated than ever.
NESTE RALLY FINLAND: THE GRAVEL GRAND PRIX
Commonly known as the Gravel Grand Prix, Rally Finland is fast – seriously fast. Nine of the ten fastest rallies in WRC history have been contested on Finnish soil and the new-generation world rally cars are expected to eclipse them all next week.
But it’s not just the high-speed that makes Rally Finland so special. The route is notoriously technical with a mix of gravel roads and blind corners over crests which demand the upmost precision and confidence.
Pin-point accuracy is required by all members of the team: by the drivers as they expertly land each jump; by the co-drivers as they perfectly time the delivery of every Pacenote; and by the team as they fine-tune the set-up for optimum performance.
With a total distance of 314.20 competitive kilometres, the action starts on Thursday evening with the popular Harju street stage in the centre of Jyväskylä. On Friday, endurance is the name of the game with close to 16 hours of action through classic speed tests such as Jukojärvi, Urria, Laukaa and Lankamaa.
Saturday is the day that everyone will be waiting for as the crews tackle one of rallying’s most famous stages – Ouninpohja. Reversed from last year, the stage is run in its more traditional direction alongside nearby Päijälä and other Finland favourites.
A 33.84 kilometres sprint through four stages east of Lake Päijänne closes the action on Sunday and the stage is set for another epic battle.
Having tackled the super-fast roads of Rally Finland as both a driver and a Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson knows what challenges lay in wait. The Cumbrian sampled the specialist Finnish roads for the first time in 1986 – securing a top-ten finish before returning to compete in both 1990 and 1993.
But it’s as a Team Principal where Wilson has excelled in Finland. In 1996, Jarmo Kytölehto and Arto Kapanen piloted their Malcolm Wilson Motorsport prepared Ford Escort RS Cosworth to a fine third place, and the results have only improved since then.
Teaming up with the Ford Motor Company from 1997 onwards, M-Sport cars have claimed 19 podiums and five wins on Finnish soil. The first victory came with Markko Märtin in 2003. Marcus Grönholm piloted the Focus to back-to-back victories in 2006 and 2007 and Mikko Hirvonen won on home soil in 2009 – as did Jari-Matti Latvala in 2010.
In 2017, Wilson is keen to see his team add to their impressive history at Rally Finland.
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:
“It’s been a long time since the championship has been this close heading to Rally Finland and that sets the scene for a very interesting event.
“This is a rally that everyone looks forward to – teams, drivers and fans alike – and it’s easy to see why. The speeds and jumps are incredible and, with these new cars, I’m sure that this year’s offering will be something quite spectacular.
“We’ve had a lot of success at Rally Finland over the years, and the whole team has been working hard to ensure we can add to that this year.
“It’s a shame that our test was cut short, but both Ott and Sébastien came away happy having found a good feeling on these specialist roads. I believe that all of our drivers are capable of delivering some very positive results and we’re working to ensure that everyone is as prepared as they can be given the circumstances.
“I’m expecting a very close battle, but that’s what makes this sport so exciting. Needless to say, we’re all looking forward to the fight and hoping to come out on top.”
OGIER AND INGRASSIA
Currently leading the drivers’ standings by 11 points, Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia will be keen to extend their lead at next week’s Rally Finland.
Having claimed victory at the Finnish fixture in 2013, the Frenchmen know what it takes to win and will be determined to secure the best possible result through the famous forests.
Previous starts: 9
Best result: 1st (2013)
Sébastien Ogier said:
“Rally Finland is most definitely a highlight in the season. The Finns certainly know how to deliver a good rally, and these gravel roads are tailor-made for rallying.
“It’s fast – really fast – and the big jumps and high grip levels offer an incredible sense of speed that every driver looks forward to. At that pace, you’re fighting for tenths of a second and I’m expecting a very close battle.
“The weather looks as though it could be a little unsettled, so we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out, but we want to be in the fight at the top. That demands a near-perfect performance throughout the weekend with no mistakes and a set-up that delivers confidence in the driving.
