x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Finland is not for rallying's faint-hearted

Marcus Gronholm believes the driver who takes the greatest risk and makes the least mistakes will top the honours at the sport's spiritual home.

Mikko Hirvonen of the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team will be looking for a repeat of his win at Rally Finland last year.
Mikko Hirvonen of the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team will be looking for a repeat of his win at Rally Finland last year.

As Sebastien Loeb, the championship leader, and his challengers take to the arduous gravel-strewn and tree-lined country roads around Jyvaskyla in Rally Finland, Marcus Gronholm believes the driver who takes the greatest risk and makes the least mistakes will top the honours at the sport's spiritual home. Gronholm, a two-time world champion, has been one of the most successful drivers in the rally, where average speeds regularly top 190kph. The Finn has seven victories from 18 attempts in the event and admits the demands of Rally Finland are unique.

"It's an incredible rally," Gronholm, who won two world titles with Peugeot before moving to Ford, said on the World Rally Championship (WRC) website. "You hear drivers talking about how quick it is and it is, really, really fast. You have to be able to deal with the speed and to know that after this jump there is another jump coming, then another and another. It's incredible, all of the time there is something happening in the car.

"There is never really a straight piece of road with nothing to do. And then the trees are always right there, next to the road - and you know that if you go out, you are going out straight into the trees. "When I finished the Ouninpohja stage [a special stage of the event] in 2007, I knew I couldn't go any faster. It's incredible the feeling when you come out of a stage like that and you have been right on - and over - the limit so many times. But that's what Rally Finland is. You have to go out of yourself and your comfort zone to win, because the speed is so big."

Mikko Hirvonen, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver and Gronholm's former teammate, returns to Rally Finland after winning the event last year, which has been reduced to two legs this year, making it one of the shortest WRC events in history, with just 310.05km of racing. "In Finland, the rally is usually decided by such small seconds, you cannot afford a spin or anything like that," Gronholm said. "All of the time, it's tenths of seconds. I'm sure it will be the same [this week]."

Juha Kankkunen, the 51-year-old legend of the sport, is making a one-off comeback this weekend behind the wheel for the Stobart M-Sport Ford Team alongside long-time co-driver Juha Repo The three-time champion is targeting a top-10 finish at the event's 60th anniversary before the WRC change car specifications. arizvi@thenational.ae