It’s the summer-fest. Normally. Welcome to the modern world. You might have noticed the unusual – it’s the new norm. That’s how the World Rally Championship has ended up in Jyväskylä in October for the first time ever.
Running Rally Finland out of season is definitely going to be an odd one this week. But, if I’m honest, it’s the timing of the pre-event test which brings a sharper contrast.
I’m fortunate enough to have seen plenty of teams preparing for the fastest rally of the season under normal circumstances. Invariably, it involves staying at Hotelli Jämsä and eating hot dogs from the Shell station across the road at midnight, in pretty much broad daylight.
Test days can be long, especially if the team’s got plenty of re-prep to do for a driver change the following day – and the summeriness of the whole thing warps any genuine understanding of time.
10pm feels like late afternoon. It’s all very strange, and it helps bring the strange out in people.
Sharing a late night drink with one technician a few years ago, he excused himself and headed to the car park. Returning, he plonked a roll of tank tape down on the bar and ordered another pear cider.
Slightly unsure whether I wanted to know why he needed extra strength tape in his bedroom, my curiosity got the better of me.
“Tape the curtains,” was the precise reply.
“Tape the curtains closed. I can’t sleep without taping the curtains closed. It just doesn’t go dark.”
It does now.
Bedrooms up and down Finland will be mercifully tank tape-free this week as Rally Finland ventures further into the year than ever before.
September’s not unknown. Even mid-September. The 1952 event was the latest, finishing on September 14. Since then, nothing’s come close to an October 1 start.
This week will be wetter, colder and darker than before. But the cars will still be faster and fly further than ever before in 2021.
“In these conditions, it’s going to be an extra spicy one,” Esapekka Lappi, who’ll drive a private Toyota this week, told DirtFish.
“The conditions will be different. From the test, we had rain and we saw the gravel doing what the gravel always does as the grip gets less and less with every pass. It could be like Wales in Finland – especially on the smaller roads.
Nobody’s done one at this time of the year, so it will be a level playing fieldCraig Breen on an October Rally Finland
“But the feeling? The feeling is similar. Rally Finland is coming and that’s exciting! It’s great to be taking part in one of the best rallies in the world. It’s nice to be back and nice to be on it.”
Hyundai Motorsport’s Craig Breen explained the smaller roads thing, adding: “That’s where the roads are generally a bit softer.
“Because they’re used less, they might be maintained or generally have less traffic. So when the rain comes, those roads will soften down and cut up a bit more.”
When was the last wet Finland Breen did?
“Have I done one,” he replied. “Yes. No. I think the first one in 2009, that was wet, wasn’t it? It doesn’t matter.
“I’ve tested in the wet a bit down the years, but the difference is that you’re usually dealing with summer showers in warm temperatures.”
Last weekend, as Toyota put the finishing touches to its preparations, it was 41F and it had been raining for what felt like days.
“It could be tricky,” Breen added. “Will the notes work? It’s been a couple of years since we were in Jyväskylä and that’s not normal. That’s not right.
“Nobody’s done one at this time of the year, so it will be a level playing field – then again it’s the event I have the most experience of, so it would’ve been nice to go there and lie back on that experience a little bit.
“Let’s see what it’s like. I’m taking good confidence to the event, but I’ll be honest and say I’ve got no idea what to expect from the conditions!”
One man who should have a good idea of what to expect from Finland in all seasons is Jari-Matti Latvala.
You have to go back to 2002 to find a time when Toyota’s team principal wasn’t gearing-up for his home round of the WRC.
Last year, before the global pandemic put everything on hold, Jyväskylä was the time Latvala was looking forward to the least. He was trying to put together a deal to drive a private Yaris (as he did in Sweden), but he knew that if he couldn’t make that stick, it could be a long, long summer.
When you are in the summer, the best thing is waiting for Rally Finland – it’s the best time. It’s not exactly the same around home right nowJari-Matti Latvala on the anticipation ahead of Finland
In that direction, COVID-19 was something of a bizarre blessing.
These days, Latvala doesn’t really have time to fret about the fact he’s not pushing for a fourth win. He’s preoccupied with making sure Toyota is ready to defend the home rule which has kept a Finnish-built Yaris on top of the podium every year since 2017.
“The feeling has been a little bit different,” Latvala told DirtFish. “When you are in the summer, the best thing is waiting for Rally Finland – it’s the best time. It’s the holidays and the excitement is really building. It’s not exactly the same around home right now.
“For me, personally, I don’t feel the same like when I am waiting in the summer. I don’t feel: ‘Wow! Rally Finland is in one week…’ But it’s still Rally Finland and it’s still coming.
“Am I excited? Of course! I’m really happy to have it back. Last year was tough to miss, but it’s back now and this is important for Finland!”
It is back. And, for one year only, it’s back without the need for tank tape in the bedroom.