Again Alien2nrs crew is heading for “Gravel Grand Prix” aka Rally Finland.
Neil Cole said it quite good….
It was nice of Top Gear to remember rallying a few weeks back; that airbase Impreza-dressage by a goofy American skateboard-shoe millionaire was fun and impressively-filmed. But to a rally fan that is just a walk in the park… almost literally. Just like the car-chase sequence at the start of Quantum Of Solace – grown stuntmen went “Perfomance cars? Sideways? On gravel? Next to a big drop? No thanks! Run away!!…” so up steps triple British Rally Champion Mark Higgins, happy to take the wheel of a Bond villain’s Alfa Romeo and drive under what, to him, are entirely normal conditions. That is what I love about rallying; whether you’re standing knee-deep in Norwegian snow, or next to a Tex Avery-style Mexican cactus, or in sideways freezing Welsh rain, the popping banging whistling physics-defying hunk of metal flying past is NORMAL.
And so to Finland. We are entering the last 3rd of the 2009 season – and incredibly the World Championship is genuinely competitive again. Loeb’s Schumacher-like 5-year stranglehold on the sport, like his unfair share of the good luck, has dissipated in three consecutive bad results. Which means the pressure is on everyone this weekend. Couple that with the fact that Rally Finland is already the fastest, craziest, most flat-out rally of the year – the “Gravel Grand Prix” – and I cannot WAIT to endure the mosquitoes and vodka’d-up Finns in the lakey forests outside Jyvaskyla to catch a glimpse of a WRC car always sideways, usually in mid-air, often millimetres away from disaster. Normal… for the Finns.
There are many theories as to why the Finns make such good rally drivers – “they are driving farm vehicles before they can walk” “they learn to drive on snow & gravel rather than tarmac & speed-bumps” “they are driven self-endangeringly nuts by daylight-free winters”. Perhaps it is this “Sisu” they talk about – “Sisu” is a Finnish word, whose meaning is somewhere between “cojones” and “chutzpah”… or as Sebastien Loeb told me back in 2005 “big balls”. And he should know – even in his recent all-conquering years becoming the most successful driver in the history of the sport, it took him until 2008 to win there, and arguably deserve the greatest rallying accolade – letters after his name like the Toivonens, Makinens, Vatanens, Kankkunens, Salonens before him: Loebinen.
Big talking point right now is Jari-Matti Latvala. Undisputably one of the fastest, most exciting drivers out there… but also unreliable. I think, this weekend, he will either end up on the podium or in one of the thousand lakes this event used to be named after. One thing is for sure, if he’s leading on Sunday ahead of team-mate Mikko Hirvonen, he can expect the kind of team orders Malcolm Wilson charitably (and now I am sure ruefully) avoided in Sardinia. After the frankly stupid mistake in Poland – which, come the end of the season, could cost Ford both championships – JML will be lucky if the boss is still speaking to him. He certainly wasn’t the last time I saw them. Former World Champion Petter Solberg had an interesting perspective on JML: “It’s not like people can blame it on his age, he’s not young any more… and he’s done more rallies than me!”
We will also see Kimi Raikkonen out of his current F1 Ferrari discomfort-zone, cutting loose in a Punto, competing for the first time ever in a WRC event. He is excited about it, despite appearances to the contrary. Finns, especially Kimi, have a reputation for being grumpy and over-serious – but I just think that’s a language thing… their monotone speech patterns mean that a phrase like “I am extremely happy” is delivered in the same tone as “I may have run over your grandmother”. But they do have a heart, honest; some of my best friends are Finns.
Enjoy Rally Finland – it is one of the best sporting events known to humanity. I shall be there – watch the highlights on Dave on Sunday night at 6pm, but I also have a habit of breaking big news on twitter, so feel free to follow me @neilcole. One thing is for sure, as the world’s best rally drivers push themselves over the limit, it will take more than the latest double diffuser to decide this one… in Finland the “aero package” is simply the balls you need to go big over the jumps.