The world’s only dirt Grand Prix. Rallying’s finest return to Finland

August 09, 2023

Written by Chris Hosie

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The 2023 World Rally Championship arrives in Finland for round 9 of what has been a thrilling championship thus far. Not just in Rally1 but, in the various support classes as well. Before we get into it though, lets remind ourselves what happened in Estonia, the previous stop on the WRC tour.

Rally Estonia was another thrilling event seeing many incredible and wild moments. Including some two wheeling and open air WRC2 contenders. The event was won overall by Kalle Rovanpera. The Finn extending his championship lead heading into his home event. WRC2 honors went the way of Adreas Mikkelsen, beating his fellow Toksport teammates to take a second win in three events. WRC3 saw Roope Korhonen take victory, bringing more silverware back to his Finnish homeland. While the Junior World Championship saw Gregoire Munster take the win. Making it his first win of the season. William Creighton still leads the points in the Juniors with Laurent Pellier in second.

The rally began on the Thursday evening with a quick blast through the Harju Special stage. Allowing the fans to get up close and personal with the world’s finest rally drivers. The crowds being entertained by the incredible variety of rallying machinery. However, first blood didn’t go to the Finns. Estonia’s Ott Tanak was the one who set the fastest time and took the early lead. However, Friday would be the first real test of man and machine on the fastest gravel roads in the whole of Planet Earth.

Friday saw the crews tackle some of the most iconic stages in all of rallying as well as some of the fastest stretches of road. It would become a day filled with great excitement and heartbreak. Starting at the top, the rally lead would be taken away from Tanak by the home hero Kalle Rovanpera. The Finn setting a commanding pace right from the start and dominating the morning loop of stages. Elfyn Evans was also in flying form he would soon find himself in second place and eager to get some vital championship points on the cards if he was to stand any chance of getting back into the title fight.

M-Sport would have a torrid day with Tanak’s retiring with mechanical issues on SS3 and joining him on the sidelines would be his teammate Pierre Louis Loubet. He would smack a tree with the left rear of his Puma and retired on the same stage as his Estonian teammate. Esapekka Lappi was also hoping to get back into contention for the title. The Finn was struggling to match the pace of the rest of the field and, on SS7, his drive to catch up saw him spear off the road and crash into an unforgiving Finnish tree. 

Takamoto Katsuta was having an incredible day on the super-fast gravel roads and was engaged in a thrilling battle with the Hyundai of Thierry Neuville for third. With the Yaris driver holding on against the determined Belgian. Then, on SS8, the story of the rally was turned on its roof, quite literally. On the eighth stage of his home event, with a comfortable lead, Rovanpera took a corner too fast, clipped a bank and found himself cartwheeling out of the rally lead. His Yaris was badly smashed but, like Lappi and Loubet, both he and his Co-Driver walked away unharmed from another frightening accident.

This gifted the number one spot to Evans who was now being chased down by a resurgent Neuville. Having demoted Katsuta to third. Teemu Suninen was in fourth place while the fourth Toyota at the event, driven by team manager and former WRC front runner Jari Matti Latvala was in an impressive and astonishing fifth place overall and in Rally1. The Former M-Sport, VW and TGR star was showing everyone that he had lost none of the skill and talent that marked him out as a prime World Rally driver.

While this was going on in the top division, WRC2 was becoming real battle ground. Sami Pajari had the lead of the class and was sixth overall thanks to the losses in Rally1. Jari Huttunen was second with Nikolay Gryazin and Oliver Solberg making it a Skoda knockout of the top four. Emil Lindholm was the first non-Skoda in fifth with his Hyundai, followed by the Ford of Adrien Fourmaux. Andreas Mikkelsen and Georg Linnamae rounded out the top 8 with WRC3 contender Roope Korhonen showing his talents in ninth in a Rally2 VW Polo. Gus Greensmith rounded out the top 10 with Josh McErlean placing 14th in class. However, this would change on SS9 as Suninen suffered suspension failure. And Pajari would suffer tyre issues, dropping him to second.

Nicolas Ciamin, Yohan Rossel and Eamonn Kelly were languishing within the top 30 while Robert Virves retired after a crash on the days first test. WRC3 saw another Finn on top in the form of Benjamin Korhola. Followed in second by his compatriot Jesse Kallio in second with Turkish driver Ali Turkkan rounding off the top three. Ireland’s Brendan Cumiskey was going well in eighth place, though sandwiched between Toumas Vihtari and Ville Laasko. 

The top three in class were in Ford Fiestas while the fourth-place car was a Renault Clio Rally3, driven brilliantly by Markus Manninen. Rally4 had a more Japanese flavour at the top of their standings. Yuki Yamamoto and Hikaru Kogure led in their Renaults. The Peugeots of Matteo Fontana and Justus Raikkonen were third and fourth, respectively. The Ford of Raimo Kaisanlahti was fifth, followed by the Renault of Nao Otake. 

