2023.08.22 Hyundai Motorsport Team

[2023 WRC 9R] Hyundai Motorsport Finished Second In The Speed Battle In Finland

Hyundai Motorsport Team
At WRC’s signature high-speed gravel Rally Finland, Hyundai Motorsport’s Thierry Neuville finished second. After the retirement of strong contender Kalle Rovanpera, his rivals battled for the title in an intense speed race. Hyundai Team’s rookie driver, Teemu Suninen, drew attention by finishing 4th.

Famous athletes from Finland are often referred to as ‘The Flying Finn’. Although it is an expression used in various fields of sports, this term is most appropriate for motorsport, especially rally. Finland is not only the home of F1 champions Keke Rosberg, Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen, but also Juha Kankkunen, Timo Salonen and Ari Vatanen. It is also the home of legendary rally drivers such as Ari Vatanen, Henri Toivonen and Tommi Mäkinen.

In addition, Rally Finland’s signature high-speed gravel stage perfectly fits the name of the Flying Finn, as it induces endless jumps with high elevation differences and steep bends. Hyundai Motorsport signed Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen, and considering WRC2’s Emil Lindholm, the team has a high proportion of Finnish drivers.

In 1951, the first Rally Finland was only a regional qualifier for the Monte Carlo Rally. At that time, the venue was Jyväskylä, where the service park is located, as it is now. As the number of foreign participants increased, the scale grew, and for a while, the name “1,000 Lakes Rally” was used. It is nicknamed because of the approximately 180,000 large and small lakes spread across Finland. Since joining the WRC in 1973, it has become an important event. The current official name is WRC Secto Rally Finland.

Rally Finland is a high-speed gravel rally that is unique among WRCs. Rally Estonia is similar, but the ultra-fast Rally Finland is still notorious. Nine of the top ten average speeds in all-time WRC events were marked in Rally Finland. The fastest race of all time was won by Kris Meeke in 2016, when his average speed was 126.62 km/h.

The road through the dense coniferous forest has relatively few tight corners, and there are elevations and bends. The driving speed is so fast that it sometimes exceeds 200 km/h, so these bends become ramps. The speed competition, in which drivers compete for courage on a roller coaster-like stage, fits the nickname “Finnish Grand Prix.”

Rally Finland is notorious for being a high-speed gravel rally with some of the world’s fastest races
Rally Finland requires securing grip on slippery gravel roads, stable high-speed driving and jumping, and perfect coordination with co-drivers. Photo: WRC (https://www.wrc.com)

High-speed long jumps are a fun show for audiences, but tricky for racers. Aerodynamic performance is important because you cannot properly control a car while it is in the air. It is also necessary to have a driving technique of stepping on the brakes right before the jump and accelerating with full throttle in time for the jump. If the speed is too fast, the car may overturn during the jump. In addition to damage caused by landing impact, unstable landings and inability to respond properly to straight corners often lead to accidents, so the performance of the suspension must also follow. In addition, meticulous note-taking and proper navigation timing are also important. This race puts a lot of pressure on co-drivers.

Hyundai Motorsport hired Thierry Neuville, Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen following the last Rally in Estonia

As in the previous Estonian Rally, the Hyundai team consisted of Thierry Neuville, Esapekka Lappi, and Teemu Suninen. With two Finnish drivers accustomed to high-speed gravel, they tried to compete against Toyota, whose team was based in Finland. Neuville, who wasn’t very strong on high-speed gravel, showed his potential by finishing second in Estonia. Unlike last season’s teammate Ott Tänak, whose rally car setup was completely different, this season, he and Lappi have similar driving styles, so studying the setup together had a good effect. Thanks to that, his confidence in Finland has also increased considerably.

Lappi, who finished third in Estonia due to a hybrid system problem, is not only the winner of Rally Finland in 2017, but he is also a promising championship winner as he has consistently been on the podium this season. People have high hopes for Teemu Suninen, also from Finland like him. As a new member of the Hyundai team, in Estonia he finished 5th despite being given his first Rally 1 car. He still needs to adapt, but the podium is enough to aim for. In WRC2, in addition to Hyundai newcomer Emil Lindholm, Fabrizio Zaldivar from Paraguay drove an i20 N Rally 2. Lindholm, who took over Hyundai WRC2 after Suninen was promoted to Rally 1, was the WRC2 champion last year.

