FASTEST DRIVERS AND CARS AT FINLAND’S GRAVEL GRAND PRIX

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FASTEST DRIVERS AND CARS AT FINLAND’S GRAVEL GRAND PRIX

PHOTO: Jari-Matti Latvala shows how to “yump” in time-lapse sequence from 2015 (Volkswagen pic)

THE best rally drivers on Earth will reach the highest speeds of the season on Neste Rally Finland, which runs from this Thursday to Sunday as round eight of the 2016 FIA World Rally Championship.

First run in 1951, the event has been part of the WRC since the inaugural season in 1973 and has a reputation as one of the most revered challenges in rallying – and all of motorsport – for its high speeds and big jumps along tree-lined gravel roads.

The competition takes place around the city of Jyväskylä in central Finland, about 270 kilometres north of the capital Helsinki. Huge numbers of spectators from this rally-obsessed nation and beyond head out into the forests to catch a glimpse of the spectacular action.

This year’s Neste Rally Finland takes place over a heavily revised route, extended to 24 stages and 334 competitive kilometres, and will host all the best rally drivers currently on show.

The action begins on Thursday evening  with the 2.27-kilometre Harju stage in Jyväskylä, providing a mixed-surface challenge for the drivers. It will be run again at the end of Friday’s schedule, which includes four stages that feature twice – including Jukojärvi – and two new short and sharp ‘jab’ stages, Halinen and Äänekoski-Valtra.

Ouninpohja, one of the world’s most famous rally stages, runs first thing on Saturday, with the drivers sure to be wide awake after experiencing those thrilling 33 kilometres. The stage features more than 70 jumps and cars spend more than 30 seconds in the air. The new Päijälä and Saalahti tests also feature in a loop of four stages that is repeated in the afternoon.

The final day consists of two stages– Lempää and Oittila – being used for the first time this century. They will both be run twice, with Oittila (last seen in 1994) as the Power Stage.

Last year, Jari-Matti Latvala scored his third-ever Neste Rally Finland win and this time he can make it three in a row. If he does, it will be the 36th win for a Finnish driver at home since the WRC begin in 1973.

“Rally Finland is obviously the highlight of the season for me. I am really looking forward to it, even though the pressure is naturally greater than at any other rally,” says Latvala.

“The characteristics of the rally suit me. Fast gravel roads and big jumps – that is my kind of rally. The keys to this rally are ensuring the pace notes are correct and choosing the right line for jumps and fast sections. I will relax ahead of my home race in a very Finnish manner – in the sauna.”

To win, Latvala will need to end a run of six different winners in the past six events, having claimed victory in Mexico in March. His Volkswagen teammate Sebastien Ogier remains on course for a fourth world title, but hasn’t won since Sweden in February, hampered by road sweeping at the head of the order.

The third Polo driver Andreas Mikkelsen and the Hyundai duo Hayden Paddon and Thierry Neuville have won already this season, as has Kris Meeke, who has been rapid whenever he has appeared in his Citroën this season. Ford drivers Mads Østberg and Ott Tänak will hope to join the list of winners, the latter having come agonisingly close to his maiden WRC triumph last time out in Poland.

Latvala is the only Finn competing at the sport’s highest level this year, but there is a host of local talent hoping to take a big step towards joining him with a top result in the support categories. The WRC2 class is hotly-contested in 2016 and Teemu Suninen is close to the standings lead after three wins from four starts so far. Fellow rising star Esapekka Lappi will hope to repeat his 2015 WRC2 triumph in his works Škoda.

M-Sport’s Elfyn Evans (Fiesta R5) and Australia’s Scott Pedder (Skoda Fabia R5) also will be in the fight.

NESTE RALLY FINLAND IN NUMBERS

Stages: 24
Competitive distance: 333.99 kilometres
Total distance: 1370.66 kilometres
Stages: 24
Stage distance: 333.99 kilometres (148.97 kilometres leg one, 150.82 kilometres leg two, 34.20 kilometres leg three)
Longest stage: 33.00 kilometres (Ouninpohja)
Shortest stage: 2.27 kilometres (Harju)
Most wins (during WRC era): 7 (Marcus Grönholm)

RECENT WINNERS

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)
2006: Marcus Grönholm/Timo Rautiainen (Ford Focus RS WRC)

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.