THE three top drivers battling for the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) take their fight to the most daunting event of the year in Finland this weekend, with each needing a large dose of what their hosts call Sisu to have any chance of success.
PHOTO: Ott Tänak is hot favourite this weekend to repeat his 2018 win on Neste Rally Finland (Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool pic)
Sisu, which has inspired generations of Flying Finns to international success in athletics, motor-racing, skiing and other sports, translates to “guts” in English. Nothing less will be needed to tackle the high-speed gravel bends and hundreds of breathtaking jumps on the legendary Neste Rally Finland.
Approaching round nine of the series, the contest for the drivers’ championship could hardly be closer. Last year’s winner and Toyota driver Ott Tänak leads by only four points over defending, six-time champion Sébastien Ogier, from Citroën. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville is only three points further behind.
Finland’s so-called gravel grand prix, demanding bravery and ultra-precision, will by nature ensure a close competition. None of the three drivers is likely to break free for a big points lead, giving more hope to the possibility of the championship going down to another electrifying decider at the 14thand final round, Kennards Hire Rally Australia, on 14-17 November.
Tickets for Kennards Hire Rally Australia, priced from $29 to $119, are available now from Ticketek.com. Event highlights will include two nights of the harbourside Destination New South Wales Super Special Stage and a free concert by legendary rock band Dragon exclusively for 4-day ticket-holders.
The manufacturer teams representing Toyota, Hyundai, Citroën and M-Sport Ford have prepared intensely for Rally Finland during a long mid-season summer break. All entered the non-championship Rally Estonia recently for practice and have conducted private testing in the Finnish forests.
The programme went badly wrong for M-Sport, however. Senior driver Elfyn Evans has been forced to sit out Finland after injuring his back in a heavy landing in Estonia. His place has been taken by fellow Briton Gus Greensmith.
Worse still, Kiwi driver Hayden Paddon lost his chance for a WRC comeback after eight months away when his Ford Fiesta crashed at near-maximum speed during testing on Monday. The car cannot be repaired or replaced in time for the Thursday night start and Paddon is out of the event.
Tänak and Toyota are hot favourites for the event once known as the Rally of 1000 Lakes. He won in Estonia, his home event, and has dominated the rounds this season, winning three and leading almost all at some point.
The Toyota team, based near host city Jyväskylä, is run by four-time world champion Tommi Makinen; teammates Jari-Matti Latvala and Kris Meeke also are Finland winners. Tänak also will be driven to banish the pain of losing the last round in Sardinia when his steering broke in the closing kilometres.
“I’m really looking forward to getting the second part of the season started on Rally Finland,” Tänak said.
“It’s a rally that I enjoy a lot with the fast and smooth roads and it was an incredible feeling to win last year. Of course, we will try to achieve the same result this year, but it looks as though it will be more difficult, as we will be running first on the road on the Friday.”
WRC rules that drivers must start Friday in championship order mean Ogier should benefit slightly from Tänak’s road-cleaning, but he knows he’s in for a serious challenge in his upgraded Citroën C3.
“With the high speeds on the stages, this is definitely a rally where you need to be completely at one with your car in order to really go for it and I have to say that I finished my two days of testing with a good feeling in the C3 WRC,” the 2013 Finland winner said.
Neuville is under pressure to not only close the gap to his rivals, but also defend Hyundai’s current position at the top of the manufacturers’ standings. Andreas Mikkelsen and Craig Breen also will be driving Hyundais when the four-day, 307 kilometre rally starts on Thursday evening, local time.