Two faces of Finland

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If you were to say of the Finns that they were a nation of Jekylls and Hydes they wouldn’t become annoyed, even if they didn’t quite understand what you meant. On the other hand, if you explained that the expression was intended as a compliment, neither would they swell with pride, for the Finns are notoriously non-demonstrative over such matters. They are so used to both praise and criticism that they remain expressionless no matter which comes to their cars. Indeed, the unknowing visitor making a short trip to Finland could well be forgiven for leaving with the totally mistaken view that Finns are a dour lot, serious-minded to the extreme and as cold and emotionless as their winter climates. But before we go on, let us explain the dual role of all those Mr. Js and Mr. Hs. The clue is in the weather, of which the Finns bring up in daily conversation as often as the British. In Summer, Finland is green, warm and sunny, and it even has mosquitoes for a short period; in winter it is white, cold and certainly not as sunny. The two seasons are so extremely opposite that the entire way of life in Finland changes when one turns into the other. Although habits, clothing and many other things have to be switched completely every Spring and Autumn, the personalities of the people do not and the Finns are as fun-loving and uninhibited in the winter as they are in the summer. Outwardly, of course, the coming of the snow and the dropping of the mercury turns the country from a warm, peaceful place in which to relax to a harshly cold but equally peaceful and relaxing place. The need to cope with both sets of circumstances is why we said that Finns have to lead double lives.

Sparsely populated by European standards, Finland is covered by trees and lakes, with definite boundaries to the scattered cities and small towns. To leave one town and travel to the next, one has to go out into the woods, for expansion has not brought one urban boundary into overlapping contact with the next. Over-urbanisation is something which the Finns will always resist, for they value the ease with which they can get away from it all to spend uninhibited (and sometimes a little spartan) weekends in the complete isolation of a lakeside log cabin. Many theories have been put forward purporting to explain why Finns are such good rally drivers, but really there is no secret in this. They have no magic formula for success, they derive no extra skill from the heat of their saunas, from the juices of their crayfish or from the exertions of their snowsports; it’s all simply a matter of practice.

No matter what you set out to learn, the younger you are the easier you will find it. The best swimmers are probably those who were taken to the pool almost as soon as they were able to toddle, and that is exactly how it is with the driving skill of Finns. The country’s main roads are all well surfaced with tarmac, but most secondary roads are not, for it is a costly business each year to repair the damage caused by the extremes of temperature. Each spring, potholes, waves, ripples and cracks appear in many tarred roads and it is to avoid the necessity to deal with these that side roads arc left with gravel surfaces, well founded and with a top dressing of some dust-laying sealant, but nevertheless very definitely loose. It is on such surfaces that Finns usually learn to drive, so that they become well acquainted at an early age with travelling “sideways”, that kind of motion which every rally driver must master but which fills ordinary folk with horror and amazement and sometimes constabulary notebooks undeservedly with names and addresses. When Winter comes our young Finn doesn’t garage his car for the duration and unhitch his reindeer. He simply switches his summer tyres for studded winter ones and off he goes again to becomes just as highly skilled on surfaces far more slippery than those which frequently bring British traffic to a standstill.

The Finns rarely use salt on their roads; they are usually content to plough off the top snow and to leave a firm surface of polished snow on which studded winter tyres can grip. Apart from anything else, this keeps the country clean and free from black heaps which one often sees lining Swedish roads. Drivers are not treated like accident-prone juveniles and it is commonplace to see a taxi-driver turn about to pick up a fare on the other side of the road by executing a handbrake turn with absolute precision. In the same manner one may see a Helsinki bus driver rev up his diesel to get the rear wheels spinning to help him around a street corner. These things are normal and would attract no more than a casual glance from any passing policeman.

When a country breeds good rally drivers it doesn’t always follow that it also runs good rallies. But one usually complements the other and in Finland there are plenty of good summer events on gravel and equally good winter events on sheet ice and snow. In Spring and Autumn, the change-over seasons when roads are neither gravelly nor icy, rallying takes a break.

The country’s premier event is the Rally of the Thousand Lakes, based in the area around the Central Finland town of Jyvaskyla. In this area more than others, there are more undulations per mile than on any road network we have seen anywhere in the world and an equally appropriate name for this event would be the Rally of a Thousand Jumps. Finland is more or less flat, but those little ups and downs have given a unique character to Finnish rallies whose organisers have cause to thank the road builders of the past who chose to go up and over the little hills, or around them, rather than through them.

Just as it takes skill and practice to use to advantage a car’s tendency to swing its tail, so it is with taking to the air off the crests of those small but fierce brows. He who leaves the ground lightly if you see what we mean may land far more heavily than he wishes, for it demands co-ordination and sound judgement before the jump to make sure that the landing does not send the car rolling off into the trees, or at least smash its suspension.

Continued next month

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