When the news dropped in late 2019 that Rally1 cars would switch to hybrid power from 2022, with significantly reduced aerodynamics and no centre diffs, my mind was made up. For years my father and I had put off a trip to Finland to spectate the fastest cars on the fastest roads in the world. I sat down to plan out the trip, booking flights and accommodation, excitement building. Then 2020 struck.
Fast forward a year and a half and after multiple cancellations and re-schedules, it was finally looking likely that this trip might happen. The WRC promoter had announced Finland would go ahead in early October, two months later than usual, and crowds would likely be allowed. Nervously, the weeks ticked by and we hoped the virus would curtail long enough to allow us travel.
Finally, almost two years after booking the original trip, we’re standing in Dublin airport, checking bags and boarding a Finnair flight to Helsinki with the plane almost exclusively carrying rally fans. Rally fever was firmly setting in. Rental collected, the 3 hour drive to the Jämsä region flashed by, my phone buzzing with updates of crews on recce.
For a change, this years event would see shakedown run on Friday morning, before the first full day of stages. So Thursday was a free day and eager to recce some spectator points of my own, Dad and I drove into the stages, stopping at landmarks along the way such as the infamous Kakaristo junction on Ouninpohja.
Friday morning arrives and to be honest, nothing I type here can do what happened on shakedown justice. Perhaps it was the prospect that in just a few hours time the crews would be on the start-line of the first stage, but for whatever reason, the pace was absolutely relentless from the word go. If you haven’t, you need to watch this video, it’ll give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
We luck upon a cool spot to spectate, cars passing inches from us on full throttle over a small crest that slowly became a jump as the pace increased with every run. The roar these cars make as they come towards you is indescribable. The sound of rev limiter rips through the air and in a flash they pass and disappear, a big rooster tail of dust left in their wake.
The beauty of shakedown is you catch the Rally1 cars multiple times as they usually complete up to four runs, tweaking setups and crews working on bringing themselves up to speed. After a few hours, the faster cars had retreated to service so we packed up and made our way back to the rental.
We dropped into a local supermarket for a quick mid-morning pit-stop, stocking up on ingredients for sandwiches and coffee on the stages. With five stages running on Friday afternoon, we opted to spectate two of them, first up, the Sahloinen-Moksi stage, a fresh test for the drivers in 2021. A brief drive took us to the final stage of the day, Oittila, running in full darkness.
Sandwiches eaten and coffee drunk, we wait for the first cars to arrive. Some mental Italians have coverage playing live on local radio, adding to the atmosphere. It was good to bump into Mikey and his father too, and put a face to a name.
I'd earmarked this section of corners prior to the rally, a fast flowing right, left, right section with the cars appearing into view on full throttle before dipping and diving through the complex of corners. When choosing sections it is very easy to underestimate the speed these cars can carry, even the slightest of rises in the road becomes a crest.
At this stage in the rally things were looking pretty good for our Irish crew, Craig Breen and Paul Nagle, piloting the 3rd Hyundai i20 WRC. The boys had just set a second fastest time on this stage, SS3, and were closing in on leader Ott Tanak in the sister Hyundai, the gap just 1.7 seconds.
Excited at this news, we packed up and began to make our way to the car, eager to catch the final stage of the day, SS6.
Darkness was falling and by the time we reached the tape at the end of the access road, it was full night mode. Sadly my coverage of this stage is somewhat non-existent but I will insert a short video clip here.
Seeing these cars at night for the first time is some spectacle. Brakes and exhausts glow, turbo chatter seems louder than ever and the big panel of LED lights blinds you if you're not careful. Craig & Paul push hard, setting a 3rd fastest time overall and with it, Craig claims the lead of a WRC round overnight for the first time in his career.
Saturday morning arrives a little quicker than we'd like. My alarm pings at 5AM and it feels as though I've only been asleep 10 minutes. Bleary eyed we join the pilgrimage of like-minded rally goers, walking into the famous Ouninpohja for SS7.
Once again I've earmarked a nice little spot, high up on a bank, with a view of the stage as it approaches on the small Kakaristo road, and joins the larger road headed for Hassi. The early morning gloom is broken by rev limiter and anti-lag and day two of Rally Finland gets firmly underway.
