A steely-nerved Jari-Matti Latvala has taken top honours in front of his home fans at WRC’s blue-ribbon event in Finland. The Volkswagen ace stormed to a sizable 31sec lead after the first three days of action and looked set for a sedate stroll to the podium.
However, all preparations for the final day lap of honour were blown out of the water when his Polo R picked up extensive damage after hitting a deep rut on Saturday evening and allowing his teammate Sébastien Ogier to draw within striking distance. But the flying Finn’s determination not to be usurped in his own back yard shone through and he kept his cool to win by 3.6secs. His triumph represented the first home victory on Finish soil in four years.
After a success-filled couple of weeks at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, there was yet more for fans of British sport to celebrate, as Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke brought home the bronze with a phenomenal drive to third place. The lightning fast Finnish roads seemed to suit the Citroën man down to a tee, so much so that at one point on day two he was even able to out-strip the usually unmatchable Ogier on pure pace alone.
Finland is indisputably the Mecca of rallying. First run in 1951 as a qualifying event for Finnish drivers competing to enter Rallye Monte Carlo, the event has since arguably become even bigger than its Mediterranean-based counterpart. It is easy to see why. Foot to the floor from start to finish and choc-full of death-defying roller-coaster jumps up to 60m long, Rally Finland has provided 8 of the 10 fastest rallies in WRC history and is rightly considered to be the ultimate test of a crew’s skill and bravery. A shoe-in on the WRC calendar since the series’ inaugural year in 1973, it has also become a real home fortress for local drivers, with 52 of the 63 previous editions having been won by Finnish pilots, amongst whom Hannu Mikkola and Marcus Grönholm both have seven victories a piece.
However, in recent times the home favourites have not had things all their own way, and the country’s four year barren spell was surly at the forefront of the Töysä-born Latvala’s mind as he charged in the action on day one.
Sure enough, the Polo driver wasted no time in stamping his authority and stormed in to the lead after Thursday’s brief leg of stages. He and teammate Ogier were first on the road but reaped the rewards when the rain came in the afternoon and the gravel tracks began to cut up and hamper the progress of those running behind. Despite the great efforts of Meeke to stay within 10secs of the leading duo, the gulf in time even after such a short leg was illustrated when M-Sport’s Mikko Hirvonen ended the day in fourth, already 26.4secs off the lead. The Finn had relegated his compatriot Juho Hänninen to fifth after the Hyundai man was bogged down through stage 3 and lost 15secs on the deteriorating road surface. Andreas Mikkelsen was not able to join his Volkswagen colleagues out in front but comfortably held sixth ahead of Mads Østberg, Thierry Neuville, Robert Kubica and Hayden Paddon.
Day two started unnervingly for leader Latvala who briefly planted his Polo R in to a ditch. However, it was on the afternoon loop where the 29 year-old really came to life, pushing himself and his machinery to the limit over the colossal jumps and building a 19.7sec cushion over his rivals. For once, it was world champion Ogier who was feeling the pace. As the first man out on track he was exposed to the worst of the loose gravel roads and despite a concerted effort to minimise losses, he was passed by the turbo-heeled Meeke in the afternoon session. This has to go down as one the Brit’s best ever days behind the wheel of a WRC car as he confidently blazed a trail through the Finnish countryside with almost effortless control.
This left Mikkelsen, Østberg and Hirvonen in a three way fight for fourth position. The latter led the way for most of the day but spun late on to allow Østberg to edge ahead. However, it was the younger of the two Norwegians who had the last laugh as Mikkelsen cranked up the pace to move ahead of the pack by 1.2secs by the close of day two.
Further back, it was a sobering day for Hyundai who lost the lead car of Thierry Neuville to a damaged rear wing and roll cage and also saw Hänninen roll his i20 on stage 6, losing a minute and dropping back to ninth. His car was joined in the garage by Robert Kubica’s Fiesta RS after the Pole went off the road on the opening test, wrecking his front left suspension.
For Latvala and the Finnish crowds, things continued to go swimmingly for much of day three. That was until disaster struck on stage 20. The repeat run of Jukojärvi, already badly rutted from the morning loop, yielded treacherous conditions underfoot. One particular deep hole in the road caught out the rally leader and the resulting impact broke the right front brake caliper on his Polo R, forcing him the tackle the last three stages with just three brakes. Ogier, who had earlier written off his own chances of closing the 31sec gap to his teammate, immediately smelt blood. The Frenchman promptly rattled off four stage wins and had slashed the lead down to a precarious 3.4secs by the evening to set up a fascinating final day duel for the trophy.
Despite his continued stellar pace, Citroën’s Meeke was not about to risk a potential podium finish by engaging in a battle with the two VWs. He throttled back and calmly consolidated his grip on third. In the fight for the minor places, however, mechanical issues were beginning to take their toll. First, Østberg ploughed his DS3 in to a rock on stage 18. The damaged appeared superficial until a scrutineers inspection at mid-day service revealed significant structural damage to the roll cage, leaving his team with no option but to retire the car. Neither of his rivals for fourth had it much easier, with Mikkelsen ending the day with no brakes and Hirvonen damaging a shock absorber on stage 20. Both lost time, although the VW number three led the M-Sport man heading in to the final day.
In truth, it would have been a travesty had Latvala not held on for victory on Sunday having worked so hard to get that far. In the end, the sliver of time left in the bank over Ogier was just enough to see him safely home. With his car repaired overnight, the Finn was able to neutralise his colleague’s challenge to the delight of the home faithful. Ogier’s power stage victory gave him an extra three championship points but Latvala himself was second and has now reduced the deficit in the overall standings to 44 points with five rallies remaining.
Meeke was conscious of the Volkswagens’ dominance but insisted he was delighted with securing a “special” podium spot in third. Citroën will want to see more of the same from the Northern Irishmen who clearly has the pace to match almost anyone on his day.
More than a minute behind was Mikkelsen in fourth. He emerged on top in the tussle with Hirvonen and retains third place in the world championship.
Hänninen was the top ranked Hyundai driver as he recovered to sixth just ahead of Elfyn Evans and junior teammate Hayden Paddon who was deprived of a better finish by power steering problems on the last day.
Despite a memorable home victory to savour, Latvala still has a lot of work to do if he is to catch Ogier and stop the Frenchman from claiming back-to-back WRC titles. The popular Finn will have to be on the very top of his game from now until the end of the season, starting at Rallye Deutschland which runs from 21st – 24th of August.
Final Results: Round 8 – Rally Finland
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