A record breaking performance at Rally Finland 2016 assured that Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s Kris Meeke won’t forget his latest outing at the home of rallying in a hurry. Clinching victory over home hero and experienced Rally Finland campaigner Jari-Matti Latvala by almost half a minute, the Northern Irishman set a new record for the fastest WRC round in history by posting a blistering average speed of 79mph through the thickly wooded Scandinavian landscape. As if that wasn’t enough, in doing so the 37 year-old becomes the first ever Briton to win this most iconic of events and just the sixth man from outside Scandinavia to conquer its hallowed trails.
Volkswagen WRC’s Latvala was unable to resist the inspired Meeke and, after a prolonged fight with the long-time leader, conceded defeat on Saturday afternoon. There were equally as joyous scenes elsewhere on the podium where Irish youngster Craig Breen, in only his fourth senior WRC event , captured an unlikely third place for the Citroën-affiliated Abu Dhabi team, beating a whole raft of WRC veterans in the process.
What’s not to love about Rally Finland? Lightning fast gravel roads, roller-coaster jumps and beautiful woodland scenery; this corner of the world was simply made for rallying. The many thousands of fans who pack out the stages year after year love their sport, and the quicker and more hair-raising the better. That’s exactly what’s on the menu here at an event historically dominated by home drivers. Fortress Finland is in fact so impregnable to foreign invaders that a remarkable 52 of the 64 editions held thus far have been won by flying Finns; Marcus Grönholm, Hannu Mikkola and Tommi Mäkinen to name but a few. High speed of course entails high risk and although mechanical issues tend to be rare along the smooth Finnish tracks, the one component always stretched to the absolute limit is the human mind. That means drivers – and especially co-drivers – can ill-afford even a momentary lapse in concentration; those famous roadside lakes are notoriously chilly even in the height of summer.
After Thursday night’s traditional ceremonial spectator stage, it was quickly down to business on Friday morning as the crews mounted their attacks on Finland’s endlessly undulating roads. Undoubtedly aided by his low starting position on the dry gravel surface, the man last seen storming to victory at Rally Portugal in May took no time at all to get back into his winning stride on-board the Abu Dhabi-run Citroën DS3. Two fastest times on Friday morning thrust Meeke to the front of the jostling pack and a further brace of stage wins in the afternoon helped him maintain a comfortable 18.1sec cushion during the second loop, where more ample grip drew increased pressure from the early runners.
One man Meeke didn’t have to unduly worry about following the first day of battle was triple world champion Sébastien Ogier. In the midst of a difficult run of gravel rallies, with his status as championship leader saddling him with the dubious honour of road-opener, the VW ace has struggled to keep himself competitive of late. Until now, Ogier’s unerring consistency has seen him amass a respectable points haul on all events so far this year, but the reigning champ’s luck finally ran out on stage 10 in Finland. A momentary and highly uncharacteristic lapse in concentration sent the Frenchman’s Polo R slip-sliding into a ditch just three stages before Friday’s close of play. The 16 agonising minutes spend dislodging the stricken Polo from its gravelly tomb consigned Ogier’s hopes of even a steady points finish, let alone overall victory, to the WRC scrap heap.
Latvala, gunning for a hat-trick of wins on home soil, led the Volkswagen charge in Ogier’s absence. The Finn suffered a minor scare on Friday morning when an over-exuberant drift into the rough stuff on a downhill section left his Polo R with a rear left puncture. Nevertheless, the 31 year-old held firm in second, ahead of the tussling trio of Thierry Neuville, Andreas Mikkelsen and Craig Breen; the former able to edge into the provisional podium places when Mikkelsen ran into a ditch on the penultimate stage.
For Estonia’s Ott Tänak, Friday proved to be the most topsy-turvy of days. The DMACK star has had a long time to stew over the heart-breaking finale at Rally Poland last month, where he seemed destined for a maiden WRC victory until a penultimate stage puncture left his dreams in tatters. Vowing not to give up the hunt for that elusive first trophy, Tänak would need all the mental resilience he accrued from that chastening experience on a weekend of extreme ups and downs in Finland. Initially just 0.7sec adrift of Meeke, a heavy landing on stage 5 was too much for the suspension on Tänak’s Ford Fiesta. Dumped down to tenth, a studied fightback to seventh was abruptly halted by a puncture on Friday evening. The 28 year-old ended the leg in eight behind M-Sport’s Mads Østberg , all this despite displaying enough raw pace to bag him three stage wins in the day.