The service park is located in Jyväskylä, the largest city in central Finland

Toyota put Kalle Rovanperä, leading the point ranking, Elfyn Evans, and Takamoto Katsuta on their list. Rovanpera was born in Jyväskylä, so this is his home ground. Although the stages are different from last year, he still has the advantage. He participated in Finland’s HYA Center Rally to check and test the settings before the race. And interestingly, Toyota team coach Jari-Matti Latvala was named in the entry. Latvala, who retired at the end of the 2019 season and started his coaching career, said he wanted to drive a rally 1 car before he turned 40. He has a history of winning three trophies in Finland.

Hyundai Motorsport focused on finding the right setup to tackle Rally Finland’s slippery gravel surfaces

M-Sport Ford did not return to England, its home base, but stayed in Estonia to prepare for Rally Finland. The drivers list again included Ott Tanak and Pierre-Louis Loubet. Estonian native Tanak is adept at high-speed gravel and has three Finnish victories so far, including a win last year while at Hyundai. However, he needs to get over the bad incident in Estonia where he was penalized for a sudden engine change.

Home of legendary rally drivers, Finland is a big fan of WRC

This year’s Rally Finland had 68 cars participating, the most in the last six years. Rally 1 has 9 cars and Rally 2 has 36 cars. Among them, the most eye-catching was Latvala, who took a break from directing for a while and returned as a racer after a long time. It has been almost 3 and a half years since he participated in the spot war in Sweden in 2020. Justus Räikkönen, who made his WRC debut on the same stage last year, is the nephew of F1 champion Kimi Räikkönen. Still 17 years old, Justus drove the Peugeot 208 Rally 4 again.

The stage is 27% newer than last year. After shakedown testing on the 4.48km-long test track on Thursday morning, the racers started at 7:05pm at the 3.48km-long SSS1 Harju, not far from the service park. The Super Special Stage using city roads and unpaved roads in the park is the same as last year. With Tanak recording the top time, Neuville followed by 0.6 seconds, and again, followed by Rovanpera, Lappi and Evans.

The high-speed gravel stage kicked off on Friday

Finland’s iconic high-speed gravel started on Friday, August 4th. Racers will repeat four stages - SS2 Laukaa, SS3 Lankamaa, SS4 Myhinpää and SS5 Halttula - in the morning and afternoon, followed by a repeat of Thursday’s Harju in SS10. These were 9 stages of SS2 to SS10 totaling 104.76km-long. The opening stage of the day, the 11.78km-long Laukaa, has a different starting point and a new half of the course than before; A feature of this course is the long jump. Lankamaa (14.21km) has also changed a lot by sharing some sections with last year. Meanwhile, Myhinpää (15.51km) is back after a long absence since 2015. Halttula is also an old stage used during the 1,000 Lakes Rally in the 1990s.

Hyundai Motorsport’s Esapekka Lappi skidded in a corner and suffered an unfortunate accident as his hometown fans watched. Photo: WRC (https://www.wrc.com)
Another Hyundai Motorsport driver from Finland, Teemu Suninen, almost suffered a serious accident, but managed to recover and continue the race. Photo: WRC (https://www.wrc.com)

In the opening SS2 Lauca, Toyota drivers from Katsuta to Evans and Rovanpera rose to the top 3. SS3 brought back Tanak’s nightmare from Estonia - an engine failure from the impact of landing after a jump. M-Sport completely collapsed as his teammate Loubet also retired in an accident.

Rovanpera took the overall lead with consecutive top times of SS3 and SS4, followed by Evans by 3.6 seconds. Neuville and Lappi, the Hyundai Team duo, followed closely behind. When the four stages were completed, the time difference to 4th place Lappi was less than 10 seconds. However, with Lappi’s retirement at SS5, the Hyundai team seemed to be out of luck. It started to rain and Lappi’s car went slightly out of a corner and the back of his car fell into a ditch, crashing into a tree and making it impossible to drive. Suninen went through a similar situation but luckily escaped.

The game changed with the sudden retirement of Toyota Team Kalle Rovanpera, who was leading the driver’s championship. Photo: WRC (https://www.wrc.com)

Rovanpera increased the distance little by little by catching SS6 and SS7 following three consecutive top times in the morning. But that was it. In the SS8, which took place again at Myhinpää, his car overturned after stepping on a puddle and was retired. Evans took the overall lead as Rovanpera retired in fourth behind Tanak, Loubet and Lappi. Neuville, who recorded the top time on SS8, was second with Evans by 10.9 seconds.

At Friday’s end, Evans led, and Neuville narrowed the gap to the leader by 6.9 seconds with three consecutive top times through the remaining two stages. Suninen was 4th, 12.4 seconds behind 3rd place Katsuta. Latvala was fifth, followed by WRC2 drivers including Jari Huttunen, Sami Pajari, Nikolay Gryazin and Oliver Solberg.