“We had a two-day test this week and, although it was cut short and I’m sorry for my teammates who were unable to continue, the car felt fantastic. I’m really looking forward to the rally now – where we hope to secure a good result for our championship defence.”
TÄNAK AND JÄRVEOJA
Having missed out on victory in Poland, Ott Tänak and Martin Järveoja have a score to settle. Keen to add another FIA World Rally Championship win to their ever-improving repertoire, the Estonians will be ones to watch in Finland.
Relishing the flat-out speed tests that Finland has to offer, the pairing are aiming for a podium finish and the top-step could well be within their reach.
Previous starts: 7
Best result: 5th (2015)
Ott Tänak said:
“Poland didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but we know that we have the pace and we’ll be looking to take that forward to Finland – another high-speed rally and another of my favourite events.
“I think every driver looks forward to Rally Finland. When you’re on it and hook up the perfect stage there really is no better feeling – and we’ll be hoping for plenty of that next week.
“The roads are really fast with blind corners after big jumps and a surprising amount of grip. You need to be brave and confident in yourself. If you don’t feel completely comfortable it’s almost impossible to push to the maximum and you’ll lose time – something that’s not easily gained at these speeds.
“We completed a two-day test in Finland this week – working to find the best set-up – and I’m confident that we’ll be able to fight at the head of the field again. I’m looking forward to it and I’m excited to see what we can do.”
EVANS AND BARRITT
Elfyn Evans and Daniel Barritt will be keen to make a return to the sharp end when the FIA World Rally Champion returns to next week’s Rally Finland
Having shown good speed through the Finnish forests, the Welshman will be hoping for a clean and quick run to deliver a strong result at one of the championship’s most famous events.
Previous starts: 6
Best result: 7th (2014)
Elfyn Evans said:
“Rally Finland is one of the most enjoyable events of the year and I think everyone is looking forward to this year’s encounter. With these new cars, the spectacle will be something very special and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do.
“We’re keen to get back to the sharp end and at the moment the weather looks as though it could be a little unsettled so we’ll have to wait and see how that works for us – hopefully the conditions won’t be as challenging as they were in Poland.
“The stages are so fast and you need to have precise Pacenotes and the confidence to drive to the maximum. The high speed combined with the technical nature of the stages is incredible and when you get into a good rhythm it’s a phenomenal feeling.
“It’s not all fun and games though as the margins for error are so fine. That said, we’ve shown some pretty good speed here in the past and, if everything works in our favour, anything is possible.”
SUNINEN AND MARKKULA
Following a sensational world rally car debut at Rally Poland, Teemu Suninen and Mikko Markkula will be back behind the wheel of the Ecoboost-powered Ford Fiesta WRC at next week’s Rally Finland.
It took the determined and talented young Finn just six competitive stages to secure his first stage victory – putting him in the company of greats such as Carlos Sainz and Sébastien Ogier.
Despite only contesting the Finnish fixture on three previous occasions, Suninen has always performed well on home soil.
Making his WRC debut at the event in 2014, he won the WRC 3 category and will be looking to make further progress as he moves his career forward another step next week.
Previous starts: 3
Best result: 10th (2016)
Teemu Suninen said:
"It’s always nice to start to my home rally, and it will be especially nice this year as we’re behind the wheel of a world rally car.
“We were brought up on these roads, which are incredibly fast, but many people forget that I actually don’t have a lot of experience at Rally Finland. I’ve driven the stages of Rally Poland quite a few times with a four-wheel drive car, but the Finnish stages not so much – and I’ve never driven Ouninpohja in this direction!
“Of course I’m excited to be competing on home soil, but the goals remain the same as they would on any other rally and we will need to drive well to secure the result we want.
“In Poland we aimed to be in the top six and finished sixth. Losing a position on the final stage felt like a small disappointment, but that does not change my approach for Rally Finland. We’ll need to be on the top of our game from the start if we want to achieve our goals, and that is certainly the aim.”