THE enthralling 2017 FIA World Rally Championship season is set to scale new heights this weekend on Neste Rally Finland, the fastest and most spectacular round on the calendar.
Last year’s event was the fastest in WRC history, with Kris Meeke winning it at an average speed of 126.6 kmh. With the new generation of World Rally Cars for 2017 featuring more power and greater aerodynamics, this year it could be even quicker.
It’s certain to be a great spectacle as some of the world s best drivers take on the Finnish stages, flying over numerous crests and jumps along tree-lined gravel roads.
The rally will be contested over 25 stages totalling 314.2 competitive kms, all based around the city of Jyväskylä in central Finland, about 270 kilometres north of the capital Helsinki.
Once again the mixed-surface Harju stage in Jyväskylä will kick-start the rally on Thursday evening (local time), and it will feature again when the crews return at the end of a mammoth day of action on Friday, consisting of 12 stages, 145.71 kilometres and nearly 16 hours from start to finish.
Saturday is made up of four stages run twice, including the famous Ouninpohja, which will be run in the opposite direction to last year. Sunday is the same as in 2016, with the Lempää and Oittila stages providing the final action, with the latter used as the Power Stage.
The new era of the WRC has been closely fought so far, with all four manufacturers having claimed wins and a title duel that’s covered by only 11 points going into Finland.
Sébastien Ogier has had the upper hand in his search for a fifth straight title, driving M-Sport s Ford Fiesta WRC, but he has been chased down by Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, who has already won three times this year. Both have some quick team-mates too: at M-Sport, Ott Tänak broke his win duck in Sardinia and Elfyn Evans came close in Argentina, while Hayden Paddon and Dani Sordo have also shown Hyundai’s strength.
The bulk of the local support will probably be with the new Toyota team, based locally, headed by Tommi Mäkinen and with Jari-Matti Latvala, Juho Hänninen and Esapekka Lappi as its drivers.
For Citroën the season hasn’t gone as planned so far, but Kris Meeke and Craig Breen mastered the Finnish stages last year when they finished first and third respectively.
Lappi impressed when he recently finished fourth on only his second rally at the highest level in Sardinia, and that was promptly followed by Teemu Suninen shining on his debut in a fourth M-Sport-run Fiesta WRC in Poland.
He’ll be out to build upon sixth on his home event, where he burst onto the scene three years ago as the first Future Rally Star of Finland. His successors as winners of that award, Jari Huttunen and Juuso Nordgren, will compete for WRC2 honours this time around against the likes of Ole Christian Veiby. Also stepping up to the category this year is Max Vatanen (son of 1981 world champion and two-time Rally Finland winner Ari) after his class triumph in 2016.
NESTE RALLY FINLAND IN NUMBERS
Competitive distance: 314.2 kilometres
Total distance: 1425.96 kilometres
Longest stage: 24.38 kilometres (Ouninpohja)
Shortest stage: 2.31 kilometres (Harju)
Entries received: 65
Nationalities represented: 21
WRC appearances: 44
Most wins (during WRC era): 7 (Marcus Grönholm)
2016: Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Citroën DS3 WRC)
2015: Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)
2014: Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)
2013: Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)
2012: Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (Citroën DS3 WRC)
2011: Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (Citroën DS3 WRC)
2010: Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Ford Focus RS WRC)
2009: Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen (Ford Focus RS WRC)
2008: Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena (Citroën C4 WRC)
2007: Marcus Grönholm/Timo Rautiainen (Ford Focus RS WRC)
1 Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Ford Fiesta WRC
2 Ott Tänak (EST)/Martin Järveoja (EST) Ford Fiesta WRC
3 Elfyn Evans (GBR)/Dan Barritt (GBR) Ford Fiesta WRC
4 Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Nicolas Gilsoul (BEL) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
5 Hayden Paddon (NZL)/Sebastian Marshall (GBR) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
6 Dani Sordo (ESP)/Marc Martí (ESP) Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
7 Kris Meeke (GBR)/Paul Nagle (IRL) Citroën C3 WRC
8 Khalid Al-Qassimi (UAE)/Chris Patterson (GBR) Citroën C3 WRC
9 Craig Breen (IRL)/Scott Martin (GBR) Citroën C3 WRC
10 Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN)/Miikka Anttila (FIN) Toyota Yaris WRC
11 Juho Hänninen (FIN)/Kaj Lindström (FIN) Toyota Yaris WRC
12 Esapekka Lappi (FIN)/Janne Ferm (FIN) Toyota Yaris WRC
14 Mads Østberg (NOR)/Torstein Eriksen (NOR) Ford Fiesta WRC
15 Teemu Suninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) Ford Fiesta WRC