How Ouninpohja earned its place in WRC legend

The legendary Finnish stage is revered all over the world. This is why

Rally 1000 Lakes Jyvaskyla (FIN) 23-25 08 1985

For those of you still in the dark about the best road on the planet, your search is over. Take the E63 south of Jämsä and a left a handful of miles down the road. A few hundred metres down there you’ll come to a junction. This is Hamepohja. Welcome to heaven.

This junction is the traditional finish of the most famous stretch of road anywhere in Finland. Right here alongside electricity pole 163 was where drivers could breathe again. And, with relief writ large across their face, they could tell the latest tale of the stage called Ouninpohja.

Latterly, the stage had been turned around to start from Hamepohja, running in the direction of Jämsä. And that’s the way I’m driving it today.

The run into the start is like any other part of rural Finland. The road’s narrow with wooden houses dotted around. There’s nothing to mark the actual start line ­– which is just south of the Hamepohja junction – because this stage hasn’t been used for a while.

WRC Rally Finland, Jyvaskyla 27 - 30 July 2017

Its been seven years since arguably the world's most famous stage appeared in the WRC

Marcus Grönholm has been in this place a few times. Usually accompanied by butterflies.

“I remember sitting at the start, waiting in that road to go off the line,” said the two-time world champion and seven-time Finland master. “I wasn’t usually nervous before the start of stages, but I always had nerves before the start of Ouninpohja. I was nervous because I knew what was coming…”

What comes immediately is that junction, a medium-speed right hander. The road feels quite narrow, as you’re fired up a slight incline towards some more houses. Just before the road starts to curve to the left, there’s a slight crest which would be enough to unsettle a rally car on turn-in. Ask Petter Solberg.

With tyres and brakes still cold on his Subaru Impreza WRC, the Norwegian crashed through the trees here in 2006.

Stages have come and gone in Finland, but Ouninpohja is part of the event’s DNA. So integral was it in the early days of the 1000 Lakes that it always ran at the same time – half past seven on the first evening. No need to check the itinerary. Nothing got in the way of this one. And the crowds turned out in their tens of thousands.

Today, we’re alone. And, we’re into the jumps. They start small, rising and falling, nothing too special at the speed we’re travelling, but unimaginably stomach-churning in a rally car. We’ve been gently climbing through these rolling jumps and then at the top of another crest, the road simply falls away. No warning, the world has just gone from beneath our feet. Incredible.

If ever you need a good set of pacenotes it’s here. They’re not just to enlighten you about life on the far side of the latest in a line of blind crests, they’re to tell you everything about the line, and the take-off and landing points.

And you don’t do one corner at a time here. A good time through here is about linking corner to corner to corner. The cambers flirt with you, tempting you to tickle the ditch with a wheel. There’s a tenth of a second in every one of them – and a rock in every other one. It’s Russian roulette for the uninitiated, the Finland amateur. But to the masters, it’s a work of art.

Our latest crest leads into an immediate easy right. Would the car jump over that crest? It’s impossible for us to know as we obey the rules of the road. But the answer is a definite yes at full speed. The reason we can be so sure today is that ‘Toni’s rock’ sits at the side of the road. It’s right here that Gardemeister ended his Rally Finland in 2001, with Dani Sordo making the same mistake five years later to scatter parts of his Citroen Xsara WRC in the same place as Gardemeister’s mashed Mitsubishi.

It’s not hard to see how they got it so wrong. What’s more alarming is the distance from crest to crash. They would have had plenty of time to see their rock getting bigger and bigger and to hear Ouninpohja laughing at their futile attempts to avoid its grasp.

This place bites. And bites hard.

Rally Finlandia 18-20 08 2006

Welcome to Ouninpohja: the stage caught out Dani Sordo during his first visit in a WRC car in 2006

We go on. And get to one of the most awe-inspiring and popular sections of the stage. Depending on your commitment, a rally car could lose touch with mother earth 30 times in this stage, but in among all of these jumps, there’s one jump that stands above them all. And we’re there right now.

Coming through what feels like the millionth big-gear right-hander the first thing you see is the big yellow house on the left. Eyes forward, there it is: take off point. No photograph can do it justice, but believe me, the 100 or so yards which lead to this latest crest would disappear in the blink of an eye in a Rally1 car – and then you’re on it and flying. This is the one where you can fly for 50 metres. This is the one where the noise of the crowd invades the car to such an extent it can drown out the engine.

It’s right here that Richard Burns lost his chance to achieve what would have been a lifelong dream for the Englishman. Leading Grönholm on take off, his advantage disappeared in an instant. Burns’ Peugeot 206 WRC nosedived on landing, with the resulting impact crushing the turbo pipe, slashing the power to wake him from the dream he was turning into reality.

Now, there’s nothing to judge our success in the air, but when the rally’s in town, the distance is marked out to measure the longest jumps/biggest balls.

