Mikko Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen will defend Ford's Rally Finland title next week in one of the shortest FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) events in history. Since the WRC's launch in 1973, only one rally has scheduled fewer competitive kilometres than this eighth round of the 13-event 2010 series. That was in Finland in 1975 when the event was known as the 1000 Lakes Rally.
The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team duo will be joined by fellow Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila for what many regard as the top race of the season. Rally Finland is the fastest round of the championship and, with just 310.05km of competition amid the lakes and forests in the centre of the country, the action will be fast, with little opportunity to atone for mistakes. Hirvonen, who fulfilled a lifetime ambition by winning last year in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, celebrates his 30th birthday on the final day next Saturday.
The rally celebrates its 60th anniversary by returning to the traditional host city of Jyvaskyla. The race is sometimes known as the "Jyvaskyla Grand Prix" because of its high speeds. Organisers have taken advantage of new regulations to pack all the action into just two legs. So, while the distance is shorter than other WRC rounds, drivers face almost 15 hours behind the wheel on Friday's first full day of competition and almost 14 on Saturday, ensuring both endurance and speed will be a factor in determining the outcome.
Climbing on to the top step of the podium in Finland is one of the sport's most important achievements. The rally has a huge following and crowds will flock into the countryside near Jyvaskyla, Hirvonen's hometown, to view the action. Ford's all-Finnish line-up will generate strong support, raising both the level of expectation and the pressure on Hirvonen and Latvala. The rally will be fought out on fast gravel surfaces. Finns who nurtured their careers on this type of road have a clear advantage over "outsiders" who require several years of experience before they can hope to mount a victory challenge. Only seven non-Finns have won in 59 years.
Such is the speed that Rally Finland boasts five of the six fastest rallies in WRC history, the 2005 event topping the standings at a remarkable average of 122.86kph. The rally offers a mix of hard, wide and fast roads combined with narrower, more technical special stages. The roads are smooth, and it is not a hard rally on machinery. However, it is difficult from a driving perspective. Stomach-churning jumps frequently hide bends over the crests, so the accuracy and delivery of pace notes must be exact. Selecting the correct line before take-off ensures maximum pace through the following curves.
This will be Hirvonen's ninth start in his home event. He has two second-place finishes to go with his victory here. "I'm looking forward to defending last year's victory because I want to keep the title in Finland," he said. Latvala, 25, finished third last season in his seventh start in the rally. "The excitement builds in Finland like no other round," he said. "I always have a few nerves before the start of a rally, but there are a few more before Rally Finland."