The World Rally Championship has grown accustomed to new rallies in the last 12 months. First there was Rally Estonia and then came the Monza Rally. And don’t forget, we were supposed to have the Ypres Rally, plus the returning Safari Rally Kenya and Rally Japan, at varying stages of 2020 too.
However the newest of the new rallies – this week’s Arctic Rally Finland – has created quite a stir despite it being, on the face of it, the oldest concept of them all.
Ever since the WRC’s inception in the 1970s, the world’s best rally drivers have headed for the deep freeze each year for a snow round in Sweden or, on two occasions, Norway. But due to COVID-19 forcing the Rally Sweden organizer to cancel for 2021, the WRC has sought winter thrills from Finland and the Arctic Circle instead.
The question therefore is: what’s actually new this week?
Jarmo Lehtinen is as good a person as any to put this question to as a veteran co-driver of the WRC who now works with Toyota as its event leader. So that’s exactly what DirtFish did.
“They are fast roads with big snowbanks, but the biggest difference is there is not too many jumps [on Arctic Rally Finland],” he says.
“There’s kind of compressions and things and the surface is not so even all the time but there’s no big jumps on that one, otherwise it’s a similar feeling to some of the stages in Sweden.
“Maybe in Finland in that particular area there are lots of long, long, long corners; that’s something which is quite unique. It’s super-fast like fifth, sixth gear but most of the time it’s turning but they are really fast, long, long corners.
“It’s quite spectacular and a kind of special feeling there.”
But does Arctic Rally Finland compare to the WRC’s flagship Finnish round on the undulating roads of Jyväskylä?
“Totally different,” Lehtinen responds.
“It’s kind of wider in the middle of forests and there are just short sections of normal public roads.
“Arctic is more like forestry roads and they are much more narrow, they are even faster than in central Finland around Jyväskylä. And like I said there is not really big jumps on that one.”
So how does the crew get the best from these stages? Lehtinen gives an insight into the job that lies ahead for the co-drivers this weekend.
“First of all you need to remember to take your warm shoes with you!” he says, wisely.
“For a co-driver you don’t need to have homologated shoes so that’s the first thing you need to remember, Sweden or Arctic Rally! But yeah, otherwise it’s not so different from a co-driver’s point of view [between those two rallies].
“On the pacenotes, you are always careful with those and you try to mark them in the best possible way but in Lapland I would put extra attention to those long corners and also you are driving there in the darkness.
“And also one thing is because it’s a proper minus-degree [temperature Celsius] there can be a snow dust, like a frost dust, in the air and when you hit that white dust with your extra lights it’s like driving into a wall – you can’t see anything. So pacenotes need to be very accurate.
“It’s fast, there is some long straights as well so you need to know where you are even when there is dust so a little bit extra care like small crests and those kind of things where you can kind of have a reference where you are [is important].
“[Also] when you have a tall snowbanks you can’t see through the corners, so you are kind of in the tunnel sometimes.”
Spoken like a true professional, but Lehtinen also knows a thing or two about how not to do things in Rovaniemi…
It’s going to be super-fast and spectacular, I’m 100% sure of thatJarmo Lehtinen
“In 2005 we [Lehtinen and Jouni Ampuja] had a big crash and we ended up upside down in the snow,” he says.
“The car somersaulted in the air a couple of times and landed on its roof, and into like one meter of snow. The car dived into the snow and we couldn’t open the doors and finally some people arrived.
“It’s actually a funny anecdote, the person who was digging out and opened my door was Malcolm Wilson.
“He was there because Matthew was driving there, so he was first asking, ‘Jarmo are you OK?’. That’s quite funny.
“You need warm clothes, even on that occasion when there was other people there I was like two-and-a-half hours in the forest.
“If it’s -15C [5F] you need to have something else other than your driving shoes and you need to have a proper winter hat and gloves and a jacket at least. And also all the cars need to carry two snow shovels. That comes from the organizers, it’s compulsory to have those shovels.
“The roads are narrow, that’s one of the special features of Arctic Rally, some of the roads are really narrow some sections, like super narrow, and if you get stuck into a snowbank it easily blocks the whole road so you need to be quick to dig yourself out.
“Every time you need to have a red triangle but on Arctic Rally it’s extra important because normally you are blocking the road if you get stuck. So that’s one thing we’re going to emphasize to our drivers.
“On this rally when you see a triangle you definitely slow down and have a look what is behind the corner. Some rallies it’s wide and it’s OK but now you really have to respect the red triangle.”
Now that we know about how to tackle the challenges of Arctic Rally, who is likely to tackle it the best?
Lehtinen himself is of course a winner of Rally Finland, taking victory alongside Mikko Hirvonen in 2009 in their Ford Focus RS WRC. He has never won the Arctic Rally before, but that could change this week in a team management capacity with Sébastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanperä all fancied for success.
Rovanperä in particular has been touted as a favorite.
“I’ve heard the same rumors, but I have to say knowing Kalle pretty well he’s quite unique,” Lehtinen says.
“He doesn’t feel too much pressure from outside. He doesn’t scare when people are saying [these things], he just does his job and I know he loves to drive between snowbanks on fast roads.
“[But] that’s the thing, so does Séb and so does Elfyn and so does Hyundai guys and then you can’t forget Teemu [Suninen] in the Ford.
“It’s going to be a very, very interesting weekend. It’s going to be super-fast and spectacular, I’m 100% sure of that.”