Rally Finland: countdown to the Finnish GP

The World Rally Championship continues from Friday this week with Rally Finland, one of the most specialised and spectacular events in the series. Points leader Richard Burns faces a further stern examination of his title credentials from Finnish star Marcus Gronholm, who is hot favourite for the win.

Rally Finland: countdown to the Finnish GP

Peugeot star Gronholm starts the rally with the overwhelming advantage of nationality stacked in his favour. Bar wins for Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol, the event is traditionally the domain of Scandinavian drivers, who seem to have a better grasp of the ultra-fast stages than the massed interlopers can muster.

"It's Finland - my home event - and I'm sure we can fight for a win there. I've been doing that rally for ten years, so now it's time to win!" says Gronholm, confident after his New Zealand win, where he showed he could conquer fast and flowing stages not too disimilar to those the teams will find in Finland.

The Peugeot's performance is potent, and Gronholm's victories on this year's Swedish and New Zealand rallies make him a distinct favourite to take the title lead this weekend. Gronholm, like all Finns, is relishing his chance to attack his home rally, and has always performed well there - it was his performance in the 1998 event in a semi-works Toyota that led to his signing for Peugeot, and his first Finnish win in the agile 206WRC may not be too far away.

"The car has been terrific and performed without any problems at all, which allows me to have more confidence and concentrate on my driving," says Gronholm. "There is a chance of the championship and of course, this helps."

Peugeot Sport recently tested in Finland to prepare themselves for the World Championship event. The team ended their test in Finland by competing in the 10 special stages of the Exide Rally in Tampere. Gronholm and his co-driver Timo Rautiainen were fastest on each stage and won overall.

However, if any of the non-Scandinavian contingent has a chance of taking a victory, surely it is Burns. The Englishman has starred on his last two appearances on the rally, despite being far less experienced than Gronholm. Burns was second last year, beating everyone but his Subaru team mate Juha Kankunnen, who has now contested the rally 19 times! Subaru World Rally Team boss David Lapworth explains why Burns can run with the Finns on their home gravel.

"Richard took me for a drive during our pre-event test last year and it was a breathtaking experience," said Lapworth. "I've sat next to a lot of drivers in my career, and I'm used to seeing them battling with every inch of the road, but Richard is an incredibly tidy and precise driver. There were no heroics. He's a tactician behind the wheel, very accurate and utterly committed on the fast stages, which is why I think he'll do well here."

Nevertheless, Burns himself is under no illusions as to how hard it will be to beat Gronholm, and others such as four-time World Champion Tommi Makinen, who has won the event five times.

"The drivers' championship is getting very close now, and I've got no choice but to attack 100% and try to win this rally," says Burns. "It's going to be a hard event though. There's lots of tough local competition, from Marcus and Tommi especially. Running first on the road again can be a real problem, but we had some very encouraging testing last week and I'm just going to do the best I can."

If it comes to a Subaru one-two, last year's winner Kankunnen may well be asked to move over, but in the Finn Burns has the most successful rally driver of the modern era in his corner. Kankunnen is optimistic for a good result.

"I look forward to this event more than any other in the season. It's a difficult rally, but I've done it 19 times now so I think I've been practising longer than most. After last year's result I'm certainly feeling very optimistic. This time, with the benefit of more Subaru experience and of course the latest car, the WRC 2000, I can't wait to start," says Kankunnen

Ford's Colin McRae has never won in Finland, but could be ideally poised to take over at the front if the intensity of the battle between the points leaders proves too much for the pair of them to handle. Like all non-Scandinavians, McRae is cautious about playing up his chances of victory, but believes a podium place will enable him to keep in touch with his burgeoning title challenge.

"Among the top drivers, I think it's fair to say I lack experience of the roads and it's also fair to say that for me and most other non-Finns, it's the hardest rally of all," he admits. "Many things combine to make it so - the speed, the jumps, blind apexes on the bends - and the roads are hard to get used to.

"The championship is at a very interesting point now. I'm eight points behind Richard Burns and four behind Marcus Grönholm, who must be the favourite in Finland. We have to look for a top three finish in all the remaining rallies and I think we can achieve that. If we do, it will also put the team in a strong position in the manufacturers' championship"

McRae's team-mate should provide some consolation, though, as well as fierce competition. Carlos Sainz is one of the few (two to be precise...) to prove that non-locals can win the rally, and the Spaniard puts a premium on experience for the event, but is nonetheless relishing the challenge.

"Finland is always special. It's a pure driver's rally and one of my favourites," he says. "The roads are so wide and fast that car position is crucial. If you enter a bend a few centimetres off line at 200kph, it can make a huge difference to your position for the next bend. If you lift off the power to correct your line, even for a tenth of a second, you lose so much momentum.

"It's probably the most specialised event in the championship and until you fully understand the nature of the roads and are able to ensure your pace notes are 100 per cent accurate, there's little chance of beating the Finns."

Mitsubishi's Tommi Makinen could be the driver to throw a spanner into the battle between the title contenders. The winner of the last four drivers' championships has always excelled on his home event, and has only been beaten once in the last five years.

The Mitsubishi Ralliart Europe team have been hard at work preparing a heavily-revised Lancer, as the Group A machine has fallen behind the World Rally Cars (built to slightly different homologation rules) from Peugeot, Subaru and Ford on recent events. The new car featured in New Zealand in an interim specification but will debut with all its trick lightweight components, plus the benefit of extensive testing, in Finland.

"Of course it is special for any Finn to do well on this rally," claims Makinen. "I want very much to win again. We need some good results at the moment and I am very happy with the testing we have done. I think we can show the others something."

The team has been buoyed by the recent testing of the new spec car, and team manager Phil Short is confident that Makinen can recapture some of his title winning form.

"We go to Finland with renewed confidence, as our testing in Finland went particularly well," he said.

Short believes that the teams will need to be in good shape for the rally, and will not be able to cover any deficiencies if they are to stay with the pace.

"Both drivers report a big improvement with the Finland specification and we are looking to get a good result from both of them. We are still in touch with the World Championship leaders and we are looking to Finland to kickstart our campaign for the second half of the season. When you look at individual stage times in Finland over the years, you see how close the drivers are.

"The pressure builds up and you often find that cars are very close together throughout the rally, but the early stages can also shape the whole event. The speed of the rally and the jumps mean that if a driver makes a mistake it's likely to be a serious one, but it's also the sort of rally where you can't afford a big time loss."

Finland preview: one for the locals?
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