Returning to what is known to many as rallying’s spiritual home, the FIA WRC Academy embarks on the third round of the season next week as the crews contest the legendary ‘Gravel Grand Prix’ at Neste Oil Rally Finland. Famed for its quick gravel roads, the Scandinavian event provides the ultimate test of speed, and with the series wide open, the crews will be out to impress.
The event will see the WRC Academy – supported by Ford Racing in Europe and with control tyres from Pirelli – contest almost the entire rally with 17 stages in total forfeiting only the final Power Stage. With the flat-out, tree-lined straights littered with endless ‘yumps’, Rally Finland demands a lot from the crews. Pacenotes need to be word perfect and the driver needs to have plenty of ‘sisu’ – a Finnish phrase which loosely translates to ‘having guts’. Concentration and commitment are key, and all will be looking for a strong result.
Currently leading the series after a win on the opening round in Portugal and a second place finish in Greece, Alastair Fisher will be a strong contender in Finland – taking an early lead at last season’s event until having to retire on the final day of competition. The Northern Irishman was joined by co-driver Dan Barritt this week as the pairing completed two days of testing to find the optimal set-up behind the wheel of their Ford Fiesta R2. Being as fully prepared as possible, the pairing will also complete a test in Finland on Sunday to get a feel for the characteristics of the Finnish gravel.
Following a dominant performance at the Acropolis Rally in May, Elfyn Evans and co-driver Phil Pugh will be looking for more of the same in Finland. Having contested a round of the Finnish Rally Championship – the SM O.K Auto-Ralli – earlier this month, the pairing have already experienced the fast, flowing nature of the Finnish stages. Despite using the event to prepare his pacenotes and driving style for the third round of the WRC Academy, Evans secured second in class, just 24 seconds adrift of Andreas Amberg who is currently leading the 2WD class in the Finnish national Championship.
Already Finland bound for a private test ahead of the rally, the brother and sister pairing of Brendan Reeves and Rhianon Smyth have been hard at work over the summer break. Their pre-event test was funded by auctioning rally memorabilia on their facebook page and 20 spaces on the bonnet of their Fiesta R2. Reeves has also been working at a local rally school in his native Australia where members of the public can come and experience the thrill of driving a rally car with expert tuition from the 23-year-old.
After securing his first loose-surface stage win and narrowly missing out on fourth place in Greece, Spain’s Jose Suárez will be looking to demonstrate his clear progression on gravel when he returns to the land of the thousand lakes with co-driver Candido Carrera. The pairing contested the Ourense Rallye as part of the Spanish Tarmac Championship last month, and the Spaniard is eager to get back behind the wheel to prove his potential.
With a podium finish at Rally Finland last year, Timo Van der Marel and Erwin Berkhof will be hoping for more of the same next week. Having contested the Exotic Green Rally behind the wheel of a Fiesta R2 in Holland last month, the Dutchman has been working on perfecting the optimum race set-up. On a rally where detailed pacenotes are key, Van der Marel and Berkof will be well placed – Berkhof having navigated at the top end of the sport in the WRC and Van der Marel training as a co-driver himself before taking to the wheel.
After claiming a podium in Portugal and being on course for a second in Greece, Pontus Tidemand and Stig Rune Skjæmoren will be ones to watch in Finland. Currently lying sixth in the overall standings, the Swede travelled to Rally Bohemia in the Czech Republic to prepare for the WRC Academy’s future closed-surface events this month. Closer to home, the 21-year-old joined forces with S-WRC navigator, Emil Axelsson – current co-driver to fellow Swede and two-time J-WRC champion P-G Andersson – as the pairing tackled Midnattssolsrally in Sweden behind the wheel of a Ford Escort RS BDG.
The summer break has been a busy one for Scotland’s John MacCrone as he provided tuition to some of the Ecosse Junior 1000 drivers in his Fiesta R2. The Scotsman and co-driver Stuart Loudon also completed a recce of the Nicky Grist stages to perfect their pacenotes ahead of Rally Finland as well as sitting down with 1993 World Champion co-driver who gave the pairing advice on how to make the most effective pacenotes for the Scandinavian event. Being fully prepared, the pairing will complete a pre-event test on Friday to get a feel of the Finnish roads and put themselves in the best possible position for a strong result.
