Flying Start for Junior Finns

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Although Saab is usually associated with its Swedish roots, something like a third of all Saab cars sold worldwide are actually built in Finland. Last year the company’s Finnish marketing and assembly operations combined to start a one-make series called M-class, using stripped-out 900 Turbos, which has been exceptionally successful. While sampling the Airflow 9000 Turbo there, we had the opportunity to try one of these cars on the really delightful purposebuilt little circuit of Ahvenisto near Hameenlinna.

What triggered the series was the sudden removal of Finnish car tax from track-only racing cars, meaning that the cars can be sold ready-built from the factory at less than £10,000, virtually a third of the showroom price.

Shorn of all trim and underseal and weighing 1000kg, the 40 cars built so far retain their power steering, and have the usual lowered and stiffened suspension, with extra boost to extract 165 bhp, 10 bhp up on the 8-valve’s norm. Purchasers are left to fit roll-cage, seat, harness and extinguisher, and forbidden from any other modifications.

The class runs in two series totalling some 20 events, on tarmac circuits in summer and on ice tracks in winter, and grids and grandstands are crowded for both. Not only does the series bring young Finnish hopefuls into racing, Saab’s basic reason for being involved, but older drivers too are subscribing, and last season’s racing was close and furious, with much bumping and boring.

Ahvenisto is a tight and hilly circuit of erratic figure-eight shape, with a concrete bridge at the cross-over and a soggy marsh round the back to swallow up wayward cars. The pits and paddock are enfolded by one loop, from where a long steep left-hander climbs to a blind brow hiding a 90-right downhill into a misleading left — a fine recipe for over-exuberance even before tackling the uphill hairpins leading back to the kinked straight which offers the only overtaking chance.

With a couple of laps familiarisation, the winding track began to present some real challenges, especially the stomach-wrenching hump where the car was on tip-toe just when it was time to pitch it into the next bend, and through the very fast fourth gear (fifth if you were brave) corner behind the paddock.

But the Saab with its remarkably light steering turns smartly on request, turbo whistling as the speed builds through the corner before, with a push on the firm clutch, the long lever is tweaked into the next gear. Although the steering ratio is rather low, the power steering allows fast cranking and it is almost easy to forget that this grippy racer is actually a front-wheel drive saloon.

What is difficult on this hilly track is to keep the boost up for the tighter bends; with a standard-issue box the ratios are rather widely spaced, and with a slippery hairpin on the horizon and lots of wheel-twiddling it is all too easy to allow the gauge to fall. The answer, as so many Scandinavians have learned, is left-foot braking, and if the series gives as many new drivers competition experience this year as last, we can expect to see Finns to the fore, particularly in rallying, for some time. GC