Lombard did 18 years and developed an association which still lives today, 28 years on from when it ended. How long before folk stop calling Rally Finland ‘Neste Rally’?
Translated, Neste means liquid. And liquid – in terms of refined oil and renewable diesel – has long been the stock-in-trade of this Espoo-based company. But the move over the last decade towards more renewable circular solutions, along with an overhaul of brand strategy, means it feels it no longer sits as comfortably as the title of Finland’s round of the World Rally Championship.
Twenty-six years after replacing the likes of Oko Bank, Mars and Lada on the side of every car competing on Rally Finland née 1000 Lakes Neste has gone.
Neste joined forces with the Jyväskylän Suurajot (the Jyväskylä Grand Prix) at a worrying time for world rallying in its spiritual home. Prior to 1994, two of the previous four editions of Finland’s biggest motorsport event had been won by southern Europeans. The Finns had just about come to terms with losing the odd one to a Swede, but now Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol had come along and debunked the myth with stunning victories in 1990 and 1992 respectively.
When Neste put its name on and above the door in ’94, it tied in nicely with the first of five straight wins for Tommi Mäkinen. It took Markko Märtin coming across the Baltic Sea to spoil the Finnish party. Ford’s Estonian star interrupted what would have been an eight-year run of victories for Marcus Grönholm. Instead, Grönholm had to content himself with four wins before 2003, and three more afterwards.
In recent years, Jari-Matti Latvala has been the most successful local to champion Neste’s cause from the top step of its Rally Finland finish podium.
Typically, the Finn gets the significance of Neste’s departure.
“It’s the same like it was with Lombard for the RAC,” he said. “I remember Neste always with the rally. Even before they became the title sponsor, they were always there with the rally. For me, I’m sad about this. Very sad. I really didn’t think this could happen, but it did. We have to respect their decision and understand their thinking and be thankful that they will still be making the fuel we need for our cars!
“It’s weird though. What do you think we will be calling the rally now? For the older generation, it was always 1000 Lakes and then for my generation and younger it’s always been Neste Rally. This is actually showing the value of the association – everybody is using the word Neste to talk about the rally. For this reason, I’m sure the organizers will make a new deal with somebody – it’s good rally with good marketing and organization.
“But still, today I’m sad.”
Beyond Grönholm’s record-equaling seventh win (matching Hannu Mikkola’s achievement), there have been plenty of other magic moments to remember this association by – not least Kris Meeke’s 2016 victory, which remains the fastest ever World Rally Championship win. The Northern Irishman’s DS 3 WRC averaged 78.66mph for 207.22 competitive miles.
Looking to the future, what does Neste’s departure mean for Rally Finland? Naturally, there’s the significant loss of revenue attached to title partnership of such a high-profile event, but Finland is one of the WRC’s most economically sound rallies.
Acting CEO of rally organizer AKK Sports Markus Häkkinen said the news of Neste’s departure drew mixed feelings from the event’s promoter.
“This is the end of an era, which we look back on together with a feeling of contentment and some nostalgia too. We have left permanent marks on both the Finnish sporting landscape and the collective memory of the nation and, together, we have increased the value and significance of Rally Finland as well as improved the status of the event – both nationally and internationally.
“From time to time, continuous development and meeting the challenges of modern times require some major changes. We would like to thank Neste very warmly for everything, and continue to further develop ‘the crown jewel of Finnish motorsport’ together with our strong network of partners.”
Any potential backer for Rally Finland would garner added benefit this year as the July 29-August 1 event celebrates its 70th birthday.
It won’t happen straight away, but sometime in the future, folk like Latvala will stop calling the 1000 Lakes the Neste Rally. Just like folk eventually stopped calling the RAC Rally the Lombard.
What’s in a name, indeed…