It's the Wednesday before Rally Finland and I'm driving to Jarkko's place. Jarkko being Jarkko Nikara - rallying's next big Finn. He's the fastest of the five Pirelli Star Drivers and tonight, he's my chauffeur through the woods. But Jarkko's place is taking some finding. It is, quite literally, in the sticks.
Having trundled up the E75 at the regulation 110kmh, I've turned off one of Finland's north-bound trunk roads and am now watching the roads get smaller and smaller with each junction. Until, bang. The sealed surfaces are done, we're on the dirt.
This is real Finland. Jarkko lives in Saarijarvi. Actually, that's kind of the nearest place. He actually lives in a village called Lehtola. And, believe me, that really is a village.
Jarkko's place is on the same latitude as Ostersund in Sweden and Trondheim in Norway. For those of you not familiar with your Scando-lats, this means it's a cold and dark place in the winter. But today it's the summer and the sun is shining - which means tonight, it's still the summer and the sun is still shining.
I'd been invited to go for a quick test with Nikara by Risto Laine, one of Finland's leading lights in sourcing future world champions. Risto is to future Finnish rally stars what a pig is to truffles. In the nicest possible way.
Having got to know the 23-year-old Nikara through the three rounds of the World Rally Championship his Pirelli Star Drive have landed him on this year, I couldn't help but like him. He's Tommi Makinen all over again. He's desperately working on his English, which is coming on a treat. And he's fast. Like, fast fast.
Talking to Jarko is enormously entertaining. He understands virtually everything in English, but he has that early Makinen trait of listening, listening, listening, then switching off. He gets half of the question - and answers that half and then offers a big grin for the second, essentially unheard, part of the question.
Who cares? His English is a million times better than my Finnish and I'm here for the ride, not the conversation.
Jarkko, unfortunately, is not here. He's been delayed on the recce and is currently risking all by exceeding 120kmh along the E75.
So, while I wait, I'm introduced to team Nikara. Everybody has turned out on this warm July evening. And everybody is wearing their Nikara t-shirts. My guide for the evening is Jukka Aho, a man who has co-driven Sebastian Lindholm, Kristian Sohlberg and Janne Tuohino among others. Aho's disarming manner and riveting stories are probably the reason the 90-minute trek north of the service park flew by so quickly. But now Aho's providing the introductions.
Jarkko's brother and some time co-driver Petri is first. Then his manager, Teijo Lahti; then his father; then the man who built Jarkko's first car; then the man who builds and helps fund the current cars. The faces keep on coming. All of them smiling and all of them eagerly exploring the boundaries of their English in the same way I give the Finnish language a good biffing.
It is actually a reasonably humbling experience to have the pivotal characters in Nikara's career lined up for me to meet.
Sometime ago, Jarkko had told me he drove machines in the forest. It was time to meet the machines. The yard of the family's timber business was like a John Deere showroom down the ages. The oldest tractor looked like something from the Soviet-era, but despite the passing 30-odd years, it still fired and was still pressed into action on an annual basis.
In the continued absence of the man himself, the tour moves on to the family business itself. Into the workshops where the wood was chopped and stuff. Oddly enough, part of the workshop sat astride a river. No need to ask why, that is where we are heading. The river was used to make electricity. Inside this building are two generators or convertors or something. Anyway, they are big, noisy, but juicy enough to power the family home and business.
The family home (Jarkko's still not here...) is where we head next. Calling it a family home is a bit of a misnomer. It's actually a walk in trophy cabinet. Jarkko's dad - and aunt - are dab hands with Saab 96s and won all sorts of silverware for rallysprints and other events. Then Jarkko came along and doubled that collection. And, just when I thought this trip couldn't get any more intimate, Jarkko's dad nudges the bedroom door. Hang on, we're going in... to Jarkko's bedroom!
What do I do? If I protest, do I look ungrateful? Really, checking out the bedroom of a country-born 23-year-old Finnish rally driver is not necessary. In fact, it's pretty straight and tidy, full of trophies and a big screen for his PS3.
Jarkko Nikara on Rally Argentina © LAT
Meeting him outside, I tell him where we've just been.
"Did you find my Playboy magazines?" he asks, laughing, nervously.
I laugh back. Nervously.
