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August 20 - 22

The Neste Rally Finland was always to me an event that I saw in photos and on film, and was very interested in because, being from the other end of the earth I really thought that I would never see it. However, two days before this year's rally we found ourselves looking at Jyvaskyla, and in particular the Hotel Rantasipi at Laajavouri, 4 k's from the centre of Jyvaskyla, which is about 280kms north of Helsinki.

And the event did not disappoint me. The first day's action was fairly typical of what would follow. The first stage went to the script of what many expected to be Tommi Makinen's sixth win, as he took the stage. Armin Schwarz and Manfred Heimer's event came to a halt on SS1. He hit something very early on, indicated by the fact that the shell of the Octavia WRC was so badly damaged that he did not do the TV stage on Sunday. It was also testament that it was early as he had already done it when he went past us, and we were all of 1.6kms into the stage! The rest of the day 1 action south west of the HQ was fast and furious, the speed of this event evidently very quick.

Juha Kankkunen showed everybody else how to race in Finland - even his team mate!

In fact, at one of the many pre-rally functions, Carlos Sainz's co driver, the famed Luis Moya, made no secret of the fact that he reckoned this was the hardest event on the WRC calendar on a co driver, because everything happened so fast that the timing and accuracy of the notes and how they were delivered were crucial on this event. The Spanish combination had a steady but unspectacular start, however Sainz was not worried, as he believed starting day 2 with 7 'roadsweepers' in front of him would give him a distinct advantage.

Leading for most of the first day was England's Richard Burns, with Scot Robert Reid alongside as ever. The Subaru pair took things into their own hands on the 1.7km super special around the showgrounds in Jyvaskyla when they deliberately slowed to incur a penalty and subscribe to the Sainz / Moya Academy of World Rallying Tactics! They would start Day 2, the longest and hardest day south of Jyvaskyla third on the road, with team-mates Juha Kankkunen and Juha Repo in second. Meanwhile the opportunity to lead a WRC event 'for the team and the people of France' was too good to pass up for Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautianen in the new Peugeot 206WRC, who seem to have made leading this event at least once each year a habit. They would have a job to keep it on day 2 though! His team-mates, Frenchmen Francois Delecour and Daniel Grataloup in car 15, and the Panizzi brothers (Gilles and Herve) in car 16 would start the second day well and truly outside the top 10. 'It is a little different to the car we had last year, no?!' remarked Gilles. The brothers had a Peugeot 106 in 1998!

You better appreciate this picture of Delecour in the Peugeot - Neil got pelted by the stones to get it!!!

The second day was hopefully going to follow the first and remain dry, as the rain had obliged overnight and made the stages very quick, and dustless, a great thing for spectators and ourselves! The drivers wanted a bit more rain however, as the roads in Finland are quicker when it is damp rather than wet or dry. Tommi Makinen started the day with a third quickest time, however Gronholm kept his lead by being quickest. However the day would take it's toll on the first car through, and by the end of the day, after a fantastic fighting drive, Marcus and Timo would be down to fifth, 1 minute 19 seconds behind the leader. The challenge from Sainz started on the second stage of the day, being the first of three fastest times for the Corolla WRC.

However his Toyota team-mate, the most French Didier Auriol and co driver Denis Giraudet, were falling back with a mysterious problem which had the car weaving all over the road. The front and rear diffs were changed at he first service, and the car was cured, but then it stopped out on a stage later in the day, only to fire up again, but the damage was done and the second TTE Corolla would start the third and final day ninth, behind the second new Evo 2 SEAT Cordoba WRC of Toni Gardemeister. The 24 year old had put co driver Paavo Lukander in hospital a couple of weeks before their home event in an accident in an F2 SEAT Ibiza while competing on a tarmac round of the British Championship, but they were doing well apart from a spin late in the day, while team-mates Harri Rovanpera and Risto Pietilainen were in sixth after a steady run in the new car. The Evo 2 now has an active rear diff, which was an advance on the purely mechanical item in the Evo 1. He was behind another local hero, Sebastian Lindholm and Jukka Aho in an Escort WRC. 'It is the best we can do in an outdated car' remarked Jukka part way through day 2.

Ford were having a troubled event, with both drivers having problems with their Focus WRCs. Colin McRae and Nicky Grist were experiencing some suspension dramas, and when they changed them for day 2 found they had gone the wrong way on set-up and had to revert to the old settings! They would set some great stage times later in the day and even set a fastest stage time. Thomas Radstrom and Fred Gallagher had a very competitive start to the rally, firmly entrenched in the top 6 until late on Saturday as he complained that 'I know we can go faster, it just feels as though the car is missing power somewhere'. He fell down the order, and would finish day 2 in 22nd, even behind team-mate Petter Solberg and Phil Mills, who were having a steady run to the finish. 'We had some dramas early today' explained Phil, but it can only get better from here. Petter is very disappointed, but we are now aiming to finish.'

Out on the stages you really got the feeling that all these guys are travelling incredibly quickly on the wider roads south of Jyvaskyla, and the fact that the day stayed dry was bringing the people out in their thousands. Press spots that would have about ten people in it in Australia suddenly had half hour traffic jam to get out after the top guys had gone through. Every corner is populated in Finland, as some of the estimated 500,000 spectators get out into the forest to watch the WRC spectacle.

