How the virtual chicane made Ouninpohja possible again

The WRC will deploy virtual chicanes for the first time at the Finnish speed-fest

Esapekka Lappi

In case you spent Tuesday beneath a rock, Ouninpohja’s back. For the first time in seven years, Finland’s finest 20 miles are back on the agenda for Saturday August 3. Twice.

Once everybody had offered universal agreement this was probably the WRC’s best news story in, er, seven years, the big question at the Helsinki launch for Secto Rally Finland was why we’d had to wait for the last seven years.

Ironically, it’s all because of an excess of the thing Finland’s most famous for: speed.

“The cars were basically too fast,” clerk of the course Kai Tarkiainen told DirtFish. “The FIA said maybe we could look for alternative [stages]. It is quite fast, I think the last average was like 136kph (85mph) or something like that, but, I mean, average speed doesn’t tell anything, it’s just a number.”

The cars didn’t get any slower, so what has changed?

“We use chicanes in, I think, maybe three places in Ouninpohja,” added Tarkiainen. “And we’re also going to introduce the first ever WRC virtual chicane. It’s going to be interesting. We can set the speed limit ourselves. I would imagine it’s going to be 60kph (37mph) or maybe 70kph (43mph). It doesn’t have to be very low.

“There’s going to be a 200-meter stretch and you have to go down to that speed within the section. And then you can start accelerating immediately when you’re down to the limit. This makes it so much more straightforward. You don’t get the hay bales flying all over the place.

“We just want to keep the guys running. But we want to give them a bit of a wake up every now and then that, hang on… there’s a pretty dangerous place coming up the road and you can’t enter this place at 200kph (120mph). And even during the recce, you don’t have to set up something similar which then disturbs the every day traffic and it could get moved fractionally during the recce. And, of course, we can place a virtual chicane precisely where it’s needed.”

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The first sight of the virtual chicane will come at shakedown with Tarkiainen keen to give the crews a chance to familiarise themselves with the process of slowing down mid-stage.

“Ultimately,” he said, “this is a speed event and what we’re doing is creating an environment where the crews can compete as safely as possible.”

Ouninpohja’s absence isn’t just about the speed, however. It’s also about the logistics. Those 20 miles are among some of the most labor-intensive corners of the year.

“It takes a massive amount of people to run it,” explained Tarkiainen. “There are areas where you have lots and lots of spectators and when you have abnormal amounts of them, you need abnormal amounts of marshals to guard them. From the ticket sales to the barbecues and everything, it’s probably like 700 to 800 people working there, and to find someone who starts collecting that mass of people together, it’s not easy.

WRC Rally Finland, Jyvaskyla 27 - 30 July 2017

Esapekka Lappi was fastest through Ouninpohja when it was last used in 2017, and featured hay bale chicanes to slow the cars

“We spoke with the local community who has been organising the Rapsula stage for a couple of years and they agreed to do it, so that was the final push for us to move forward with it. I hope it goes well, because it’s a massive opportunity for us to show to the world this fantastic stage with the cars jumping around.”

Ouninpohja’s potential as the world’s best stage was, in fact, telegraphed as far back as the middle of the Eighteenth century.

Tarkiainen smiled: “A friend of mine sent me a message that there’s an old map from 1751 – back when we were part of Sweden. There’s an old road which started in Turku and went up somewhere to Lauka and beyond. It followed pretty much the same road line as the current Ouninpohja stage and on the map, it actually describes the road from Hämepohja to Ouninpohja, the first section of stage, as “abnormally hilly.” I don’t know how fast they’d done with the horses back then, but it’s clear it was always going to be a stage!”

With the virtual chicanes in place, is Ouninpohja’s place cemented on the itinerary?

“To have it every year,” he said, “I don’t know. It’s quite exhausting. I mean, it’s not just like one week and you build a stage. Work on bringing this stage back started last year and the volunteers are working really hard to do it – they visit all the people, negotiate with the landowners. And we like to changer the route and mix it up a bit. Let’s see how it goes.”