Saturday seemed to take on another level of pace entirely. And it wasn’t just us who noticed it. Everyone we spoke to and those in the media looking back on this event all remark at the phenomenal pace shown by the worlds best drivers that Saturday in the Jämsä region.
In particular, Elfyn Evans turned into a demon behind the wheel. In just 2 stages, Craig and Pauls lead was destroyed and the Welshman began to breeze off into the distance. Everyone talks about Evans destroying the pack in the dark the previous evening but in SS8, Päijälä, Evans put a staggering 7 seconds into Craig and overturned the lead. To do that with the pace Breen and Tanak (sitting 3rd) were on was mighty impressive.
Finland was the last proper fast rally for these cars and I think there was a mutual agreement between the teams that they’d send them off in style. It really seemed that the pace shown that weekend was a culmination of 4 years of gruesome development. There was absolutely nothing more the engineers could eek from these machines in terms of setup, aero or technology.
The crews looked completely at one with their cars, dancing them through the flowing crests and sweeping bends. No doubt, if you were on social media at all that weekend, you saw the video (above) of drivers launching their cars through a left hander, at almost 70 degrees to the road. If there is one thing that sums up what I’m trying to say here, that is it.
Back to the rally, though, and it’s midday on Saturday. Backpacks are open, flasks are steaming, and sandwiches are prepped. Suddenly, the forest noise and low hum of chatter amongst the spectators is broken by the unmistakable, almost ear piercing rasp of BMW straight six. The Vetomies are a crucial part of Rally Finland folklore, their full send attitude bringing delight to the crowds as they wait for the WRC cars to return on their second pass.
After showing the video above to the lads we were spectating with, we all unanimously decided we wanted to put our lives in danger and find the fastest possible location within our reach on the Kakaristo-Hassi stage. We walk a few kilometres further into the stage, keen to catch the cars on full throttle through a possible 6th gear section. Our efforts were rewarded as one hour later, the leaders appeared like absolute lunatics, choke fully out around their knees, going as hard as they could. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced raw speed like it.
With our fill of high-speed action satisfied, a dash back to the car and short drive to SS13 sets us up for the fourth and final stage of the day. It’s been absolutely draining; I’ve been up over 13 hours at this point and over 25km walked but we’re not done yet. Light begins to fade by the time the Rally1 cars arrive, the forest becoming somewhat gloomy and it’s beginning to drizzle.
None of this matters, though. The grip these guys have in all conditions is immense and Ott Tanak, pictured above, is visibly faster than the rest. He and Elfyn are in a world of their own at this point, setting blistering times and the leader board shows it, both streaking ahead into commanding positions. Our Irish crew proudly consolidate 3rd.
Sunday arrives and the sun is shining. The final four stages are held north of Jyväskylä, and we’re making the journey in the early morning light, the road clogged with rally goers. There was a sense of achievement for making it this far, and I think the drivers could feel it too. All but Evans and Tanak had visibly reduced their pace, conserving tyres for an assault at the Power Stage.
The infamous Ruuhimäki test and its manmade jump has provided a fitting finish to this rally for a number of years now. It seemed half of Finland had arrived to cheer the crews home and it was very cool to see numerous tri-colours flying amongst a sea of Finnish and Estonian flags.
After three long days of battle, Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin claim a deserved win. Their Saturday pace was untouchable, the sort of driving that is talked about for years to come, and neither Tanak or Breen could get near them. No doubt this was a bittersweet moment for the Irish crew, as it'd be their last chance to drive these WRC'17 generation weopons.
It was certainly bittersweet for us spectators. It feels like a privalege to have witnessed these cars, a modern day Group-B era, and although the new hybrid cars are rumoured to be fast, I think this generation will go down in history as being the most perfect rally car ever produced.
A week in Finland is over and what a week it's been. There's a serious amount of sleep to catch up on and rest is needed but really, that's the joy of rallying. Finland has been a book-it list location ever since I saw Hannu Mikkola launch a S1 Quattro through the 1000 Lakes on an old Duke DVD at the age of 7 or 8. I had high hopes, and boy did it fulfil them.
Event: WRC Rally Finland 2021