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(, 31/7/2013)  AFTER a summer break of almost six weeks, the race for the FIA World Rally Championship resumes on Thursday on the rollercoaster gravel roads of the sport’s spiritual home, Finland.

Neste Oil Rally Finland is the fastest round of the 13-event WRC season. It’s also one of the most spectacular and hardest to master, with tree-lined straights and blind crests frequently taken sideways at more than 160kmh, providing the ultimate test of skill and commitment.

Bursting with “Sisu” – a Finnish term loosely meaning strength of will and bloody-minded determination – local drivers excel here. In fact, since the world championship was established in 1973, only three non-Nordic drivers have won the event.

As well as the speed, trees and blind crests, Rally Finland,tests flying skills more than any other round of the WRC. The smooth gravel roads around the host city of Jyvaskyla are littered with stomach-churning jumps that launch cars into flights of more than 60 metres.

This year’s rally is run over two and a half days and features 23 special stages over a competitive distance of 324.21 kilometres.

There are three completely new stages – Torritu (SS2/4), Lankamaa (SS10/14) and Paina (SS19/23) which also closes the event as the Power Stage. Four stages are the same as last year, while all others have amendments or new sections of road.

Following tonight’s Qualifying Stage – used to determine the running order among the WRC’s elite on day one – Thursday’s action kicks off at 11.15, when crews leave Jyvaskyla for six stages run without a service halt.

The day’s competitive action ends at the Killeri trotting track for the traditional Super Special Stage at 8.30pm.

Friday and Saturday are both long days and include some of the most legendary Finish stages. Friday’s action begins at 9.48 with the Jukojarvi stage, followed in quick succession by Palsankyla, Mokkipera and Lankamaa which, at 23.66km is the longest stage of the day. After service in Jyvaskyla, drivers repeat all four, and then round off the day with a second trip to Killeri.

Saturday’s route is based around the Jamsa region and consists of two passes of a loop of four stages: Surkee, Leustu, Painaa and the fearsome Ouninpohja, a 33km monster that remains the stuff of Rally Finland legend. The final test, the repeated Painaa, gets underway at 5.40pm.

Fourteen top-specification World Rally Cars appear on the Neste Oil Rally Finland entry with the fastest of them all, based on the results so far this season, Sebastien Ogier’s Volkswagen Polo R – topping the list.

Having won four of the seven rallies in the first half of the season, Ogier, from France, is the hot favourite to win again this week.

Fresh from a pre-event test, Ogier arrives in Jyvaskyla with a 64-point lead in the drivers standings from his team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, while Volkswagen remains on course for the manufacturers’ title in its debut season.

The closest Ogier has come to winning in Finland is the second place he scored with Citroen in 2010. Beating the Finns at their own game is something he is desperate to do this week, but he’ll face tough opposition from several Finnish star drivers, not least his own teammate who pipped him to victory in 2010.

Finland is likely to be closest battle we’ve seen between the Volkswagen pair, with Ogier out to annihilate the opposition on the fastest rally of the year and Latvala promising to fight for victory in front of his home crowd in a car he’s finally super-confident in.

It should be a straight fight too, after Volkswagen team boss Jost Capito sportingly confirmed that his drivers will both be free to fight for victory – each other if necessary.

Citroen DS3 driver Mikko Hirvonen, however, is capable of upsetting them both. The Jyvaskyla resident scored his only win on home soil back in 2009 and is under increasing pressure from Citroen to deliver a decent result after a lacklustre season so far.

With 2014 season contracts under review in the next couple of months, Mikko is equipped with the same car Sebastien Loeb used to win the rally in 2012 and should be extremely motivated to do well.

The M-Sport challenge is likely to be led by Thierry Neuville. The Belgian showed astonishing speed last year in Finland and arrives nicely warmed-up thanks to four competitive outings in Fiestas over the summer break. With three podium finishes in the first half of the season, Neuville is more than capable of springing a surprise.

Mads Ostberg is also anxious to impress following a frustrating 2013 campaign so far in his Fiesta. After five weeks of rest and relaxation, the Norwegian says he has hit the reset button and will treat Finland as a new start.

Also out to prove his potential is Kris Meeke, the former factory MINI driver who has been brought in as replacement for an absent Khalid Al Qassimi at the Abu Dhabi Citroen squad.

This will be Meeke’s first taste of competition in the DS3 World Rally Car, so he has a big familiarisation job to do, but his existing test role with the manufacturer means he’s not coming in completely cold. Meeke is definitely one to watch.

As are Finnish privateers Juho Hanninen and Jarkko Nikara, who will both challenge for top stage times, with Haninnen at the wheel of a Fiesta RS and Nikara in the latest Prodrive evolution of the MINI JCW.

Such is the event’s popularity that no fewer than 101 entries have been received, including the contenders fighting for the WRC, WRC 2, WRC 3 and Junior WRC Championships.

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.

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