Out of 12 rounds, there are only three left for this year's WRC. The 10th round, Rally Finland, is the last gravel round of the season. This will be the last gravel rally of WRC as the new Rally 1 rules will come along next year. The rest, Spain and Monza, will all be held on paved roads.
This season hasn't been that good as the COVID-19 situation remains unsolved. The Rally Sweden, Chile, England, and Japan have been canceled, and the teams had to go through two rounds each in Finland and Italy. In the second round of the Arctic Rally that took place instead of Sweden, held in Rovaniemi, northern Finland, Tanak of Hyundai took the first win of the season. Though the 10th round, Rally Finland, will take place in the same country, the situation will be completely different from Arctic Rally, which has been entirely covered with snow. Jyvaskyla, where the Rally headquarters is located, is in south-central Finland and there is no snow during the season. It is more famous as the '1000 Lakes Rally' because the area is full of countless big and small lakes.
Rally Finland was started as an improvised qualifier event for the Monte Carlo Rally; it has been together with the very first WRC since 1973. And not only does it have a long history of 70 years but also it is considered to be the most popular round. Many fans were delighted with the return of Rally Finland, which had been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year. However, unlike the previous ones held in summer, this year's rally will be held in autumn. Many are speculating about this one as it never happened in October. The cold weather turned the forest yellow, and it usually rains from time to time during this season in Finland. So, each team inevitably becomes quite sensitive about the weather forecast; besides, the season of White Nights is over, and the teams would have to drive their cars in complete darkness after sunset.
The roads of Rally Finland are super-fast. The rally is driven on wide and smooth gravel roads with few obstacles and gentle corners. This is why Rally Finland is nicknamed 'The Finnish Grand Prix' or the 'Gravel Grand Prix'. In 2016, Kris Meeke established a new record for the fastest FIA WRC round in history, with a 126.60 km/h average speed. There isn't even time to make up for mistakes. The rally features blind crests and big jumps, so making pace notes accurately is the most important part. Due to the frequent co-driver replacements this season, Rally Finland also became a testbed to confirm their new partnerships.
Finland was quite tricky for Hyundai, as an away team aiming for a last-minute takeover. This is because Toyota has established its headquarter in Finland when it returned to WRC in 2017. Although things changed a lot in the team, they are still competing on home roads. They must have had quite a lot of experiences in the country while they develop their rally cars.
Thierry Neuville, Ott Tanak, and Craig Breen drove for Hyundai. With 130 points in the Driver's Championship, Neuville is on third, with 50 point-difference from Ogier. It's a long shot, but it's still too early to give up. Tanak, who placed 5th in the Championship, did not give up hope, either. Moreover, his home country Estonia has very similar stage characteristics to Finland; he has won there in 2018 and 2019. The Hyundai Team's 3rd car was driven by Craig Breen, who placed 2nd in a row in Estonia and Belgium. Breen is a veteran who has experience in Rally Finland 10 times.
For WRC 2, Jari Huttunen and Oliver Solberg continued to test their new i20 N Rally 2. Huttunen's car had a rollover accident during pre-tests on Monday, and it underwent repairing after the team got parts from Algenau, Germany. Solberg, on the other hand, has emerged unscathed from a recce accident - and fortunately, they used a practice car. In fact, co-driver replacement is a worse obstacle than an accident. Solberg recently split from Aaron Johnston and decided to sit next to Craig Drew, who had previously driven the rally car together at Subaru USA.
As for Toyota, the director Jari-Matti Latvala, Kalle Rovanpera, and even their rally car, the Yaris WRC, are Finnish. They are technically the home team with Sebastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans, marking first and second in the championship, respectively - plus Rovanfera, who is having his moment with his victory in Greece. Takamoto Katsuta, who was forced to take a break due to the absence of his co-driver, recently decided to hire Aaron Johnston. In addition, Toyota brought in Esapekka Lappi, who drove his fourth works Yaris in 2017 and 2018, and the team brought his 5th Yaris through RTE-Motorsport. As Ogier announced his retirement from the sport at the end of 2021, Toyota is testing their new driver lineup. Meanwhile, Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux are driving for M-Sport Ford. Fourmaux recently split with his co-driver Renaud Jamoul and announced a partnership with Alexandre Coria.
It was the first day of the match; it has been reduced to three days. Participants drove through the 4.04km test stage on Friday morning, making final preparations for their round in autumn. In the shakedown test, the Hyundai team showed good results; Tanak and Breen took first and second places, respectively, and Neuville took fourth place. Around 1:30 pm, the match started at SS1 Harju in the city of Jyvaskyla. The 2.31km-long short course near the soccer field and the park was full of audiences enjoying the rally after two years of break.
After that, the rally moved on to the super-fast gravel stage at the 12.31km-long SS2 Assamaki in the west. Assamaki is being run in the opposite direction this year, making it technical yet fast. The 21.37km-long SS3 Sahloinen-Moksi has dramatic jumps with thrilling corners at the end. After changing tires, each team finished Friday at the SS6 Oittila (19.75 km) south after repeating Assamaki and Sahloinen-Moksi.
