- The WRC heads to Finland after a six-week summer break
- Loeb is the first non-Finn to win the event twice
- Hirvonen determined to get back “on even terms” with Loeb
After a six-week break, the WRC resumes with the iconic Rally Finland. Having already won twice in the land of a thousand lakes, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena start the eighth round of the season with a comfortable lead in the Drivers’ standings.
The eight-time World Champions can expect to find a raft of Scandinavian drivers attempting to block their path, starting with their Citroën Total World Rally Team team-mates, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen. In search of their first victory with the team, the Finnish crew would dearly love to win here.
With five wins in the first seven rallies for Loeb and Elena and the same number of podium finishes for Hirvonen and Lehtinen, the Citroën Total World Rally Team has negotiated the first half of the 2012 season impressively. The team holds a 93-point lead in the Manufacturers’ World Championship, whilst its two crews lie first and second in the Drivers’ standings respectively. The second half of the season, which will remain in Europe to its conclusion, starts in Finland. Whereas the last three rallies placed greater emphasis on endurance – with over 400km of stages in Argentina, Greece and New Zealand – in Jyväskylä, the Finnish round keeps to its sprint format, with the stages packed into just three days, from Thursday evening to Saturday evening. Winding through the conifer forests, the rally’s gravel roads are famous for their jumps, crests and blind corners. For a long time, this highly specific terrain was the preserve of Nordic drivers, until a certain Sébastien Loeb became the first non-Finn to win the event twice (2008 and 2011).
Despite his recent success here, Seb is not prepared to label himself as the big favourite for the rally: “I say the same thing every year; this is not my favourite rally. The stages are magnificent, but the trees are a bit too close to the road for my liking. I have always managed to avoid going off, undoubtedly because I don’t go flat out if I don’t feel totally comfortable behind the wheel. To be totally honest, it is difficult to say whether I’ll be going for the win or not. I’ve got such a healthy lead in the World Championship that I don’t need to take any risks. But if I feel that I am capable of winning, then I’ll go for it.”
If there is one driver who has made no secret of his desire to win this rally, then it is unquestionably Mikko Hirvonen. The 2011 WRC runner-up grew up in Jyväskylä and won his home rally in 2009. After two years of frustration here, he is totally focused on winning the ‘1000 Lakes Rally’ for a second time: “I think that I have now collected plenty of runner-up spots, so it’s time to get my first win with Citroën! Obviously, if it could happen at my home rally, I would be overjoyed. I really like quick rallies, and it’s in these kinds of conditions that I feel most comfortable in the Citroën DS3 WRC. I hope there will be a good scrap at the front, not just with Seb but also with the other leading contenders.”
As the Citroën Total World Rally Team features drivers that have won Rally Finland in three out of the last four years, Yves Matton believes we can look forward to some extremely high quality racing: “I think our rivals will be prepared and eager to fight back. They’ll be going all out to end our run of victories. But Seb and Mikko will give as good as they get from the likes of Latvala, Solberg, Ostberg, etc. Our drivers are capable of pushing from start to finish, and they’ll need to do so to ensure Citroën wins this legendary rally once again.”
THREE QUESTIONS FOR… MIKKO HIRVONEN
Do you feel any extra pressure for Rally Finland? How important is this event in your country? “Obviously, I felt a bit more pressure in 2010 and 2011. But each time, the rally didn‘t go very well for me. This year, my mindset is different. I feel confident because I know that the Citroën DS3 WRC will be formidable on this surface. I can’t wait to get racing on the first few stages. The city of Jyväskylä certainly goes through a bit of a transformation as the start of the event approaches. Everyone starts talking about the rally and people make extensive preparations for the event, organising their trips to watch stages with their friends and families. The closer we get to the start, the more the excitement becomes palpable. In the local newspapers, more or less bizarre predictions begin to appear: who will win the first stage, who will go off first, etc. It really is a major event in Finland, because the Finns are truly passionate about rallying.”
What do you think about the 2012 route? Can we assume you’re pleased to see the Ouninpohja stage back in the rally?! “It is really good to see the old stages back on the itinerary. There will also be some brand new stages, such as the Mynnilä test, which will be a new experience for everyone. Of course, I am pleased that Ouninpohja is back. It’s an incredible stage, one of the two or three best stages in the world. It is also one of the most difficult, because you are flirting with going off on every corner and on every jump! It’s flat out all the way and the feeling you get when driving is indescribable. You still feel the excitement even after passing the stop control, when you think about what you have just done.”
Sébastien Loeb has won this rally twice, whereas you’ve only one victory here. Do you intend to put the record straight? “What I can say for sure is that I will be tackling the rally differently to the last two years. I am going to be a little bit more cautious at the start. I don’t want my chances to be ruined by Thursday afternoon. However, you can’t afford to lose too much time because gaps that open up can be very difficult to close. When it comes down to it, yes, I want to get back on even terms with Seb. I really want to win this rally!”