Early showers on Saturday left puddles and mud all over the course

On Saturday 5th August everyone headed southwest. Excluding the 18.94km SS11 Västilä stage, which came back after a long time, the legendary stages that have been used steadily recently were the main ones. Long-distance stages over 20km were lined up, including SS12 Päijälä (20.19km), SS13 Rapsula (20.56km), and SS14 Vekkula (20.65km). The stage covered 160.68km, making it the longest day of the rally. Some sections were quite tricky with puddles and mud created by sudden showers.

Rovanpera gave up repairs because his car’s chassis had suffered too much damage in the previous day’s accident. As the driver’s championship leader was confirmed to have scored no points, Evans (115 points) in second place and Neuville (112 points) in third place were highly likely to challenge for the title. Due to the retirement of major competitors such as Rovanpera and Tanak, Evans and Neuville will compete one-on-one in this Rally Finland. 

Evans performed well in the morning, recording consecutive top times from SS11 to SS14, widening the gap with Neuville slightly. Neuville also responded by speeding up to finish second for the fourth time in a row, but by the end of the morning the gap between the two had grown to 17.7 seconds. After the morning session, Neuville said in an interview that he had a hard time getting grip on wet gravel. Suninen was fiercely pursued by Katsuta. At the end of the morning, Katsuta was just over a second behind Suninen.

Evans’ sprint continued in the afternoon, when he repeated the morning stage. He consolidated his leading position by conquering all three stages in a row. When the schedule was all over, the time difference with Neuville increased to 32.1 seconds. Katsuta rose to 3rd place by 0.8 seconds on SS15 starting the afternoon, eventually overtaking Suninen by 6.4 seconds. In fifth place was Latvala, more than two minutes away. From sixth place, the WRC2 players took their place; Solberg, Pajari, Adrien Fourmaux, Gryazin, and Andreas Mikkelsen marked the 6th through 10th places.

Thierry Neuville quickly chased Evans, who was in the lead, but found it difficult to find full grip on the slippery road. Photo: WRC (https://www.wrc.com)
The final four stages on Sunday decided the results of Rally Finland

On Sunday 6 August, on a 51.64km-long section repeating two stages near the village of Himos, Moksi-Sahloinen and Himos-Jämsä, The final winner was determined. With Evans winning the opening stages SS19 and then SS21, Neuville gave up any hopes of a chase. At the time of leaving the final SS22, the time difference between the two is 38.2 seconds. On the other hand, Katsuta and Suninen battled for the final spot on the podium. Suninen chose a bold strategy of not loading a spare tire to create a turnaround at the end. Katsuta and Suninen, who started Sunday’s race with a gap of 6.4 seconds, reduced it to 4.5 seconds at the end of SS19, increased it to 7.2 seconds in SS20, and cut it back to 6.3 seconds in SS21, creating a fierce competition.

Teemu Suninen accelerated without a spare tire and attempted to take the podium through a last-minute overturn, but marked 4th. Photo: WRC (https://www.wrc.com)

At 1:15 pm, the final stage Himos-Yamsa (SS22), which also serves as the power stage, began. Evans took the final top time and was the final winner of Rally Finland. Neuville was second and Katsuta filled the last spot on the podium. Although Suninen unfortunately failed to reach the podium in 4th place, he climbed one step higher than Estonia, who made his Rally 1 debut as part of Hyundai Team. Latvala, coach of the Toyota team, was able to finish in 5th place, because of the retirement of the top players. In WRC2, Solberg won the class and placed 6th overall. And Pajari, Fourmaux, Griyazin and Mikkelsen scored points.

Evans picked up 30 points (25 points for victory + 5 points for first place on the power stage) in this rally, reviving his hopes of chasing the driver’s championship. Neuville also added 22 points (18 points for second place overall + 4 points for second place on the power stage) and added 134 points. The score gap with Rovanpera, which had been widened by 58 points, was reduced to 36 points. After Round 9 Rally Finland, WRC has only four races left. Round 10 is the Rally Greece, which will be held from September 7 to 10. Afterwards, the season will end with two consecutive Tarmac rallies in Chile, Central Europe and Japan.

Hyundai Motorsport plans to move towards the championship trophy by aiming for a reversal in the remaining 4 games

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. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’, a maniac, in me, wants to keep internal combustion engines from extinction.

HMG Journal Operation Team


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