As the World Rally Championship stakes heat up, teams and crews brace themselves for the coldest conditions one can experience in motorsport. Arctic Rally Finland is new to the WRC and will provide perfect winter conditions to follow an exhilarating Rally Monte-Carlo season-opener.
Based in Rovaniemi, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Arctic Rally Finland offers such extremities that make the WRC so unique.
Today’s current aerodynamic monsters look set to average over 75 mph on the snow-topped tracks that wind their way through the Northern Finland wilderness.
Crews will fly over hidden crests before launching their million-pound machines at every apex with ultimate faith that those intricate aerodynamic devices will keep them on course.
Indeed some will brave going beyond the limit hoping that a snowbank cushion will realign their forward momentum.
Every WRC event demands a perfect balance of bravery and caution. Tackling snow stages new to the WRC at ultra-high speeds, Arctic Rally Finland will take that alertness to the next level.
As driver and co-driver step into the unknown they’ll only have a five-kilometre shakedown before jumping right into Arctic Rally’s longest stage – the 31 km Sarriojarvi test. A stage completed by Kalle Rovanpera last year at an average of 81 mph.
Friday’s opener will be repeated three hours later. Ah, that will be a bit less daunting for the crews that survived Stage 1?
Think again. Take two of Sarriojarvi will take place in complete Arctic darkness.
Three stages repeated will continue the action on Saturday, the shortest, Kaihuavaara, just under 20 km.
Aittajarvi will be repeated on Sunday to finish off the rally. At 22 km it will be a proper Power Stage as drivers, and manufacturers, fight for the extra championship points on offer.
Ogier’s 30-second winning margin was remarkable considering how brake issues hampered his progress on Thursday along with a puncture midway through Saturday. Combined they cost him a further 50 seconds.
Anyway, it was a Toyota 1-2-4 with Theirry Neuville and last-minute co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe managing to sneak onto the podium on Monte-Carlo’s final day.
A double puncture put Ott Tanak out on Saturday while Dani Sordo made sure there was a second Hyundai in the points by the time the circus arrived at Monaco’s harbour on Sunday afternoon.
In the words of Hyundai’s team principal, Andrea Adamo, it was “…far from something to make me proud and happy.”
Meanwhile, at M-Sport there wasn’t much to write home about either. Teemu Suninen’s stage-winning potential came to an abrupt end on Stage 1. His severely damaged Ford Fiesta WRC was well and truly out of the rally.
Can Hyundai bounce back?
If Hyundai was to pick a rally to give some confidence after the team’s despair in Monte-Carlo, a Finnish-based event would be last on the list.
The Korean manufacturer hasn’t finished on the podium of Rally Finland since its WRC return in 2014. Although, it has had some success on Rally Sweden.
Neuville maximised his road position in 2018 to secure victory on the rally. Ogier and Tanak were badly affected by a fresh layer of loose snow that time around.
There is no question, though, Toyota should have the edge on the high-speed stages the Yaris WRC was born on.
For Hyundai, there are two things that offer some hope – Rally Estonia and running order.
Hyundai surprised the WRC service area when it controlled the top positions on Rally Estonia last September. While many expected Tanak to hunt down a home victory, Hyundai’s advantage over Toyota on high-speed stages was a first in the WRC.
Yes, Tanak’s local knowledge could have helped find a premium Baltic set-up for the i20 but it was the first high-speed rally that Hyundai was able to utilise its 2020 aerodynamic upgrades.
A new rear wing, modified diffuser, and vertical rear arch vents were introduced early last year. It will be interesting to see if Hyundai’s aerodynamic advances have the same effect on Finnish stages this year.
Road position could also aid Hyundai’s assault on the Arctic Rally Finland podium this weekend. A Monte-Carlo DNF for Tanak and the return of Craig Breen mean that two of Hyundai’s drivers will start in a favourable road position on Friday’s opening 30 km stage.
If the weather lives up to current forecasts, there will be plenty of fresh snow around Rovaniemi which will hinder leading crews: Ogier, Elfyn Evans, Neuville, and Rovanpera.
Tanak and Breen will tackle Friday’s stages with a visible line that will be cleaner and grippier than what their WRC rivals face a few cars ahead.
The next generation
Arctic Rally Finland is 20-year-old Rovanpera’s best chance yet to claim a WRC win. Success on the snow rally this year would smash the youngest world rally winner record.
It’s a record fellow-Finn, and Toyota team boss, Jari-Matti Latvala currently holds. He won Rally Sweden in 2008 aged 22.
Rovanpera won the Arctic Rally last year and his Toyota will be well suited to the conditions this weekend. Third on Rally Sweden 12 months ago remains Rovanpera’s best WRC result but he did show rally-winning pace on Rally Estonia later in the year as well.
A puncture and a further one-minute penalty ended any hopes of a rally win for Rovanpera that time around. He clearly has the talent and capability to claim a Nordic victory but Rovanpera and co-driver Jonne Halttunen will need to make sure no small mistakes create big consequences this time around.
Takamoto Katsuta is another next-generation driver to watch on the Arctic Rally. Japan’s WRC representative learned his rally craft in Finland and feels at home on the fast Finnish roads.
If you think Rovanpera is young to be driving a World Rally Car at the highest level, then 19-year-old Oliver Solberg’s Hyundai WRC debut will blow your mind.
Solberg has shown throughout his early career that he can get up to speed in any category very, very quickly. While a rally win is definitely not on Solberg and Aaron Johnston’s radar, don’t be surprised to see them at the top of some stage-times this weekend.
Strength in depth
I haven’t even mentioned Suninen yet, such is the list of talking points for Arctic Rally Finland. The M-Sport man will be looking for redemption after his Monte disaster and his home Finnish stages give him the potential to upset the Toyota-Hyundai dominance.
There is an endless list of capable winners in WRC 2 this weekend. Andreas Mikkelsen, Esapekka Lappi, Jari Huttunen, Adrien Fourmaux, and Ole Christian Veiby; try to pick a winner from that.
While Mikkelsen and Lappi may be the stand-out names, Huttunen and Veiby were Rally Sweden’s quickest R5 runners in 2020 and 2019 respectively.
Even WRC 3 has an entry filled with crews who will excel in these conditions. The man at the top of the list, Teemu Asunmaa has finished next-best to the Toyota Yaris WRC of Rovanpera and Juho Hanninen in the previous two editions of Arctic Rally Lapland.
Meanwhile, Sweden is represented by two rallycross aces. Johan Kristoffersson is joined by Mattias Ekstrom, who is also better known for his DTM exploits. They’re no strangers to rallying and add yet another level of intrigue to the second round of this year’s world championship.
Previewing Arctic Rally Finland has reminded me of exactly what the WRC is, well what it should be anyway.
Break-neck speed, on the edge driving, a step into the unknown, and a plethora of talent.
I can’t wait to see what Rovaniemi brings this weekend. If coronavirus’s impact on rallying has a silver lining, Arctic Rally Finland is the aurora borealis of silver linings.
Photos courtesy of Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT and Hyundai Motorsport