A Finn to Win!

WRC driver Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN) and co driver Miikka Anttila (FIN) during special stage 14 - Surkee 1
WRC driver Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN) and co driver Miikka Anttila (FIN) during special stage 14 - Surkee 1

The World Rally Championship (WRC) resumed last week in Jyvaskyla, Finland for round eight of the championship.  The 2010 rally also marked the 60th anniversary of Rally Finland and many vintage rally cars from Skoda, Volvo, Audi and more were brought out for everyone to enjoy.    While it was held more than 5600 miles from Baja the countries and events have more in common than you might think.

Jyvaskyla sits 160 miles north of Helsinki, the Finnish capital city in what is known as the lake region.  While driving through the countryside you constantly pass postcard perfect lakes and cabins every few miles.  The area conjures up thoughts of Lake Tahoe, northern Minnesota and the pine forests of Baja with similarities to each area.

Traditionally the rally is held over three days but this year the rally would be condensed into a two day event with 19 special stages that covered 310 kilometers or just under 200 miles.  The racers started their recce, prerunning to us, earlier in the week and the cars got their first taste of dirt at speed on Thursday morning with the Shakedown stage.  The Shakedown is a chance for everyone to drive a stage in their racecars and make any last minute adjustments to the setup of the cars.  The stage is open for four hours with most drivers taking at least four runs through the 4.7km stage.

Mikko Hirvonen turned the fastest time of the day with a 2:02.2 besting his Ford teammate Jari-Matti Latvala by one tenth of a second.  While the stage does not count towards the official results it is an indication of each drivers speed.

Mikko Hirvonen (FIN) was the winner in 2009 and he had every intention of defending the title and keeping the win on home soil in Finland.   However six time world champion Sebastien Loeb (FRA) planned to take the win from the Finn.   Loeb also had a new teammate on the top Citroen team for Finland.  Junior driver Sebastien Ogier (FRA) moved up while Dani Sordo (ESP) went down to the junior team to join F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen

The race officially started on Thursday night at 6:45pm Laajavuori 1, a 4.19km stage that started with an asphalt jump followed by a paved trail racing up the face of a ski run before turning to dirt.  With Finland being so far north starting late is not an issue with lighting.  In summer the sun does not set until 10:30pm and the skies stay light until well after midnight and start to brighten again about 4:30am.

Privateer driver and double World Champion Petter Solberg (NOR) jumped out to an early lead taking the stage win by one second over local favorite Mikko Hirvonen.  Loeb finished a further six tenths behind Hirvonen.  Tens of thousands of fans came out to watch their favorite drivers tackle the stage and due to limited parking most walked for miles to get there.  Finnish rally fans passion for the sport rivals the locals of Baja in both fervor and dedication.

Day 1 of the rally continued on Friday with special stage 2 – Urria 1, a 12.7km stage.  The first car would appear on the stage at 07:42am but by 6:00am the crowds had started to gather with many fans enjoying a few beers and grilling food much like their counterparts in Baja.   The stage took racers past yet another picture perfect lake and cabin.  In front of the cabin was picnic table built from large logs that the owner put together in under 2 days, impressive to say the least.  The friendly locals were quick to offer me some homemade licorice type drink and after trying one I wished I hadn’t.

Hirvonen got down to business and won the stage by 2.1 seconds over Latvala, with Loeb in third again.  Hirvonen won SS3 as well giving him 4.9 seconds over P. Solberg at the conclusion of the stage.  Things were looking bright for the Finn with solid performances on the early stages but all of that would soon change.

Hirvonen's car after the big crash that ended the rally early.
Hirvonen's car after the big crash that ended the rally early.

Stage 4 was Urria 2; the second time though the stage.  The stage featured several large very high speed jumps similar to what we find at Ojos Negros but smaller with speeds of close to 100mph.  Feeling confident Hirvonen was flat out through most of the stage and as he hit the big jumps.  While the first passed without incident the second is right on the apex of a right hand corner and he got a bit out of shape on the landing and hit a large berm sending his car into a massive roll and crash flipping the driver five times and peeling the co driver’s door right of the car for a classic desert yard sale.  The ferocity of the crash was more than enough to take Hirvonen out of the rally but amazingly the cage held up remarkably well and both occupants walked away with no serious injuries.

“It happened so fast, there was nothing I could do,” Hirvonen told wrc.com. “We went straight into a bank and rolled straight in the road, up the hill, for a long time.  The speed wasn’t too much but at that speed I knew when it landed we’d be lucky to stay on four wheels.  “The dream is over and it’s just disappointing but at least we were on the pace before it happened. That’s good. A crash like that is not going to distract me or scare me.”

Hirvonen’s crash sent opportunity knocking on the doors of both Latvala and P. Solberg.  Solberg held off Latvala for the next two stages and was looking good until being overtaken by the Finn.   The battle at the top of the leaderboard was intense throughout the day and Ogier, who started the day in fifth position, battled hard with his fellow Citroën drivers to climb to third overnight. Reigning World Champion Sébastien Loeb struggled in the morning stages when he damaged the front bumper on his C4, seriously affecting the aerodynamics of the car. He recovered from fifth position to fourth by the end of the day, just 11.7 seconds ahead of Dani Sordo.  At the conclusion of Day 1 Latvala held a 9.1 second lead over Solberg.