Tänak would be back, but not before one man wowed the Finish hoards with a truly masterful performance on 33km of the most fear-inducing roads in world rallying; Ouninpohja. Only the bravest of the brave dare to keep their foot to the floor over this iconic set-piece’s 70 death-defying jumps. The nature of the beast favours those home drivers most acquainted with its innumerable driving intricacies; from road positioning to breaking and take-off points. However, this time round it was the man from Ulster who dominated all before him, producing a scintillating performance over the crests that left even local expert Latvala in awe. Taking a whopping 13secs out of his chief pursuer on that stage alone, Meeke had completely sucked away any trace of wind from the Finn’s sails. Barring a complete capitulation, a stunned Latvala quickly recognised the game was up and set about consolidating second position. This he achieved, despite not winning a single stage on Saturday, ending the longest day of the weekend just over a minute clear of the quietly impressive Breen.
Further back, it was another stop start-day for the mercurial Tänak. Friday’s pace was immediately evident – a rapid run through the 23.5km stage 14 catapulted him from eighth to fifth – but so was the misfortune. A second puncture midway through day two undid all of Tänak’s good work in the blink of an eye. Undeterred, the irrepressible Estonian hit the comeback trail yet again, incredibly requiring just two stages to leap-frog the battling quartet of Andreas Mikkelsen, Mads Østberg, Hayden Paddon and Thierry Neuville. Of this closely matched group, only Mikkelsen was cut adrift by Saturday evening. The Norwegian dropped five places during the day, largely as a consequence of his position as default road-opener in Ogier’s absence.
Sunday’s brief foursome of stages provided scant opportunity for late charges up the leaderboard. However, Rally Finland had one last sting in its tail for the embattled Ott Tänak. A late assault on the podium seemed at the forefront of the Fiesta pilot’s mind as the action commenced on Sunday morning. Indeed, fastest time for Tänak on the opening test – his sixth of the rally – seemed to suggest that Breen’s grip on third place may be loosening. Unfortunately for the Estonian, it proved to be yet another false dawn. One stage later, Tänak was fishing his DMACK Fiesta out of a rather large ditch following a miss-timed jump and swallowing the bitter pill of a second last-gasp disaster in succession.
His demise left Breen with a 6.6sec advantage over Thierry Neuville, a gap which the Hyundai pilot seemed unwilling or unable to bridge. Emotional scenes at the finale capped off an incredible day and weekend for the Irish rookie, one the youngster described as quite simply “the best of my life”.
Latvala was in reflective mood at the podium, bemoaning his lack of fighting spirit for not completing a hat-trick of home rally wins after successes here in 2014 and 2015. That said, the Finn should take solace from his virtually unblemished run to the finish, not to mention the major points haul that sees him climb to third in the drivers’ championship, his highest placing of the season so far.
As for Meeke, this part-time rallying lark seems to be suiting the Ulsterman down to the ground. Four rallies, two wins; most drivers in the world would snap off the proverbial hand for a 50 per cent success rate. Leading virtually from start to finish, victory here in the most home-biased of environments has to go down as the 37-year old’s greatest achievement to date. This time round, the records and accolades will mean just as much to Meeke as the points haul, with the name of the game this year very much about keeping his hand in ahead of 2017. For Citroën’s on looking bosses meanwhile, the signs are more than promising. Ultimately, Meeke’s red-hot form during his limited time at the wheel will inspire them with the confidence that they have the right man at the helm to lead the Citroën World Rally Team into the brave new era of WRC.
Round nine sees the championship move back to black, with the asphalt-dominated Rallye Deutschland next on the WRC itinerary from the 18 – 21 August.
Final Results: Round 9 – Rally Finland 2016
|POS||#||DRIVER…………||TEAM||POINTS||TOTAL TIME||DIFF PREV||DIFF 1ST|