The Arctic. It sounds cold. It sounds cold and it sounds snowy. Most of all – and even in July – it sounds like winter.
But bolt the word Rally to the right of the words the Arctic and you’ve got one of the best events in the world.
As a man of many sweaters, I like the cold. And the snow. And the Arctic. But I especially like the Arctic Rally. And, quite possibly, if we believe the rumors, so does WRC Promoter right now.
With the 2020 season barely cold, coronavirus has reached into the new year and wreaked havoc already with the cancellation of the second round in Sweden. While Sweden has a contract with the promoter moving forward, patently, there was nothing it could do to veto the advice of regional council and government.
In 2021, the FIA and WRC Promoter are determined not to be blindsided by the pandemic and have already lined up a raft of replacement rallies – all of which will be pre-cooked and ready to be banged into the microwave for a quick re-heat before being served at rallying’s top table.
And, it would appear, the Arctic Rally is the first of those events.
Which is why I’m here, writing about Rovaniemi. Slightly disappointingly – and those who know their latitude from their longitude – will appreciate that 66°30′N 025°44′E actually leaves Lapland’s Finnish capital about four miles the wrong side (the warm side) of the Arctic Circle.
It doesn’t really matter. But, give it a few years, and it might matter more; as anybody who knows anything about the moon’s orbit and earth’s axial tilt will tell you, the Arctic Circle is of no fixed abode. It’s not tethered by a single set of coordinates and it’s currently sliding north at a rate of 15 meters per year.
So, it’s a good job we might be heading for Rovaniemi next year.
The Arctic Rally is set for January 15/16 – with nine-time Formula 1 grand prix winner Valtteri Bottas among the early sign-ups – which complicates things slightly: having round two come before round one would look odd even for these byzantine times.
We’re getting bogged down with detail. People who know much more about the sport than you and I will figure the bits and pieces out. Let’s just look at what makes Rovaniemi great in the middle of winter.
My first visit to the Arctic Rally was one of my earliest foreign assignments. An early 2000 visit to one of London’s more reasonable outdoor pursuits shops and I was ready. A jacket which doubled as a duvet, woolly gloves and a matching hat.
Bring on the Arctic Circle.
Nothing. Like nothing in the world prepares you for stepping off an aeroplane into -40 degrees.
Fortunately. You don’t have to. You step straight into one of those toasty tubes they attach to the side of the plane. But when you walk about to the airport terminal, it socks you between the eyes. Then sticks them together – more of that later.
Then you have to find your hire car. Good luck with that, when they’re all covered in a big white blanket. Rarely have I seen so many people walking around in circles, holding car keys out in front of them, thumbing the remote with increasing frustration. Eventually, the four corners of snow flash yellowy-orange and you’re in.
And immediately, it’s easy to spot an Arctic newbie. Newbie grabs the door handle and dives in, desperate to be somewhere warmer. In doing so, newbie introduces much of the snow which had been sitting on the roof and around the door to the inside of the car. That was me. I got in looking like a snowman, only for the snow to melt, condense on the glass then freeze on the inside of the windscreen. With the heater on full.
These days, I hold the cuff of my right sleeve (seriously, I’m going to test you on this stuff later – pay attention) and run my forearm across the full frame of the door. That done. Take off the outdoor coat (failing to do so means you won’t feel the benefit when you return to the outside world), get in, crack on.
Usually, at this point, I remembered I’d forgotten to disconnect the mains-connected sump warmer necessary to stop the oil freezing. When I did remember, briefly I genuinely feared I’d reverse out of my parking space and drag the hotel along with me.
That didn’t happen.
So, you get back out, wish you’d never taken your coat off, unplug the oil thingy and get back in, only to discover some snow’s moved on the roof and has now redistributed itself liberally across the drivers’ seat and down the back of the driver’s neck.
Any car-based frustrations are, of course, forgiven on the discovery of a handbrake. A quick mental calculation based on my two visits to Rovaniemi determines that I spent – at least – 50% of my time on the happy stick. Seriously. Every corner. Every car park. Every roundabout. Rarely has a renter Renault Clio been seen at such ridiculously awkward angles.
What am I saying? Every Renault renter spends its life at those angles…
It wasn’t long before I fully understood the bloke in Blacks knew nothing about coldness. My duvet-doubled jacket was only good to wear in the car.
My first morning among the polar folk was spent sourcing kit to keep me alive. My jacket stopped at my waist, leaving my Levi-clad buttocks in a state of deep freeze. I hired myself a full suit. It was, essentially, a beefed-up race suit capable of keeping even the most nuclear of winters out. Amazing. Jeans and a sweater underneath, big suit over the top and happy days.
And for the hands and feet, you go for the fur. I can’t remember what the gloves were made of, but it was once furry, warm and soft. And now it was keeping my hands and feet in the same good order.
Goggles. Did I want goggles? Of course not?
Yes, I would when I went on the Ski-Doo later in the week, but not for now. Thanks but no thanks.
On day two, the wind picked up and came from the north. Dear Lord.
Remember the eyes thing? So, you walk outside, the wind hits you in the face, your eyes stream, then freeze shut. Nice. And glasses just give you a headache. The plastic or metal bit across the bridge of your nose freezes and gives you frostbite between the eyes.
Goggles. That’s the answer. Yes, please. And two balaclavas. Yes, the fluffy ones.
Close to two days after arriving and with credit card pretty much maxed at the local Inter-Sport, I was looking like a local and completely cool with the cold.
Despite all of the above, for me, nothing compares with the place.
Listening in to the drivers briefing, I could hear the organizers telling the crews about their survival kit. This wasn’t some dull first aid affair, this was about which parts of the car to burn first if you went off the road in the middle of nowhere.
The middle of nowhere is, just for reference, pretty much anywhere north of Rovaniemi and inside the Arctic Circle. It’s bleak and dark. When I was there it was light by 10 in the morning and dark again just after two in the afternoon.
But for those four hours, with the weak winter sun sitting just above trees frozen white standing starkly against the bluest of brilliant blue skies (it doesn’t happen often…), I was transfixed.
The stages? The stages are some of the fastest and most entertaining stretches of road in a country known for entertaining stretches of road. And, don’t forget, if you don’t like the roads, take to the lake and make your own stage.
Capital of Lapland Rovaniemi might be, but it’s not exactly a metropolis. There are some restaurants and some hotels. But they’re pretty much locked out by folk looking to catch a glimpse of joulupukki. Understandable, given that this is – officially – the hometown of St Nicholas.
But the Arctic’s not about the nearest Hilton. It’s about embracing the frozen north. And eating Reindeer.
Honestly, it’s an adventure from start to finish and one I really hope we get the chance to experience next year.
By extension, does that mean we need to bin Sweden in favor of Finland? Absolutely not. Finland’s already got one. And, last time I looked, that summertime dash around 1000 lakes was still a very worthy round of the WRC.
No, Rally Sweden CEO Glenn Olsson has a plan to take us to Sweden’s deepest winter in 2022. Let’s stick with him and his team.
But before then, revel in Rovaniemi. And maybe pack an extra sweater. Or two.
And don’t forget your goggles.
Having got to the end of my Arctic story, you deserve to be reminded of why you came here in the first place. Have a look at this. Courtesy of a teenage Finn.