A couple of hours after leaving Helsinki, there’s a break in the trees. There’s a lake. And a city. When the train slows to a halt adjacent to a sign that reads Jyväskylä, you know you’re in the right place at the right time. This week should have been that right time.
Alongside Monte Carlo, Rally Finland is probably the most eagerly awaited and anticipated World Rally Championship round of the season. It’s the speed-fest we all wait for. It’s the one the drivers all want to win.
Why? It’s the history, the heritage and the roads. But mainly it’s because it’s the one for the brave. A Finland win genuinely does mean more than most. A Finland win crowns the king of speed for another season.
Finland’s about more than just a rally though. It’s a genuine pilgrimage, an annual adventure which has people coming back year-after-year-after-year. Once you’ve seen a car fly past you at head height at more than 100mph, it’s hard to forget it. And impossible not to want more.
Fans adore the raw appeal of the place. Talk to the locals – and I know because I’ve done it – and ask what’s special and they’ll tell you.
“When you come here,” they say, “you go hard… or you don’t come here at all.”
The other key message is the predictable: “If you want to win, you need a Finn”.
Less so right now. For the last two years, a win has demanded an Estonian in a car built by a Finn.
I love the place. But you probably already guessed that.
I love the fact that you can’t help but be totally immersed in rallying when you land on planet Jyväskyklä. And, trust me, at times it genuinely does feel like another planet. Especially when you’re walking into the Paviljonki service park before six on Sunday morning and you see some of the harder-core locals still, er, enjoying themselves approximately 22 hours after taking their first beer. Still singing rocking Europe’s Final Countdown. Still convinced their thirst has yet to be quenched.
But they’re universally good-natured and only interested in talking rallying.
Rally Finland has a different atmosphere to the other WRC rounds. The Finns offer the warmest of welcomes in a town which gives itself over to a week-long party. And wherever you turn there’s genuine history and all-time fever. There’s the Harju street stage around Jyväskylä, which includes the same streets, the same straight and the same corners made famous by the country’s rallying royalty, Hannu Mikkola, Markku Alén, Ari Vatanen and Marcus Grönholm.
There’s the reindeer served with lingonberries, Tupla (a sort of Finnish Mars bar), a press office with a fridge stacked regularly and often with Magnums and Dime ice creams and, if you’re lucky, a sauna in your hotel bedroom.
But above all of that, there’s the rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of a rally car bouncing off the rev limiter as it’s delivered into Finnish airspace once more.
Rallying’s so much more than just a sport in this place. This week, the sport is a way of life.
Welcome to DirtFish’s Finland Week.