Two faces of Finland

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(Continued from last month)

Apart from the Thousand Lakes, Finnish rallies do not allow practice, so that the science of making pace notes is not as advanced in Finland as it is elsewhere. Finns tackling the Thousand Lakes use the two-week period of practice to drive every stage time and time again, working by night and day, often in pairs so that one driver may apply memory tests to the other. At this time Finland’s summer is drawing towards its close, but foreign visitors often choose to live in lakeside cabins rather than in any of the good hotels, enjoying the freedom of seclusion and adopting the Finnish habit of ending the day with a communal sauna, a dip in the lake and a supper of sausages or fish cooked at the log fire. There are no artificial inhibitions about these evenings and we well remember one British rally competitor and his wife turning up at a lakeside sauna and being initially taken aback by the sight of a dozen or so naked bodies; within a couple of minutes they shed their dress and joined in.

Finns work hard and play hard, but their philosophy is that life is to be enjoyed. Believe us, they know how to enjoy it. After a hard day’s practising they really switch off and become different persons when a voice announces that the sauna is hot enough. The relaxation it affords is unbelievable, and when the next practice session begins the crews are refreshed and ready.

The most striking winter rally in Finland is what used to be called Tunturiralli but which now has the name Marlboro Arctic Rally in deference to its financial backers. It takes place annually in the area of the Arctic Circle, based at the region’s major town, Rovaniemi. It is here that one can see the most striking change when summer becomes winter, for not only does the rally use special stages on frozen lakes and rivers, but municipal authorities will open public roads across the ice. Where ferries plied a few months before, motor vehicles will pass and where floatplanes landed they continue to do so but with big skis fitted as landing gear.

It is bitterly cold, but a temperature of -30C is far more easily bearable than the much less cold but damper weather of a British winter. Naturally the northern Finns dress for the climate and furs of one kind or another are regarded as necessities rather than luxuries. Take off a glove during an Arctic night (there’s precious little day anyway) and it won’t be long before the cold manifests itself in a severe pain. Take a deep breath and your nose will freeze up; do so with your mouth open and your tongue will feel as though someone were sticking pins in it; stop at the roadside to commune with nature and you will soon change your mind and get back in your car without having risked the attempt.

In such conditions are the Arctic Rally held, with concentrated anti-freeze in radiators, similar additives in fuel tanks, various rubber bushes replaced by brass ones, equipment lists including food, knives, warm clothing and matches, and mechanics always ready with hammers and chisels to chip off ice formations. We take our hats off to those mechanics, for uncomplainingly they work out in the open, lying on their backs in the snow, risking frostbite time and time again to keep their cars going. Tough conditions breed tough people.

One marvels that tap water never freezes, trains and road traffic never stop, heating always works, electricity is never cut and the internal schedules of Finnair are never interrupted. To watch a DC9 pilot put his huge machine down squarely on a runway covered by sheet ice and bring it to a stop without as much as a hint of a slither is quite remarkable. When Finnish airline pilots can achieve that sort of precise control, small wonder that the country produces rally drivers of World Champion calibre.

In summer, country dwellers use their boats as often as their cars, both for transport through the network of lakes and for fishing trips and other pleasantries. In winter, the boats give way to another form of non-wheeled transport, the snowmobile. This amazing device, usually powered by a two-stroke engine, driven by a wide, knobbled rubber belt and steered from handlebars by a pair of frontal skis, is sufficiently versatile to be used on roads, lakes, rivers and even across country through the trees. It provides ready, practical transport over ice or deep snow and is as much employed for taking the kids to school as for giving go-anywhere mobility to reindeer herdsmen.

Practicalities apart, the snowmobile has uses which would endear it instantly to readers of Motor Sport; its sporting potentials are endless and the Finns are not at all slow to make use of them. They have circuit and cross country races, trials, overland safaris, snow-batics, jumping contests and in fact anything which smacks even remotely of a competition involving skill put to the test. The Finns are great sport lovers and they are always in search of ways to convert an everyday activity into a sporting one. Politeness is always evident in Finnish life, but although they remove their hats, hold open doors, escort ladies to their chairs and announce their names when they shake hands, they enjoy a jovial freefor-all when they board a bus and are so rumbustious on a dance floor that one needs to be a strong-elbowed athlete in order to survive. Always that competitive spirit is to the fore.

We are well acquainted with the peculiarities of snowmobiles, largely due to the good offices of former Finnish snowmobile racing champion Peter Geitel who spends some ten days at Rovaniemi every winter to test something approaching twenty machines of various kinds for a Finnish sporting journal. He bases himself at the spacious, stilt-built Polar Hotel on Ounasvaara hill outside the town, takes over a fair chunk of the car park and makes daily sorties into the woods with his colleagues. On a number of occasions we have accompanied them and have never failed to be amazed at their skill in handling their machines. On soft snow you have to ride as you would a motorcycle, using throttle, steering and movement of body weight to get the right balance for a turn. But on hard snow or ice it is difficult to lean them over and one really has to tug to one side to get any form of steering at all. Specially modified racing machines are better, of course, and it is possible to induce rear-end slide and even to correct with opposite lock on the skis, some of which have skate-like cutting edges on their undersides in order to provide grip.

Snowmobiling is a fantastically exhilarating pastime demanding physical strength as well as skill if you want to be good at it. After a few hours crouching over those bars, peering through the fine, vapour-like plumes of snow trailing from those ahead, using every muscle to twitch the bucking machine around pine tree afterspine tree, taking to the banks to get some extra camber and leaning well forward to get the front down after a jump, the feeling of satisfaction and achievement is tremendous. Those not used to it develop aohes and twinges where they have never had them before, but there is always that inevitable sauna (the a and the u pronounced separately) to relax them away. Were Britain endowed with more snow during her Winters there can be no doubt that snowmobiling would be one of the country’s most popular sports.

No-one, least of all rally drivers, who goes to Finland will escape contact with its complicated language which seems to be totally unrelated to any other. The guide books will tell you that Finnish will present no problems at all, provided you don’t attempt to speak it, but if you ignore the complicated grammar and remember that it is completely phonetic, with the accent always on the first syllable of each word, there is no reason why you should not understand that Kolme-Kaksi-Yksi-Aja is a countdown from Three to Go, that erikoiskoe means special stage and that Hololkyn-Kolokyn is a complicated way of saying “cheers” when you raise a glass.

Even after British inflation, Finland is still somewhat costly by our standards. With some 200 cubic kilometres of snow and ice covering the country each winter, diners still have to pay for a bowl of ice in a restaurant, for instance, but on the other hand taxi driven do not expect tips. A week spent in a modern hotel is likely to set you back a pretty penny but you’ll get every comfort in return. Private rally drivers who make the journey to Finland usually choose to stay in students’ hostels which serve as inexpensive but comfortable hotels during holidays, or in those forest cabins which we have mentioned. These can accommodate any number from two to more than twenty and they provide a means of living comfortably on a limited budget and in a way which the Finns themselves like to live.

Erik Carlsson once said of a crowd watching a special stage during the Rally of the Thousand Lakes, “They are not people; they are Finns”. He meant it as a joke of course, but unwittingly he paid them a compliment for they stand out as a race apart. Practical but fun-loving, politically-conscious but leaning neither to East nor West, hard-working but great sportsmen, Finns have done much to raise the standards of rally driving the world over. Theirs is a fine country and we have no hesitation in recommending it to those who seek to combine sport with holiday, summer or winter. —G.P.

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