The ‘Gravel Grand Prix'
Land of the Flying Finns
After Rally Estonia, the World Rally Championship moves further north to Rally Finland for more high-speed gravel thrills. And while Estonia is a modern player on the special stages, its neighbour is a historical superpower, with Finland producing seven world champions since 1977 with 14 titles between them. Not bad for a country of fewer than six million people.
Rally Finland is also known as the Gravel Grand Prix and with good reason: Nine of the 10 fastest WRC rounds in history have been staged on the roads around Jyvaskyla in central Finland, including each of the last six editions despite attempts to reduce average speeds.
It's on these roads in what was formerly known as the 1000 Lakes Rally that the great ‘Flying Finns' learnt their trade before going on to dominate abroad, beginning in the 1960s with names such as Rauno Aaltonen, Pauli Toivonen, Simo Lampinen and Timo Makinen.
Hannu Mikkola bridged this era and the early years of the WRC, winning a record seventh Rally Finland in 1983 when he finally won his first and only world crown. By the end of the decade, Markku Alen had won his home event six times, with Ari Vatanen and Timo Salonen both adding a pair of victories to their solitary world title successes.
In the 1990s, Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen set new benchmarks as the first four-time world champions, Makinen winning in Finland for five years in a row. In the 21st century, Marcus Gronholm matched Mikkola's tally of seven home wins, but was thwarted in his attempts to add to his two world titles by Frenchman Sebastien Loeb, who eventually began winning in the Finns' back yard too.
Gronholm's second world championship in 2002 remains the last to be won by a Finnish driver. But that 20-year drought looks to be coming to an end. For the first time since Mikko Hirvonen in 2009, a Finnish driver arrives to Rally Finland leading the championship. And Kalle Rovanpera is leading it comfortably: 83 points clear after wins in five of the last six events.
The son of Gronholm's former Peugeot team-mate Harri Rovanpera, Kalle was born near the service park in Jyvaskyla and began driving in the local forests and on frozen lakes at eight years old. It's well known that Finns don't get excited easily, but Rovanpera's form in 2022 will guarantee him a hero's welcome when the action gets underway in the centre of town on Thursday night.
Finns can only get better
Finland isn't just a home rally for Rovanpera but also for his Toyota team, which has its factory a stone's throw across the Jyvasjarvi lake next to the service park. Since Tommi Makinen led Toyota back to the WRC, the team – now headed by three-time Rally Finland winner Jari-Matti Latvala – has been unbeaten in its backyard. Testing restrictions mean its new-for-2022 Yaris Rally1 hasn't driven as many local kilometres as its predecessor, although it was the car to beat in Estonia, winning all except two stages.
The terrain is slightly different in Finland, with a harder-packed surface (known to the locals as farmers' tarmac) and more crests and jumps. But outright speed remains most important of all.
Rovanpera knows another win isn't a given after a difficult first Rally Finland at the top level in 2021. But Toyota has several cards to play besides him: Another Finn, Esapekka Lappi, started its winning streak in 2017 and ‘Flying Welshman' Elfyn Evans continued it last year. Even Japanese protege Takamoto Katsuta has called Jyvaskyla home since arriving in Europe.
Few will therefore be betting against the home team. But the beauty of rallying is that you can never be completely sure what's around the corner.
What to look out for
Finns to have been crowned champion on Pirelli tyres in the past include Markku Alén, Ari Vatanen and Juha Kankkunen.
But now it's time for the next generation – so look out for the fast young Finns currently blazing a trail. Alongside championship leader Kalle Rovanpera and his Toyota team-mate Esapekka Lappi, local fans will have a number of other drivers to cheer for: starting with Jari Huttunen, who makes his debut in an M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 car. The WRC2 field includes Emil Lindholm, Teemu Suninen, Teemu Asunmaa, Mikko Heikkila and Eerik Pietarinen as well as Sami Pajari, the reigning champion and current leader in Junior WRC. One of Pajari's Junior rivals Lauri Joona heads the WRC3 entry.