Since the 60’s the 1000 Lakes Rally, now known as Neste Oil Rally Finland, has been the crown jewel in the WRC calendar. So if you’re going to see a WRC event, this is the one to see, right? Well at least that’s the vague theory that caused me to venture as far north on this planet as I’ve ever been before to see some bloke’s with funny names drive small hatchbacks way too quickly through some trees. Put like that it seems like a bit of a daft endeavor, but it was anything but.
For the first time on my little tour, I wasn’t alone. It actually all started on an infamous evening; Saturday 24th of November 2012. After the Southern Districts Car Club go kart night back in Adelaide, Australia, Patrick Chan (left) and myself (right) were discussing our respective upcoming trips to Europe when we realized we’d both be there at the same time. Rather than meet up at some generic bar or tourist hotspot, we checked the WRC calendar and decided that Finland was as good a place as any. Later that night we would of course go on to purchase 2Festi and race it the next day and the rest is history, but the Finland seed was planted. Further conversation a few weeks later revealed that our mutual friend, David Rudzitis (middle), would also be in Europe at the same time. Such serendipity! Eight and a half months later, three Australian rally fans were converging on the Finnish city of Jyväskylä from three very different directions.
The first thing that needs to be said about Rally Finland is that it is, without fail, the most spectator friendly rally I’ve ever been to. As the most famous WRC event with arguably the highest speeds I was expecting the spectator access to be pretty poor. And having to spend 65 euro on day 1 to buy a pass to see any of the stages or service park initially confirmed my expectations.
But once you buy that 65 euro Rally Pass you have full and complete access to the event. In Australia you usually avoid the designated spectator points because they restrict what you can do, but not in Finland. Over here a spectator point means you can still watch from where you like, but you have decent food stalls, a bar, toilets and car parking.
If you want to watch and still be within shouting distance of the bar you stand behind a barrier. But the officials actually encourage you to trek into the forest and discover the event for yourself and there’s plenty of well worn trails leading away from the spectator points. There are officials located every few hundred meters who are there to make sure nobody does anything plainly stupid, but they’ll let you walk along the road to find a better spot. Instead of discouraging you, they instead blow a whistle before the car arrives so you’ve got plenty of time to get off the road – a different way of thinking. It’s also worth pointing out that none of these major spectator points are actually advertised. Full stage maps are published in local media, and people just know where to go.
It was really refreshing to be trusted to use our own common sense. But I guess this probably has more to do with the Finnish mentality than anything else. You couldn’t give this level of freedom to spectators in Australia as you’d end up with pandemonium, but in Finland it just works.
The gravel roads up here are beyond belief. Without fail they are all smooth, flowing, properly cambered and demonly quick. With Finland being such a flat country the tarmac roads are actually pretty boring, but you can pick absolutely any gravel road and it will be brilliant. It’s no wonder Finland produces more top class rally drivers than any other country, and when you see the roads you instantly understand why. If you’re a bad driver up here, you crash, especially in winter. The Finn’s take their driving very seriously, and the average level of interest and competency is higher than in any other country I’ve visited.
In between the two WRC passes of the famous Ouninpohja special stage they ran a national event through. More than three quarters of the field were proper front engine/rear drive cars (BMW E36, AE86 Sprinter and Volvo’s were popular), and without fail almost all of the drivers were pushing much harder than the bottom three quarters of the WRC field. When you see these local guys race, you understand just how devastating a Finnish driver can be and why they make up a disproportionately large part of the WRC entry list.
You always hear about the importance of the swept line and how the first couple of cars sacrifice their times to sweep the stage for those who follow, but I’ve never seen such a graphic example of this before as in Finland. The two dark wheel tracks follow the whole stage and are super hard and grippy. It’s almost like a concrete surface, and around many corners you could actually see black tire marks like you’d find on tarmac. In contrast, the light grey area is littered with loose rocks and gravel and provides almost no grip at all.
