By: Minesh Bhagaloo
Jyväskylä, Finland - The locals call it “Sisu”. The word itself doesn't have a definite translation, but symbolises the fighting spirit the Finnish reckon you need to tackle what is widely regarded as the fastest and toughest rally on the World Rally Championship calendar.
Referred to as both the Essence of Rallying and the Formula One in the Forest, fans consider Rally Finland the most spectacular of the series, where fast and wide sectors marry narrow and technical gravel traps. But close your eyes and think Rally Finland, and you'll probably picture high-speed, gravity-defying jumps - or “yumps” as they're known locally - which require cojones of steel for both driver and navigator.
Yup, the eighth round of this year's 13 fixture calendar is indeed a special one.
It's spread over four days along 360km of forest and lakeside; threatens no less than 26 traditional and new stages (some with Viking warrior-like names like Päijälä, Pihlajakoski, and Jouhtikylä); and was contested by 81 crews. Attending this event, which goes all the way back to 1951, is a sacred experience.
It’s holy ground if you relish seeing a rally-demon making jumps up to 60 metres long, after it’s tamed a crest flat-out at 200km/h – all-the while screaming pure evil from its tailpipe. The sound of these rally-bats in the air, with revs bouncing on the 8500rpm limiter, echo through the tall green forests like ancient warfare - with the 250 000 strong supporters looking more like warriors than fans with their blue and white face-paint.
In no other WRC fixture do cars lift off as often as in the forests around Jyväskylä.
And as much as you think the driver has all the Sisu, remember that if the navigator doesn't first predict the right flight pattern, the car will be turning trees into toothpicks. Not to mention the design behind the rear wing, or the car's weight distribution, both of which help with those Flugplatz moments.
Throw a few Flying Finns in the cockpit; add fans that firmly believe that to finish first, first you have to be Finnish; and this mother of all rallies becomes a sauna of national pride.
And boy did things heat up.
Carrying the hopes of the frenzied Finns was the Volkswagen team Finnish driver/navigator duo of Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, versus closest rivals and French team mates Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia. Latvala set the pace on the Saturday morning by continuously pulling away from Ogier - until a pothole damaged a brake line in an afternoon stage, leaving Latvala with no braking power on the front-right wheel and costing him about 27 seconds of his comfortable lead.
The sun rose in the service park on Sunday morning to disgruntled (and hungover) Finns wondering if Latvala's now-slim 3.4 second advantage over Ogier would hold over the final three stages. This took what was once known as the 1000 Lake Rally to an epic closing-day finale, with two of the three stages high-speed, continuous-yump, forest thrillers.
Standing in the forest you could cut the tension with an axe.
Both drivers were pushing their 232kW/425Nm force-fed Polo R WRC cars to the absolute ragged edge. Watching them launch these beauties at the start of a stage, with four-wheels breaking traction before hitting 100km/h in under four seconds, is a delight. But seeing 1200kg of metal soaring above your head, after it’s tackled a double-yump at the end of sixth, makes you understand how hungry these VW pilots are for victory.
In the end Latvala sealed it by just 3.6 seconds over Ogier, ending a four-year Finnish-win drought in Finland and realising a perfect Rally Finland event. The final podium step was filled by Citroen's Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle, who picked up just one fastest time at the event (the rest went to Wolfsburg), and ended 50.6 seconds behind the winners.
Latvala joins Finnish legends Timo Salonen and Ari Vatanen as a two-time winner of the event.
Only four drivers from outside Sweden and Finland have won this rally since 1950: Sébastien Ogier, Sébastien Loeb, Didier Auriol, and Carlos Sainz.
It's safe to say that VW has grabbed the 2014 WRC Championship by the horns, with this result the manufacturer's twelfth consecutive win. It also marks eight wins in as many rallies this season for the German team; and allows them to snatch the Drivers', Navigators’ and Constructors' titles at the next round in Germany should the winning streak continue. VW has dominated WRC since its entry into the sport in 2013, racking up 269 fastest times over 391 special stages, and has celebrated victory at 18 of the 21 rallies.
Spending three days at the iconic rally and in the service park makes you realise why the builders of the people’s rally-car are leaving dust storms for other big teams such as Citroën, Ford and Hyundai. The roaming technological roadshow is impressive, with seventy VW Motorsport staff and technicians alone in Finland - including dedicated engine, gearbox and suspension specialists; a weatherman; and an engineer per car. Four mechanics work on a Polo R WRC at a time, with a broken gearbox taking just 12 minutes and a blown turbo eight minutes to swop respectively.
The team gets a 15-minute breakfast, 30-minute lunch, and 45-minute dinner car-service window, with the evening session having to include 1.30min to get the car back to Parc Ferme (which is why the car has to be rebuilt mechanically in such short timeframes). The team usually swops an engine after four races; while blown engines and badly-damaged roll cages mean disqualification. VW was allocated 80 tyres per car in Finland by Michelin, with softs the stipulation for the event.
Chatting to a few VW Motorsport execs revealed a concern about stiffer competition.
“To be the best you have the beat the best”, I was told, with the hope that perhaps Toyota, or even Subaru start looking closer at participation (look out for the Toyota 86 prototype at the next WRC). VW has committed to play until 2019, meaning some stiff competition may not be a bad idea.
And here's a special request to VW South Africa. As part of a homologation process I discovered that VW Germany built a production-version of the Polo R WRC with a two-litre TSI pushing 162kW and 350Nm through 18-inch front rubber. The sporty two-door claims a 0-100km/h time of 6.4 seconds, top-end of 243km/h, and gets all the livery from its bad-ass sibling.
Perhaps a Rally Finland edition?