WRC Finland. Known as the Spiritual Home of Rally or the Grand Prix of the WRC due to its high speeds and massive fan base. Regardless of what they call it, Finland is a special place for ralliests. It is like going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Le Mans, or Monaco. Steeped in history as the then Rally of 1000 Lakes, Finland has been on the World Championship calendar ever since the WRC was created. The gravel roads here are as wide as a major thoroughfare, but are littered with crests, jumps, and blind corners. Speeds in excess of 100 MPH are the norm not the exception. It is a test of bravery, skill, and trust in your notes.
This past weekend’s WRC Finland changed things up for the current crop of top WRC competitors by using new stages, old stages that had not been used since the 1990’s, or reversing the direction of a few known stages. This meant a bit more of a clean slate where previous knowledge is thrown out the window. Regardless it would be insane to not put your money on the current Flying Finn Jari-Matti Latvala, or at most another Scandinavian like Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen. This is because historically, only 5 non-Scandinavian drivers have ever won WRC Finland and Mikkelsen and JML are in the dominant Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC. Even 3 times World Champion Sebastien Ogier who has won here before wasn’t confident in being able to top his teammates, although he would try.
Out of the gates on Friday’s first stage Northern Irishman Kris Meeke made his mark that he was out for victory. Although only competing in select events this season Meeke has already shown his ability to challenge the top VW team. He was at the front of the field in Monte Carlo and Sweden, but errant rocks and bad luck ended those rallies early. Meeke didn’t compete again until the WRC returned to mainland Europe as Citroen focused intently on the development and testing of their 2017 car. Helped by a superior starting position in Portugal, Meeke cruised to victory, the 2nd of his career. And now in his his 4th event of the season under the Abu Dhabi Total World Rally Team, Kris was ready to show that Portugal wasn’t a fluke.
Meeke won 4 of the 11 stages on Friday eking out an 18.1 second lead over Jari-Matti Latvala. Latvala for his part was just a few seconds behind Meeke and Estonian DMACK World Rally Team driver Ott Tanak until both he and Tanak suffered punctures dropping them back. Remarkably, JML was able to recover return to 2nd by the end of the day. Ott suffered further issues dropping to 10th and was only able to recover to 8th by day’s end.
The biggest test for all the drivers was certainly going to be the legendary Ouninpohja stage. It is 33KM of flat out speed with crests and jumps that keep the co-driver as busy on the notes while the car spends almost equal time in the air as it does on the ground. To give you an idea, here’s a clip of what the drivers have said about Ouninpohja
Stages of this length are where rallies are often won or lost now that on-board split times are a thing of the past. JML’s time came in at a blistering 15:19.7. He gave it his all. Then Meeke came through at a mind numbing 15:06.3, fully 13.4 seconds faster than the local hero. Stage end reporter Colin Clark of WRC Live Radio exclaimed “You just don’t do that!” Saying in part, nobody beats a Finn by that kind margin on their home turf. Meeke had tamed the beastly Ouninpohja stage and used it to secure a 31 second overall lead. Meeke continued to push where comfortable on Saturday, winning 4 of the 8 stages including the second running of Ouninpohja as well.
With 4 short stages remaining on Sunday and a lead of 41 seconds, Meeke had to just manage his pace to become the first ever British driver to win in Finland. And manage he did, dropping just over 10 seconds over the day to finish at the top of the podium and claiming his 3rd WRC victory. Meeke has accomplished what his mentor Colin McRae could not. An amazing result for a driver who has struggled so much to make it to the top level of rally racing. Adding icing to the victory cake, Meeke’s Finland run measured in at an average speed of 126.60 kph, a new WRC speed record. Congratulations to Kris Meeke and co-Driver Paul Nagle for such an amazing drive!
You can watch full highlights of the entire event on WRC+.