Having suffered cruel misfortune on the opening rounds of this year’s WRC Academy,Fredrik Åhlin will be out to prove his pace when he contests Rally Finland alongside fellow Scandinavian Morten Erik Abrahamsen. The Swede has been working as a driving instructor for Audi and contested the SM O.K Auto-Ralli in Finland behind the wheel of a Fiesta R2 to prepare himself for the fast, flowing stages that lie in wait next week. Celebrating his birthday at the event, the soon-to-be 22-year-old’s friends and family have also arranged a pre-event test for the youngster to be as fully prepared as possible in the lead-up to the ‘Gravel Grand Prix’.
Chris Duplessis and new co-driver Alex Kihurani’s addition to the Rally Finland start list makes them the first all-American pairing to contest the event in over 40 years. The pairing made their first appearance together at the New Forest Rally in America last month – securing second in class and meaning that Duplessis need only start the final round of the Rally America series to be crowned 2WD Champion for the second successive year. In the build-up to Rally Finland, the charismatic American has also been running an impressive online auction for fans to help fund his rally dream with items ranging from a Chris Duplessis t-shirt, a passenger ride in his DirtFish Fiesta R2 and even a personal phone call from the man himself.
João Silva and co-driver Hugo Magalhães will also be in action in Finland on what will be only the Portuguese driver’s sixth gravel event. Since Greece, Silva has forgone the driving seat for the managerial role – coaching his girlfriend and preparing her Citroën C2 R2 in the Madeiran Rally Championship – and honing his mechanical skills. Silva has also been reporting stage reviews for a local TV station in his native Portugal – RTP Madeira – for the Madeira Wine Rally which forms part of the European Rally Championship.
Also keen to impress in Finland, South African Ashley Haigh-Smith and British co-driver Craig Parry return for their second successive round of the WRC Academy. Haigh-Smith is fresh from class victory at the Volkswagen Rally in his homeland and will be hoping to carry the momentum through to Finland where he rejoins Parry who will prove a valuable asset on an event where clear and detailed pacenotes are essential.
Alastair Fisher said:
“I am really looking forward to getting back to Finland. It is shaping up to be a great event and I can’t wait! For sure the competition will be tough. Pontus [Tidemand], Fredrik [Åhlin], Elfyn [Evans] and Brendan [Reeves] will all be quick here and John [MacCrone] will be one to watch too. It is an event where you need to be on the ball and the victory could be anyones!
“Dan [Barritt, co-driver] was here last week and we completed a two-day test session with the [Ford] Fiesta [R2]. Then on Sunday we have another test in Finland to get used to the roads so hopefully we will be pretty well prepared and have another good event.”
Pontus Tidemand said:
“I am really looking forward to Finland as this will be the first ‘non-survival’ rally of the season. It’s all about flat-out driving and we all have the opportunity to really show what we can do.
“We completed a test in Finland with the [Ford] Fiesta R2 a couple of weeks ago to prepare. I had hoped to have done a few more competitive stages, but Bohemia Rally was cancelled after two stages and we retired early from Midnattssolsrally.
“This will be my first time competing on this event, and it is so fast that good pacenotes will be crucial.”
- FIA WRC Academy crews game for glory with milestone
- Introducing the FIA WRC Academy crews of 2012
- FIA WRC Academy crews set to tackle legendary Acropolis
- Training sees FIA WRC Academy crews well prepared for the challenges ahead
- Mikko Hirvonen advises FIA WRC Academy crews
- Training prepares FIA WRC Academy crews for season start
- Ford Fiesta S2000 crews to fight for Mexican glory
- Egon Kaur takes WRC Academy glory in Finland on Pirelli tyres
- Tough tarmac challenge awaits Pirelli WRC Academy crews in France
- Chris Duplessis takes spirit of FIA WRC Academy in Greece