Other drivers going well in the Rally2 division, though not registered for points, included Frenchman Victor Cartier. He was driving a Toyota Yaris Rally2 Kit Car. The Ford of Paul Rowley and the Hyundai’s of John Coyne and Enda McCormack rounded out the top 30 with much Irish flare. The best placed Austrian was that of Alexander Strobl. Being passed for 31st position by McCormack leaving the Austrian 32nd. Alexander Villanueva had the lead of the WRC Masters Division in his Skoda Rally2.

Saturday was to be a day that saw the Welsh flag flying high and proud on the second day of the Gravel Grand Prix. Elfyn Evans produced a faultless drive. Extending his lead all through the day and ending it with a 32 second margin over his nearest rivals. Thierry Neuville was also on a charge and he was determined to catch Evans. However, he just couldn’t match the pace of the Yaris. His teammate Suninen had a very lively day as he flew like a supersonic eagle through his home stages. He took third at the start of the day but, would drop to fourth. Ending the day in the same position that he had started in. 

Taka Katsuta had a lively start to the day. Losing third after a spin on the days second test then, thanks to some superb driving, reclaimed it. Setting himself up for another valuable podium finish. Jari Matti Latvala was also going well. The Toyota team manger setting some very competitive times and looking set for an impressive fifth place result on his return to WRC competition. Toyota were are car down with Rovanpera retiring from the event due to the accident on Friday.

Adrien Fourmaux was making M-Sports day, as he set very impressive times of his own in WRC2. The class was being led by Jari Huttunen, until a mechanical issue saw him lose his home lead. Oliver Solberg took over and would end the day with a 12 second advantage over a resurgent Sami Pajari. The Finn then retaking the lead from the Norwegian on the last stage of the day. Fourmaux was now in third with Mikkelsen and Gryazin rounding out the top 5. Gregoire Munster would set some impressive top 10 times along with Mikko Heikkila. However, they would still be outside the points in the overall class standings. With Greensmith still in eighth, Lindholm holding seventh and a recovering Huttunen in ninth. Pajari also led the WRC2 Challenger division. Effectively a new sub championship this season for junior and privateer entries. 

Alexander Villanueva continued his dominance of the WRC2 Masters division. With Korhola still in charge of WRC3. In third place, and quite comfortably, was the entry of Czech driver Filip Kohn. Co driven by British star Tom Woodburn. Much drama befell many in WRC3 and in the Rally4 division. The Japanese crews of Yamamoto and Kogure hit problem. Thus, allowing Raikkonen to take the lead. With Fontana and Otake rounding out the top three.

Sunday would be the conclusion to Rally Finland 2023. An event that has produced much drama and excitement over the previous couple of days. It would see more drama on the day's opening test with Loubet having a wild and tight moment on approach to a bridge and Suninen would have a scare on the a few yards from the same place. Barely avoiding a roll in his I20 and clipping an advertising banner in the process. 

In WRC2, Adrien Fourmaux was driving the wheels off his Fiesta and was set for a very strong podium finish. Back in Rally1 Katsuta was locked in a fight for third with Suninen however, the Japanese driver was gaining a slight advantage over the Hyundai as the rally came to its end. Latvala too was having a good day. He was holding his own in fifth and enjoying every minute of his home event as the crews went into the rally’s final test. The Wolf Lubricants Power Stage.

The last stage saw a fast and steady drive from Elfyn Evans. He guided his Yaris over the crests and jumps of the final stage to win Rally Finland. Joining a very elite club of non-Scandinavian drivers to win the event. Including the likes of Markko Martin, Sebastian Ogier and Carlos Sainz. Taka Katsuta made it a Toyota 1, 3 in Finland. Hyundai’s Neuville and Suninen finishing in second and fourth, respectively. Jari Matti Latvala finished a solid fifth on his return to WRC competition. This, being his only guest appearance. 

Sami Pajari won back some Finnish pride by claiming victory in WRC2 with Oliver Solberg finishing ahead of him on the road though not registering for points this weekend. Adrien Fourmaux finishing third in Rally2 and second in the main WRC2 section. Mikkelsen finished behind a non-point scoring Gryazin to claim a net third in WRC2. Gregoire Munster and Nicolas Ciamin finishing in 10th and 11th with Yohan Rossel sealing 12th. Benjamin Korhola claimed victory for his homeland in WRC3 and Rally3 overall. Raikkonen taking a win on home turf in Rally4. Other finishers worthy of praise include the Renault of Manninen in Rally3. Matteo Fontana in Rally4, taking another valuable podium. Cartier in his Toyota Rally2 Kit Car. And the Irish stars of McErlean, Coyne and McCormack in WRC2.

And that is a wrap as they say in the world of Blockbuster Entertainment. The conclusion to another dramatic, exciting, energetic, and entertaining Rally Finland. The title fight is now firmly back on track with Evans and Neuville now back in striking distance of the defending world champion, Rovanpera. Can the Finn come back with a bang? Find out when the WRC heads to Greece for the car killing Acropolis Rally. A rally that tests one’s immortality before the eyes of the Greek Gods themselves. Will Toyota conquer the world like Alexander the Great? Or can Hyundai and Ford rise in defiance to halt their world domination? Only time and the judgement of Themis will tell. Catch all the action from this mythical rally from the 7th to 10 September, when the WRC Returns.


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