The roads are fantastic if you stay on the line, but venture off it and you’ve got major problems. The crew were unhurt in this accident that bent the roll cage right above the drivers head, but essentially they came down a hill too fast, and once they understeered off into the marbles they had no chance at all.
After hitting several trees, one at head height and one hard enough to actually knock it over, their Spec C was a mess and a timely reminder that as excellent as the Finnish roads are, they can most certainly bite.
On the Friday night we went to see the Killeri Super Special Stage close to the center of Jyväskylä. This has unfortunately spoiled me, and has highlighted that this is exactly how a super special should be run. The action was thick and fast and didn’t drag on for too long – it finished leaving the crowd wanting more, which is the way it should be.
As the cars pulled up to the start line the commentators spoke about each crew and how they were going in the event so far. Well, at least I think they did. It was all in Finnish so we were left guessing to some extent.
If the timing worked out both of the cars would hit the jump at the same time. The organization was so slick that the next cars were already forming up as the previous ones completed their lap, so there was almost never any ‘dead’ track.
The service park was located right in the heart of Jyväskylä, surrounded by tall office buildings and hotels on two sides, the central train station on the third and the main river through the city on the fourth. It really was the heart of the action, and was a hive of activity from the beginning to end of the day. There were bars in the service park and all of the city’s clubs and restaurants were only a few minutes across a walkway, so it ended up being a place that people gravitated towards. You could tell that in addition to the hardened rally crowd there to see service there were a lot of people there simply because it was a fun place to be.
The engineers work to save a tenth of a second here and there in car speed, but they also work to make things easier and faster in the service park. Even just the little things, like how there is an abundance of air lines so you don’t need to waste even a few seconds looking for one if it’s needed.
Rally crews certainly do it tougher than their circuit racing counterparts. Despite the rain and wet and muddy cars, still the crews pushed on. It didn’t matter if you were a top WRC mechanic or bottom amateur helper, everyone works on dripping, dirty cars.
And the further you go to the back of the park, the more and more amateur the crews became. It was slightly comforting knowing that there are crews competing in WRC Rally Finland who service using the headlights of their Recce car for illumination. We do that!
Of course any travel to foreign lands always involves some element of culture shock, and whilst an English speaker can visit Finland with minimal hassles, there still were a few funny moments. For the record this is not water, it is actually some sort of dill flavored vinegar for pickling gherkins. I was extremely thirsty so we bought 4.5 liters of it, and it’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever tasted.
Back to WRC, and the other thing I love so much is that the only thing stopping you from getting close to the best drivers and cars in the world is luck and being in the right place at the right time.
As it turned out this probably wasn’t the right time or place to get a friendly reception from eventual third place finisher Mads Ostberg, but you can’t beat essentially having a private viewing of a top M-Sport WRC car!
But most of the action happened a little further down in the WRC field. Evengy Novikov had this crash on SS8 and attempted to continue through the stage to service park until he was stopped by the police. (This happened on the stage we were spectating, and Chris Meeke caught and passed the broken Novikov on the corner we were on. Guess who was trying arty stuff at the time and had the camera settings wrong and missed it? Damn).
Ex Formula 1 pilot Robert Kubica had this very lucky escape and was able to continue on to a second place in WRC2.
And the award for just about the weirdest accident I’ve ever seen goes to Yazheed Al Rajhi. For the record the cameraman escaped uninjured, but the same cannot be said for his equipment.
The true hallmark of a good event is that you miss it the following day. And despite the fact that we weren’t competing or really involved with the event, David, Pat and myself all agreed that on the following day it felt strange to not be putting on the Rally Pass and heading out into the Finnish forest.
Rally Finland is an event with soul; something that can’t be communicated through TV or the Internet. When you go to Rally Finland you are at the Genesis of world rallying, and that’s something that’s impossible to replicate anywhere else. On the face of it, it may just be a whole bunch of bloke’s with funny names driving hatchbacks way too fast through the forest. But it’s a whole lot more than that. It’s a damn long way to come, but if you ever make it up here you certainly won’t regret it.