Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson are preparing to take on one of the most hotly anticipated events on the FIA World Rally Championship calendar, Rally Finland, the ninth round of the championship.
One of the oldest events on the calendar, Rally
Finland is also a firm favourite with drivers and fans alike as it lives up to its fearsome reputation as the fastest rally of the year where only the most skillful and brave drivers will succeed.
The team arrive in Jyvaskyla after a strong performance at Rally Poland which saw Solberg and co-driver Cato Menkerud take their second podium finish of the season. That rally proved to be excellent preparation for Rally Finland, with the fast, flowing stages giving the crews a taste of what to expect when they take on one of the calendar's classic rallies this week.
Pre-event testing in their reliable Ford Focus RS WRCs in the lead-up to the event should also ensure that both Stobart crews are on top form when the rally gets underway on Thursday night.
Solberg was frustrated by his car on the opening day of Rally Poland as he fought to find the right set-up, but things came good for the Norwegian as the rally progressed and a hard-charging performance on the closing day saw him move up to take a hard-fought third place.
That result, and the knowledge gained from his experience in Finland last year where he was lying third after Day One, should put him in contention for another podium battle.
Wilson and co-driver Scott Martin also performed well in Poland and, with three years' experience of Rally Finland now under his belt, Wilson is ready to make the step up from his previous best finish of ninth, in an event that is rarely won by anyone who did not grow up on the blisteringly fast roads of the Finnish lake district.
The rally gets underway on Thursday night with the traditional opening super special stage at the Killeri trotting track where thousands of fans are expected to turn out and cheer on their idols over the 2.06km course. A season-record 90 cars have been entered for the rally with competition set to be fierce throughout the field.
Around 50 per cent of the stages used in last year's rally remain in the itinerary for this year's edition but many others have been modified while three new stages have been introduced to the schedule. Gone are the famous, but ultra-fast, Ouninpohja tests but the unique challenge of Rally Finland still remains.
Day One will take the crews to the northwest of the Service Park through 130.84kms of high-speed gravel roads where the accuracy of their pacenotes will be properly tested for the first time in the rally. Fearsome crests in the stages hide fast bends and the drivers will also have heavy demands placed on their concentration.
Day Two features the longest stage of the rally, SS19 Vaarinmaja at 29.29kms, along with one of the rally's new stages, SS18 Kavala, where the Stobart team will be relying on the Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyres on the hard-packed gravel roads. The last day of the rally provides just 47.44kms of stages before returning to Rally HQ at Paviljonki for the finish ceremony.
"I'm feeling very upbeat after the podium finish in Poland although it took me a couple of days to settle into the characteristics of the rally there. I hope that I will be able to start quicker in Finland," said Henning Solberg. "I was third after Day One last year and I hope that I can repeat that kind of pace this year; two podiums in two rallies would be amazing."
"Doing Rally Poland before Finland was really good preparation for us," reported Matthew Wilson. "We picked up a lot of things in Poland, including changes with our pacenotes that will really help in Finland. Hopefully we can get a good feeling with the car at the test. It always helps to have some time in the car in Finland before the rally starts as it is such a technical event and the speeds are so high. I've been there three times before so I'm in a much better position now as it is a rally where you do need experience."