At the beginning of the round, Hyundai Team's Tanak and Breen took the front row. Tanak, who took the lead in second place in SS2, ran the SS3 the fastest, widening the gap with Breen behind him. Lappi, who rode the World Rally Car for a long time, took third place. Neuville is sixth after the Toyota team drivers of Evans and Rovanpera, and Ogier, who was actually cleaning the road even though it looked clean, came in seventh. After a great start with SS1 top time, Katsuta was pushed back as he spun from the SS2 high-speed corner.
For the SS3 and SS4 after 5 pm, Tanak and Breen share top time. Brin was 4.3 seconds faster than Tanak in the SS6 Oittila running in the dark. Thanks to that, he finished Friday with an overall lead. With Tanak taking second place by 2.8 seconds, Hyundai Team dominated the first and second places. Evans drove the fastest in SS6 and soared to the third, beating out Lappi and Rovanpera of the same team. Neuville competed with Ogier, 23.4 seconds behind Rovanpera.
Saturday's competition took place near Jamsa, the second-largest city in central Finland. The 151.95km-long nine stages of SS7-SS15 are nearly half the course of Rally Finland. The 22.61km-long Paijala (SS8/SS12) is the longest of the competition. On the Kakaristo-Hassi stage (SS7/SS11) is the famous jump Ouninpohja, which symbolizes Rally Finland. A large jumping platform with a flying distance number board, watched by a large number of spectators, stimulates the players' spirit of challenge. However, if the landing is unstable, it can lead to a major accident. Arvaja (SS9/SS13) stage is the first WRC return in 27 years since 1994. Saturday ended after a repeat of the four stages in the morning and afternoon before returning to Jyvaskyla in the dark to repeat Friday's opening stage.
It was Evans who dominated the Saturday morning round. He took the lead from the opening, dominating four stages in a row. It was 5.6 seconds faster than Breen in second place and 9.7 seconds faster than Tanak in third place. Katsuta crashed after landing on SS8, while Rovanpera smashed into a pile of dirt on SS10 and the car was wrecked. As a result, Lappi, Neuville, and Ogier placed 4-6, while M-Sport Ford's Greensmith and Pomo placed 7th and 8th.
In the afternoon, Tanak, with a four-stage top time, beat Breen to second place; Nevertheless, the gap with Evans did not narrow down. Breen, whose car was damaged by colliding with a haystack, lost his aerodynamic balance and fell behind little by little. Still, Breen was lucky; Neuville had to retire due to a radiator leak from landing damage. Moreover, the engine was damaged and it seemed impossible to participate in Sunday's power stage. He was forced to go for the Drivers' Championship next season.
After winning the SS14 Patajoki, Evans finished Saturday with a close lead. Tanak and Breen chased in second and third, respectively, with a gap of only about 10 seconds. Lappi finished 4th 25 seconds behind Breen, and Ogier finished 5th thanks to Neuville's retirement, despite a one-minute penalty for not tying his helmet properly; Then Greensmith and Fourmaux followed. Suninen, who recently left M-Sport Ford, took 8th place and took the lead in the WRC2 class, while Huttunen of Hyundai Team finished 11th - 3rd in the WRC2 class.
Sunday's course was similar to 2019; The teams drove the 45.74km-long SS16 through SS19 twice over the two stages. The last stage/power stage SS19 Ruhimaki has dramatic jumps. Toyota's Katsuta and Rovanpera, who were retired, repaired their car and returned.
On the high-speed Laukaa (SS16) stage with a relatively wide road, Tanak narrowed the time difference with Evans by 0.4 seconds with the top time. However, Evans also earned 3.5 seconds on the SS17 Luhimaki, leading by 12.2 seconds. Breen in the third made a few mistakes at the intersection, but still has over 20 seconds to spare with Lappi behind. Ogier, who placed 5th alone, decided to focus on scoring the power stage rather than pushing too hard. Evans was the fastest at SS18 again at Laukaa - and followed by Tanak, Lappi, and Breen.
Now all that was left was the final stage, which was also a power stage. The power stage, where drivers can score up to five points, is very important in the fierce championship competition. By adding the power stage score to the ranking score, individuals can earn up to 30 points (25+5), and up to 52 points (25+18+5+4) for each team in one round. In the past, power points were added only to the driver's championship, but from this year they can be added to the manufacturer's championship as well.
But there was no final surprise. Evans took it all the way to the final stage and took a perfect victory in Finland. Instead, the Hyundai team took the double podium; with Tanak in the second and Breen in the third. Returning to WRC after a long time, Lappi placed 4th. Ogier, Greensmith, Fourmaux, Suninen, Østberg and Lindholm also took points. On the power stage, Evans, Tanak, Lappi, Katsuta, and Breen took the extra points.
In driver points, Ogier still leads with 190 points. However, Evans (166 points) placed 2nd place, giving a thrill to the very end with a maximum 30 points available at the rally. Neuville, who failed to score, was effectively pushed out of the title race. Tanak came in second, and Neuville and Rovanpera's scoreless scores left third and fifth places a point difference each.
In the manufacturer category, Toyota scored 441 points, widening the gap with Hyundai with 380 points. This year, the WRC will play the 11th round in Spain on October 14-17, and then finish the season in Monza, Italy on November 18-21.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. 27 years have passed since then, the years of plowing through the writing struggles of an auto journalist. After becoming an editor for 〈Car Vision〉, I came to my current position as the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.
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