The Rally Finland is without a doubt the fastest and most challenging event on any rally calendar in the world. Taking on the 270.51km of timed action with the world's best young rally drivers, in identical machinery, the WRC Academy produces intense rally action from start to finish.
This rally is nicknamed the “Finnish Grand Prix” for a reason: high speeds, big jumps over blind crests and crazy cambered corners. It rewards total commitment from driver and navigator; the slightest hesitation or mistake is punished. This is what rallying is, and it’s a dream come true.
The Rally Finland was run over three days and 17 stages made up the 270.51km of stage distance, but what made this rally even more thrilling was the inclusion of the world famous Ouninpohja stage in all its 33.01km glory. This test was to serve as the rally's finale for all competitors, but the World Rally Championship crews tackled this stage twice, back-to-back, while the Academy teams only ran it once.
Everything you have ever heard about Ouninpohja is true, and everything you have seen of this stage cannot prepare you for the feeling in your stomach as you slot your car into first gear and wait for the countdown to the start of your run.
On Thursday evening we took to SS1, and had to tackle three stages. The gravel forest roads around the harbour city of Lahti immediately showed their teeth for my navigator Craig Parry when only five kilometres into SS1 our Ford Fiesta's gear lever snapped - something which can only be considered bad luck.
We lost more than 12 minutes in that stage, as we had to stop in the stage and use our “bush mechanics” training to enable us to find a working solution for changing gears.
We limped through the remaining two stages of the evening's scheduled competition to bring our Fiesta to the service park where out team could fix it properly - and even though we completed only three stages, we arrived at the Parc Ferme in the early hours of Friday morning
Our alarm clocks buzzed at 6am, and we headed to our Fiesta with determination. There is a Finnish word that I learned that weekend: sisu. There is no direct English translation, as the word captures and defines a feeling and a mood. Sisu means to have strength of will, determination, perseverance and acting rationally in the face of adversity. Basically put, to “have guts.” With twelve stages mapped out around Jyvaskyla we became intimately aware of sisu as the day unfolded…
Day 2 of the Rally Finland proved to be a challenging day in our office. We had a great start to the morning with a confidence-boosting opening stage. However, errors began to creep in on the next two stages and we lost time to our rivals. We also encountered further problems on the afternoon loop of stages - a repeat of the morning's tests - as our car's front brake pipe was damaged and ripped apart by a rock as we passed over the rutted roads.
Craig is a top-class navigator and has been writing pace notes for as long as he has been competing as a co-driver in this sport. In South Africa we don't use pace notes in the same format as in Europe and other international events, and I have had to learn this system of pace notes and to absorb information in a completely new way.
As my confidence in the pace notes and in the technical nature of the stages grew, I felt more and more in tune with the rhythm of the rally. We completed the equivalant of a whole South African national rally in just more than a day of competition in Finland, but we hardly felt the time pass as we were always kept on our toes. The Rally Finland is fantastically fun!
The final five stages of the rally saw us face more challenges, but we were on our recovery up the leader board and closed in on our rivals. These five stages featured the most iconic aspects of Finnish rallying: wide roads, fast jumps and of course Ouninpohja. We ticked off the first two stages and proved our speed in the Academy, but our gearbox was becoming more and more unhealthy as the stage kilometres passed.
At the final service of the event, with three stages remaining, the crew changed the troublesome gearbox in less than 13 minutes! While Elfyn Evans raced to victory we worked hard to post competitive stage times and even close the gap to the leaders to claim eighth overall in the final speed tests.
The Rally Finland was my most awesome experience of my Academy year so far. The challenges we faced and overcame, and the lessons I learned in the car, have undoubtedly made me a better rally driver. Those stages are brilliant: jumps, blind crests, fast rolling roads... Heaven!
Craig and I are already looking forward to tackling the Rallye Deutschland in two week's time.