There was to be drama at the front however, when news came through that Tommi Makinen and Risto Mannisenmaki were stopped in SS14 without drive, and would not be back. Well, they would be, the TV stage would be the Finn's only hope of wresting some WRC points from this event. This left a battle royal behind to Kankkunen, Burns and Sainz, who were squabbling over about 5 seconds towards the end of the day. The Corolla driver got ahead of Burns late in the day, but when the Focus of Radstrom had to slow in a stage and move off the road, the challenge from Sainz was momentarily arrested, and Kankkunen would start day 3 with over ten seconds in hand to team-mate Richard Burns. Would team ord..nah, they wouldn't, would they?

Radstrom drove well until he was withdrawn for tactical reasons to gain points on the televised section - he didn't!

The sole remaining Mitsubishi factory car of Freddy Loix and Sven Smeets went over, literally. The young Belgian got a bit too sideways and the car tripped up on the sill, landing hard on its bonnet and roof. Despite this, they carried on, and the very bent Carisma would complete Freddy's pre event brief - finish the event at all costs.

The third day would be reasonably short, to keep in with the great god television, who would divert the world's attention to the Rally Finland en masse at 3pm. But the action would keep on coming. The second stage of the day was stopped when a Lancer driver put his car out of the rally off the road, and landed himself and his co driver in hospital. 20 cars at the back of the field did not have the opportunity to complete the stage as the top cars were sent through again on their second run of the stage. The SEAT's completed a sandwich of the leader Kankkunen on the first stage of the day, Gardemiester setting fastest time with Rovanpera third. Then the Subarus hit back, and the stage time of Burns would take him closer to Sainz in second, and eventually he would pass the Spaniard for second. The Englishman was only on his second Rally of Finland, and was amazing everybody with his competitiveness. 'I like fast rallies, and I like jumps - you have to to come here!' related Burns at one point. Kankkunen had the opportunity to ease off a little over the last few stages, but the term is definitely relative in Finland. Some stages are all 5th and 6th gear flat, very rarely do the cars see fourth, let alone third or less! It is a most impressive sight - these guys earn their money here!

Colin McRae was trying to hold on to fourth place, and was succeeding until the Focus went sick with two stages to go. His time on SS22 was slower than the 49th quickest Mercedes 190E of Hytonen, and just quicker than fellow Brit Nigel Heath in a Group N Subaru! The car would struggle to the start line of SS23, and the crew were hoping to struggle through the stage and claim at least one World Championship point for sixth. But the car had had enough, and the motor died just over the second last crest of the rally, on TV for millions of people to see. The car spluttered to a stop on the top of the crest, and was certainly going no further. One kilometre to go, and no drive. A blown engine. 'At least I have now done almost every kilometre of this event now' remarked McRae, who tends to struggle on this event the same way Kankkunen tends to struggle on all tarmac events. But the Finnish crowd showed what great rally fans they can be when they applauded McRae and Grist all the way out of the stage.

So the Impreza WRCs of Kankkunen/ Repo and Burns/ Reid took Subaru's third win of the year, and the team looks good for the manufacturers' title. The third place car of Sainz/ Moya will keep up the challenge to the end. However, it is now 15 events since Sainz won Rally NZ in 1998, and the win by Kankkunen put him back in front of the WRC events won – 23 to Sainz's 22.

SEAT's new rally car had a fantastic outing, finishing in 5th and 6th

But what of the rest? Peugeot were delighted with fourth for the Finn Gronholm, while fifth and sixth was a great result on debut for SEAT and the new Evo 2 Cordobas, Rovanpera ahead of Gardemeister. Auriol? What happened to Didier Auriol I hear you asking? Well, he had the weaving problem on Saturday, and this reappeared on Sunday's stages. And when the news came through that he had retired two stages from home from a non points scoring eighth place my suspicious mind said 'they are going to prepare the car for the TV stage and grab three points.' And that is exactly what happened, with a little assistance from the weather. Just as the first two cars had gone through, the returnees Auriol and Makinen, down came the rain. And so the rest had a slower run, as the roads early in the stage were now wet rather than damp. So Auriol had three points from a DNF!

The Neste Rally Finland is so different to a Southern Hemisphere event in so many ways, not the least of which are the rally legends who grace the event. Some we spotted during the event were Ari Vatanen (no going into politics in Finland), Markku Alen, Hannu Mikkola, Jean Pierre Nicholas (now Peugeot Motorsport boss) and others. The sheer number of spectators was incredible as well, and they are real rally enthusiasts, as they carried signs of support for drivers I had never heard of before! The countryside the rally is run in is superb, and I am told we were extremely lucky with the weather. We had enough rain in NZ the last couple of years thanks, so hopefully that doesn't mean that Rally Australia will be wet!! More stories of our adventures in Finland next week!

Carlos Sainz was fast in the Corolla but very unlucky
Story and photographs by Neil Blackbourn. Neil also writes (and photographs) both the Australian Rally Super Series and the V8 Supercars (Australian Touring Cars) for The Car Enthusiast. Email your comments and suggestions.

Click here to view the championship standings to date.
1 Juha Kankkunen / Juha Repo Subaru Impreza WRC 99
2 Richards Burns / Robert Reid Subaru Impreza WRC 99
3 Carlos Sainz / Luis Moya Toyota Corolla WRC
4 Marcus Grönholm / Timo Rautiainen Peugeot 206 WRC
5 Harri Rovapera / Risto Pietilainen SEAT WRC
6 Tom Gardemeister / Paavo Lukander SEAT WRC
New Zealand Rally Rally of China

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