This is a stretch of the stage Grönholm has made his own. Across the board, the one they call ‘Bosse” is a legend, but in the kilometre or so from the right-hander before the house, he’s a more than that. He’s God’s own rallying super-hero. The reason why is that telemetry has shown he opens the taps as wide as they’ll go on the approach and then doesn’t lift for 40 seconds. Forty seconds!

It would take five or so to go from the exit of the corner to the landing from the jump, but it absolutely beggars belief that he wouldn’t consider a lift for anything which followed. The road is anything but straight. Granted, we’re not talking corners here, but there are curves kinks and, let’s not forget, big, solid, we’re-going-nowhere pine trees.

It was 40 seconds of fear like that that helped convince Grönholm his time had come in 2007. Getting to the end of the stage after a titanic fight with his Ford team-mate Mikko Hirvonen, Marcus was pale. He’d seen it all and risked even more. He’d had enough.

Rally Finland, Jyvaskyla 3-5 08 2007

Grönholm's performances through Ouninpohja helped make him a Rally Finland legend

It says an incredible amount about rally car technology that such feats were achievable – even in the hands of such greats as Grönholm. World Rally Cars relied on trick transmission and incredible suspension, but before that, in the days of Group B, it was all about brute power and downforce.

The rally car which delivered the most aero has to be the fearsome Audi Quattro E2 and Hannu Mikkola well remembers his run through Ouninpohja in 1985. Wound up after clattering a log pile on the previous stage (and running three titanium and one steel spring), he was determined to make amends.

“I was full of anger,” he recalls. “This was the only time I got the sensation that I was no longer sitting in the car. It was like being on the outside, I’ve been told fighter pilots sometimes get a similar feeling. The Audi had big wings and the harder you dared to drive the car the harder it pressed into the road – it was really difficult to find the limit.”

In typically extravagant Italian style, Lancia had a fight-specific aero set-up for the Delta S4. Just before the start of the stage, Torino’s finest mechanics would pounce on the cars and replace the not inconsiderable rear wing with an even bigger version. Markku Alén was cleared for take off.

Rally 1000 Lakes Jyvaskyla (FIN) 23-25 08 1985

Mikkola averaged an incredible 80mph on his record run through the stage in 1985

“You could take incredible risks with this rear wing,” said Alén, “but you could still find traction.”

Mikkola’s charge in the Audi paid dividends with a record time (15.59 miles in 11m35s) – and a rare compliment from his co-driver Arne Hertz.

“In 12 years, Arne had made no comment about my driving,” said Mikkola. “But at the end of the stage, he said: “I shall immediately give my overalls to the person who drives this stage faster.””

So, Grönholm should now be the proud owner of a pair of well-worn factory Audi overalls. Unofficially, he took 13 seconds off Mikkola’s record in 2000.

Further in and we’re coming down ‘the steps’ a series of downhill jumps which lead to the second junction in the stage, known as Mutanen. It’s a slot left here, usually taken with a simultaneous flick down from second to third and tug on the handbrake before getting back on the throttle and letting the car drift using the width of the exit of the corner.

Phil Mills told Petter Solberg it would get faster now. Juha Kankkunen agrees. He describes the next section as “mind-blowingly fast.” I struggle to see how it could be any quicker than what we’ve just come through. But it is.

The big rolling jumps have gone and the twists aren’t quite so twisty. You just know that, in days gone by, Group 4 cars have barked, Group B cars have bellowed and World Rally Cars have hunkered down and eaten these miles absolutely flat chat.

1000 Lakes Rally Jyvaskyla (FIN) 27-30 08 1992

Didier Auriol matched the locals on Ouninpohja enroute to his 1992 Rally Finland victory

Every now and then, one of the corners is slightly tighter. Here you would need to duck down out of top, but you’d doing it with a flick to unsettle the car, a touch of opposite lock and 100 per cent throttle before reverting to the fastest cog.

The need is for mind-bending levels of concentration and perfect interpretation and recollection of what your co-driver is telling you is vital.

Finally, we’re out of the trees and into wide-open fields again. This section is as recognisable as anywhere in the stage. I’ve stood here and watched plenty of times, marveling at the speed of the cars and the locals’ capacity for lager.

The next corner is Kakaristo junction. The long left over a long crest is most famous for Craig Breen’s roll in 2012.

Rally Finland, Jyvaskyla 01-04 08 2012

Craig Breen didn't make it to the end of his run through the stage in 2012

Kakaristo is the place the original stage started – and a section familiar from the Rapsula stage last season. Like last year, we’re turning right and onto the narrower road.

This last section of the stage isn’t, for me, so classically Finland. There are sections which could be in Wales or Scotland, but then you get another loopy jump to remind you that you’re not.

This section was added to slow the cars down. The average speed was getting too high for the event to run without questions of safety and sanity being raised. The road from Kakaristo to the finish near Rumakulma does some of the work, but artificial chicanes were still having to be used latterly.

The finish brings a genuine sense of disappointment. This place isn’t known as the spiritual home of rally for nothing. And those spirits are never higher than cresting the Ouninpohja jumps.