Enough with the tour, time for the rally car. The Evo IX has become an Evo VI. The Lancer originally earmarked for this high-speed tour of Saarijarvi is looking a bit worse for wear after Jarkko and his brother cut a corner on a rally near Kouvola a week earlier.
They were leading. But then they were on their roof.
No problem. An Evo VI is quick enough. By this stage, after the stories I've just heard, I'm starting to think one of the John Deeres might be quick enough.
Teijo Lahti starts the Mitsubishi and tells me to jump in. He edges the car out of the barn it's been housed in and we're heading back towards the village centre. Just cruising along, the car is noisy, bangy and generally not very sociable in the sleepy backwater that is downtown Lehtola on a Wednesday evening. But, far from coming out and shouting the odds at such inconsideration. The neighbours come out and wave.
One of them flags us down. Lahti offers a translation as we drive away.
"You going out in the car, then,"
"Yes. Jarkko is testing."
"Okay. Have fun."
And with that, two of the access roads on the outskirts of the village are blocked off and we've got ourselves a stage.
Seriously. That's how much fever Jarkko's villagers have got for him.
Strapped into the six, there's that grin again. And I hadn't even asked any questions.
We're off up the hill. This Lancer's seen some action now, so the jump off the line isn't what it would have been a few years ago, but a couple of gears further up the 'box and we're heading straight for a left-hander which looks worthy of some braking.
Nah, let's give it another gear. Flat in fourth and a flick of the wheel, Nikara slams us through the first corner. I notice him shuffling his shoulders in his seat.
Good God, he's just done that to me and he's not even comfortable in car yet. Eyes front again and things have just got even worse. The sun - the same one which I was told never went down this far north - has done just that and is now right in our eye-line. I genuinely can't see a thing. It takes a moment to compute that, if I can't see a thing... I'd be having second thoughts about sitting on the rev limiter in top gear.
Time to avert the eyes. Eyes right. Argh! No. Not that way. I've just caught sight of the trip meter mounted on the co-driver's door to my right, maliciously set to show the current speed. It starts with a one, then an eight and then another number. It really doesn't matter about the final number, but the one and the eight are causing me concern.
A dab of left foot on the brake and we're through another sweeper and on the approach to a medium speed right-hander. Into third and Jarkko chops viciously through the corner. The back of the car slashes out wide, nudges a bank and corrects itself.
The grin is still in place.
We drop to second gear for a tightish left - the only time we're below third for five minutes. Through that left and the road opens out in front of me. Oh my God. It's super straight for a mile or so. Except in the middle of the straight there are four big-dipper style crests. Welcome to Finland.
Please brake, please brake, please brake. Oh no. We're flat out.
Near silence as the stones stop clattering the dirty side of the Lancer. Another eureka moment for the Finnish rally novice in the right-hand seat. No noise means we're not connected with mother earth.
Hang on, that silence has been going on for a while now.
We've landed. The suspension on the six isn't what it was, so we buck a couple of times, but Jarkko catches it - his right foot still buried fearing that our speed dips below 100mph. Heaven forbid...
Bang. Same again. This time we've hit the deck with one wheel and my helmet has whacked the roll cage. Still no lifting.
Finally, a corner. And another chop. This time too much. The left-front wheel leaps into the air and the car slides wide, encouraging more attention than usual from the boy Nikara. I'm glad he gathered that one, though. For a moment, I was staring out of my side window watching an upended tree getting closer and closer to my head.
That corner has led us to the top of the hill and the descent is interspersed with yet more jumps. One leap down and Jarkko stands on the brakes, completely catching me by surprise.
"End over end if we don't," he shouts. "Take off and land on next, big crash."
Coming into the junction where most of the village have turned out to watch, he shouts: "Another lap?"
I can't help myself. I give him the big thumbs up. And he gives it the big guns back up the hill.
The ride with Nikara was a truly astonishing experience. As are all rides in a well-driven rally car. But the difference here was that, no disrespect, that Evo VI was a bit of a shed. But the stage was straight out of the 1,000 Lakes - and Jarkko pedalled it like a hero.
Before I was allowed to leave, there was t-shirt for me. Along with some fresh salmon cooked by an open fire and some homebrew.
An amazing end to what had become an unforgettable evening at Jarkko's place.
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