Two Finnish pairings, one of which leads the drivers' standings in the FIA World Rally Championship, eager to claim a maiden victory on their home rally and one of the sport's classic fixtures, competing for a team that leads the manufacturers' title race – the scene is set for an epic contest as Rally Finland (31 July - 1 August) fires the second half of the 2008 campaign into life after a seven-week break.
Their rivals will ensure this ninth round of the series is not merely a straight contest between BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, but the internal rivalry will be fierce. However, both pairings are also firmly aware that this event offers the opportunity to stretch Ford's nine point lead in the manufacturers' series with the record-breaking Focus RS World Rally Car.
Victory in Finland, the sport's spiritual home, is one of rallying's most sought after achievements and home drivers have a distinct advantage on one of the most specialised events of the season. Only six non-Finns have won the rally in 57 years, and huge crowds flock into the countryside amid the lakes and forests near the host town of Jyväskylä to cheer on their fellow countrymen.
It is based on blisteringly fast roller-coaster gravel speed tests and drivers who grew up on this type of road have a clear advantage over 'outsiders' who require several years' experience before they can hope to challenge for a win. Rally Finland boasts five of the six fastest rallies in history, the 2005 round topping the all-time list at a remarkable average speed of 122.86kph.
The wide, hard roads are as smooth as a billiard table but technically it is an incredibly difficult rally. Precision driving and bravery are more important here than anywhere else. The awesome stomach-churning jumps frequently hide bends over the crest, so accuracy and delivery of pace notes must be exact and picking the right line before 'take-off' ensures maximum pace through the following curves.
This will be the seventh appearance here for Hirvonen, who lives in Jyväskylä and will celebrate his 28th birthday on the day of the start next Thursday. Last year's second place is his best result. "I've stood beside these stages since I was a kid watching heroes like Markku Alen and Ari Vatanen driving. My family and friends will all be out watching and it would be a fantastic feeling to stand on the top step of the podium in front of them on the Sunday afternoon," said Hirvonen.
"But there are other drivers who are capable of preventing me from doing that. There is a little more pressure on me to win in Finland than on other rallies but it's nothing I can't cope with. I can't wait because it's the first time that I will start my home rally leading the championship. This rally is all about bravery, trust in the pace notes and accuracy. There is simply no room for mistakes," he added.
Latvala is just as eager for the action to start. "It would be special to win on home ground in Finland. Victory here is more highly regarded than in some other world rallies. It requires solid experience of the rally and I need to be able to drive flat out from start to finish without making mistakes. Anyone hoping to win needs to have completed the full rally – from start to finish – at least twice. I've done that and have started on three other occasions," said the 23-year-old.
"I know parts of Saturday's new stages, some of which are narrower than the traditional wide roads used during the second leg. I feel very confident after finishing second in Turkey last month. I made mistakes in Argentina and Italy and had problems in Greece before that so the result in Turkey was a big relief. It gave me a real boost to fight with Mikko and Sébastien Loeb and take that confidence into the summer break. Our pre-event test has been moved closer to the rally, which is good because it will give me the right feeling to take into the rally after the summer," he added.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third Focus RS on the first anniversary of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's partnership with Ford. "My first year in the WRC has been a process of learning the various driving techniques and styles required to negotiate the new terrain I’ve encountered. I've finished every event, but in Finland my pace notes and stage experience should benefit my times. It will be the first rally where I can look at my previous year's performance and assess my progress. I’m intrigued to know how I am developing one year into my WRC career," said 36-year-old Al Qassimi.
* As part of the sport's new regulations, BP Ford Abu Dhabi will have just one tyre pattern from Pirelli. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in hard compound only. Because anti-deflation mousse is also outlawed this year, the Scorpion includes reinforced sidewalls to offer increased protection against punctures. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spares.
* Nine other Focus RS cars are entered. Gigi Galli / Giovanni Bernacchini and Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud are nominated for points by the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team while Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin will drive a third car. Munchi's Ford World Rally Team has nominated Federico Villagra / Jorge Pérez Companc and Luis Perez Companc / Jose Maria Volta to score. Four other privately-entered Focus RS cars are also entered. Fourteen Fiesta ST cars will also start what is the third round of the Fiesta SportingTrophy International, nine of which are registered for the series.
* The team completes a four-day pre-event test in Finland today. Hirvonen completed the opening two days on Monday and Tuesday with Latvala taking over yesterday.