Jari-Matti Latvala was top dog on home turf for the second consecutive year as the Volkswagen star claimed victory at Rally Finland. The home favourite triumphed in record-breaking style by setting a truly staggering average speed of 78mph through the sprawling pine forests, the fastest in WRC history. He headed teammate Sébastien Ogier by 13.7 secs, with Citroën’s Mads Østberg a distant third.
It was a highly emotional win for the 30 year-old who before the rally had conceded that his title hopes were all but over after a disastrous outing in Poland. However, far from demoralising the Finn, Latvala’s honest admission of defeat seemed to lift a huge weight from his shoulders. There was something of the uninhibited joy about this mesmerising performance, aptly described as “one of the greatest drives of my life” by the man himself.
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 mighty chilly this time of year.
One man who already knows how it feels to take an unscheduled dip in a WRC car is Ott Tänak. After his aquatic catastrophe earlier this season, the Ford man has steadily been gaining in confidence from rally to rally. Unfortunately for the M-Sport star, the fun in Finland was over almost as soon as it had begun when his Fiesta came of worse in a collision with a rock on stage 3. Damage to a front damper left the Estonian limping badly through Friday’s stages and restricted him to a lowly tenth by the end of the day. Teammate Elfyn Evans fared even worse after also striking a rock on the very next test, this time damaging the rear suspension. The Welsh prospect shed 10 minutes on the road and nosedived off the leader board.
The news was slightly better in the Hyundai camp, with Spain’s Dani Sordo sitting sixth by Friday evening after enduring a minor exhaust issue throughout the day. He was just 2.7secs adrift of colleague Thierry Neuville in fifth, the Belgian treading carefully through the forests in a bid to avoid a repeat of his dramatic crash in shakedown. The third i20 of Hayden Paddon initially led the Hyundai charge. The kiwi, buoyed by recent star performances in Italy and Poland, wasted no time in attacking the early stages and quickly sped up to fifth overall. However, his remarkable run of success was brought to an abrupt halt when he crashed heavily at the end of stage 6. He and experienced co-driver John Kennard escaped unhurt but the same could not be said for his crumpled i20 which was immediately retired for the day.
Citroën ’s Østberg drove confidently to end the day well clear of the pack in fourth. Teammate Kris Meeke looked even more impressive aboard the DS3, notching up a fastest time on stage 7 as well as several other rapid runs to get himself to within 12 seconds of the lead pair before a time penalty for arriving late at stage 9 dropped him a further 10secs behind.
Despite a rocky start to the day, which saw Andreas Mikkelsen wreck his Polo R after a role on stage 5 and Sebastien Ogier struggle for grip on the sodden roads, Volkswagen ended Friday with two cars at the top of the standings. Ogier diced with Meeke for the lead early on and briefly snatched the advantage on stage 3. However, it was Latvala who ultimately proved the world champion’s primary threat. The Finn attacked the iconic, jump laden Ouninpohja stage with breath-taking enthusiasm and admitted to frightening even himself such was the rate at which his Polo R flew over the crests. Along with a 400th career stage win, Latvala ended the day 2.6 seconds ahead of the chasing Ogier.
The battle of the Polos was on as Saturday dawned over the beautiful lakes of Finland. The morning’s action passed without a decisive blow being struck as both men picked up a brace of victories on the opening quartet of stages to leave them separated by just 3secs. However, a combination of misfortune for Ogier and brilliant bravery from Latvala left the latter in total command by the conclusion of day 2.
The heavens opened on Saturday afternoon turning the gravel roads in to virtual ice-rinks. With grip practically non-existent, disaster was bound to follow and the man sent skidding out of the rally was Kris Meeke. The Northern Irishman, then third overall, stopped on the roadside with heavy front left damage after a big off on a right hand corner. His accident promoted Østberg into the podium places for the first time but also sent a warning to those up ahead. Both Ogier and Latvala recognised the danger, however the Frenchman was unable to escape the treacherous test completely unscathed. Ogier slid wide and clipped a rock near the start of stage 16, the resulting damage enough to hamper his progress through the remaining kilometres. Sensing his opportunity, Latvala pounced, attacking fearlessly despite the torrential downpour to more than double his lead. Determined to press home the advantage, the Finn wowed the home crowds by snatching two further stage wins on Saturday afternoon, drawing admiration from all including his French arch-rival who was by now 13.2 seconds adrift and all but beaten.
Elsewhere, Meeke’s retirement saw the entire field shuffle up the leader board. Neuville battled minor electrical gremlins to hold fourth ahead a resurgent Tänak who jumped five places to fifth after a tremendous day aboard a now damage-free Fiesta RS. There was no such luck for Sordo, however, who careered into a ditch on stage 15 and spent an unpleasant 5mins attempting to lever his i20 back on to the road with the help of spectators. The Spaniard inevitably dropped out of the top ten and finished the day a frustrating eleventh overall.
Sunday’s brief loop of two stages provided little chance for the standings to be altered, and so it proved as Latvala crossed the final time control to rapturous celebrations. His victory total on home soil now stands at three and although the 2015 title may now realistically be beyond him, Finland’s finest looked unwilling to swap this emotional moment of glory for the world.
With win number two of the season in the bag, Latvala leapfrogs third place finisher Mads Østberg to second in the world championship. However, by clinching yet another top two finish and scooping 3 power stage bonus points on the way, world champion Sébastien Ogier now finds himself a mammoth 89 points ahead of the competition in the overall standings. A third consecutive title could mathematically be secured if results go his way at round 9 in Germany.
Coincidentally, Rallye Deutschland just happens to be the only event on the current calendar where the Volkswagen team has yet to record a single victory. Jost Capito’s outfit could not have asked for a better opportunity to end that hoodoo than this.
Rallye Deutschland runs from the 20th – 23rd August.
Final Results: Round 8 – Rally Finland
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