Being at the front of the pack would be a bit of a disadvantage for Latvala, as he would be first off the line on each stage of Day 2 and having to deal with loose conditions as he cleaned the road for fellow drivers.

“Running third on the road gave me a bit of an advantage today,” said Latvala. “Maybe I took it too carefully at times but we’ll try to keep up this pace tomorrow.”

Luckily for Latvala there was a lot of rain overnight which helped pack the racing surface and bring up grip levels for his run to the finish on Day 2.

The two day format of the rally really put the screws to drivers but especially to the crews.  The top drivers would not return to the service park until 8:30pm at the end of Day 1 for repairs and have to leave again at 5:50am the following day for the 99km drive east of Jyvaskyla for the start of SS12.

WRC driver Sebastien Ogier (FRA) and co driver Julien Ingrassia (FRA) jump during  super special 8
WRC driver Sebastien Ogier (FRA) and co driver Julien Ingrassia (FRA) jump during super special 8

Young gun Ogier wasted no time getting to work winning SS12, a short 10km stage by one second over Latvala but on the 29km SS13 the old master Loeb was back in the saddle to take the win by 1.7 seconds over Ogier and by 7.3 over Latvala.  From there the drivers head back towards Jyvaskyla for SS14 – Surkee 1, a 19km stage that again had massive crowds out to watch.

Latvala wicked it up and took he win by 7.3 over Ogier and improved his overall lead to 22.5 seconds.  Loeb fell back again to third with Solberg fighting the good fight in fourth.  Loeb came on strong again winning stages 15 and 16 to move up into third overall while Latvala faltered on both stages cutting his lead to just 12.3 seconds over Ogier.

The final three stages would be repeats from earlier in the day and with 60km to go Latvala would be in the hot seat to hold on to the lead.  On SS17 Ogier further cut into Latvala’s lead winning by 1.7 seconds over the Finn, but Latvala would not be deterred and he came back to win SS18 by 0.5 seconds over Ogier all but securing his victory.  Ogier claimed victory on SS19, the final stage, by 0.8 over Loeb and a full second ahead of Latvala but it was not enough.

After two days of intense competition, Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila won their home round of the FIA World Rally Championship, Rally Finland. The Finns held off a trio of Citroëns to beat Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia by 10.1 seconds, and his third-placed team-mates, reigning World Champions Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.

The win gave Latvala enough points to move into third in the championship with Loeb first and Ogier second.

WRC drivers (from left) Sebastien Ogier (FRA) and Julien Ingrassia (FRA) and Miikka Anttila (FIN) and Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN) and Daniel Elena (MON) and Sebastien Loeb (FRA) celebrate on the podium at the Neste Oil Rally Finland
WRC drivers (from left) Sebastien Ogier (FRA) and Julien Ingrassia (FRA) and Miikka Anttila (FIN) and Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN) and Daniel Elena (MON) and Sebastien Loeb (FRA) celebrate on the podium at the Neste Oil Rally Finland

Latvala was all smiles after the event as he spoke about winning his home rally.  “It feels really amazing. It’s unbelievable. So good, and such a relief, and with all these people you saw at the podium and in the stages, they come to support you so you can win it. There are no words to describe it. I’m so happy to hear I am the youngest too. Sébastien Loeb has beaten all the records; at least something is left for me!” He continued “Honestly, I was a little bit lucky with the rain. It helped a lot in the first stage, then I concentrated in the third stage after I lost time in the second stage. I made a big attack in the new four kilometers of the third stage and that helped me a lot. Sébastien was pushing very hard, both of them; they make my position very uncomfortable. But then towards the afternoon, I was able to take time, but then they catch me, then I made more time, they take it back – it was cat and mouse. I honestly have big respect, with the experience of Finland they have, for Sébastien Ogier and his co-driver that they were able to push so hard.”

Second place finisher Ogier was a bit cautious in the early stages of the rally but he was happy in his debut for the senior Citroen team.  “For sure, I am very happy with this result. It’s difficult to be happy when you are second, but Finland is very special. With my experience, this is better than I expect. Today was a very good day; maybe I was too careful yesterday. If I knew yesterday I would be second, maybe I would have adapted another strategy.  It was my first rally with the official team and there was more pressure on my shoulders. But, I gained confidence in the first stages and I’m very pleased with the second day – it was almost perfect. It was impossible to catch Jari-Matti – he deserved today.”

Loeb was also pleased with his result as it gained him valuable points in the championship fight.  “For sure I prefer to win, but like you said, my priority was points for the Championship, but if I can fight for the win I will try. In the first day I lost time in stage two, three and four when I broken the bumper. Then I was a bit far from the lead. I know in Finland to take some seconds it can be very difficult; I had to balance that and take the right choice.”

Top Ten Finishers

  1. J. LATVALA
  2. S. OGIER +10.1
  3. S. LOEB M +26.0
  4. P. SOLBERG +30.7
  5. D. SORDO +1:45.0
  6. M. WILSON +5:43.7
  7. M. ÖSTBERG +5:50.8
  8. J. KANKKUNEN +7:49.0
  9. J. HÄNNINEN +9:05.0
  10. P. ANDERSSON +10:15.7

The World Rally Championship will resume on August 19 with the all pavement Rally Germany.