Suzuki prepares for the biggest challenge of all
Of the rallies that make up the FIA World Rally Championship, Finland has the most fearsome reputation of them all. The Jyvaskyla-based event - which is a true legend in the rallying world - is easily the fastest rally of the
year, with compact gravel roads that are as quick and smooth as motorways. Rally Finland is also characterised by rollercoaster crests, which launch the car several metres into the air. The stages require the utmost bravery and commitment, as well as scrupulously accurate pace notes. Just one very small mistake can spell disaster: there is no such thing as a small accident in Finland.
It is a rally where local knowledge definitely helps, but Suzuki will be able to rely on its two Scandinavian stars in Toni Gardemeister from Finland and P-G Andersson from Sweden. Nonetheless, many of the stages are new on this year's "Finnish Grand Prix" - giving the less experienced drivers a slightly better chance to match the locals. A number of these new stages are made up of speed tests that have been run in previous years, but now driven the opposite way round. The organisers have also looked for some narrower and more technical stages than were used last year, in order to keep average speeds down.
Nonetheless, Finland will still be a very quick event this year, with average speeds on the stages close to 130kph. Although the roads are extremely flowing, a little bit like New Zealand, many of the corners are blind. The key to success in Finland is finding a good rhythm so that the car "floats" from corner to corner, and having the confidence to maintain it even when the road ahead is hidden. Engine power plays a major part, but a lot of time can be gained from having the commitment to conserve the car's momentum in the braking areas: and this is how the local drivers excel.
The weather in Finland is expected to be extremely warm next week, adding yet another challenge to this highly competitive event. The rally gets underway on the evening of Thursday 31 July with the start and spectator superspecial and ends on Sunday 3 August after 24 special stages.
Car news - Suzuki SX4 WRC n.11 (Gardemeister) and n.12 (Andersson):
Finland is an important rally for Suzuki, as it marks the introduction of the second evolution of the SX4 WRC, featuring a raft of new parts designed to improve efficiency and performance on one of the most challenging rallies of the year.
Under the homologation rules, the manufacturers are allowed to update their cars over the course of the year. The new parts introduced will make the SX4 WRC lighter, more reliable, and increase its level of competitiveness.
The cars driven by Toni and P-G in Finland will be newly-built at Suzuki's rally headquarters on the outskirts of Paris, and the suspension will be adapted to suit the particular demands of the Finnish stages. On the Monday before the event, both Toni and P-G will test their cars for a day in order to establish the best set-up for Finland. As Finland is such a quick event with so many high-speed jumps, finding the right set-up is absolutely crucial: particularly when it comes to damper settings.
After nearly a two-month break from the World Rally Championship, both drivers are looking forward to getting back behind the wheel of the SX4 WRC. Although they have both had the chance to get in some summer holidays, Toni and P-G have been busy as well. Two weeks ago Toni contested the "OK Rally", a Finnish Championship round based in his home town of Kouvola, using his own personal rally car. His co-driver for the occasion was his girlfriend, but Toni still managed to set times not far off those of the WRC car that won the event!
"It was a bit of fun, but it also served a serious purpose," said Toni. "The stages around Kouvola are quite similar to those we will see on the Rally Finland. After quite a long time out of a rally car, it was good to get back into the rhythm of competing again and practise taking the right lines over the crests. When we test the Suzuki and its new parts on Monday, we will have a better idea of where we are. Realistically, many of our rivals still have an advantage over us in terms of engine power - which is quite an important factor in Finland - but also our local knowledge helps. We've always had good speed in Finland in the past, but equally we've been a bit unlucky. I'm feeling confident though: if we can set some times inside the top five I think that shows we are making progress."
P-G Andersson has spent the summer concentrating on his fitness and enjoying the warm weather in Sweden: which is set to be replicated in Finland next weekend. Although he has not had the chance to compete on any events since Turkey in June, he too is feeling upbeat about his prospects in Finland - an event where he has previously won the Junior World Rally Championship class with Suzuki.
"Finland is definitely one of my favourite rallies of the year and I think it suits my driving style," explained P-G. "We've always gone well there in the past, and I'm looking forward to competing there in a World Rally Car for the first time. It's one of the rallies that I know quite well, but maybe the fact that there are lots of new roads helps us as well, as it means that the local guys might not have such a big advantage. It would be really nice if we could finish in the points on such a challenging rally, and as long as we have good reliability and keep out of trouble, I don't see any reason why we should not do that."
Suzuki has been working very hard throughout the summer in order to prepare the latest changes to the SX4 WRC, which will be seen for the first time in Finland. As well as adding extra speed to the car, the accent has been placed firmly on adding reliability in order to consolidate the progress that was made throughout the first half of the season.
In addition, the team has been building two brand new SX4 WRCs from scratch - which incorporate some important weight-saving gains in the bodyshell without compromising strength or stiffness. The test on Monday will put all these new components through their paces and act as an extra shakedown for the new cars, whilst giving Suzuki the chance to run on the soft compound Pirelli control tyres that are being used for the first time this year in Finland.
Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima, the Principal of the Suzuki World Rally Team, commented: "Our campaign on the World Rally Championship so far has taught us many tough lessons - which have been a vital part of the learning experience. We now look forward to putting some of these lessons into practice with the latest improvements to the SX4 WRC, on what is the fastest and probably the toughest rally of the year!"