Why Finland continues to blaze a trail in world rallying
A small piece of news recently announced that a certain Emil Lindholm had been appointed ‘Future Star’ of Finland: an award dished out every year by the country’s motor sport federation, the AKK, which is probably the most active in the world when it comes to the promotion of rallying.
Remarkable, really, how a country with fewer than five and a half million people has carved out a reputation as being the spiritual home of the sport, with Rally Finland widely acknowledged as the one: the ultimate test of bravery and skill; a gravity-defying showcase of exactly what these cars can do on the limit.
Lindholm, who wins a prize drive on Rally Finland, is the son of Sebastian Lindholm, once an occasional works driver for Peugeot and cousin of double world champion Marcus Grönholm. Finland’s a small country.
Lindholm Sr was employed every year by Peugeot for Rally Finland between 2000 and 2005, with a best result of fifth. At the time, specialists were drafted in on a reasonably regular basis: Peugeot had Lindholm for Finland, whereas Ford ran Janne Tuohino and Mitsubishi brought in Jani Paasonen. Not many people had heard of any of them, yet they all scored decent results.
It wasn’t just on the highly individual roads of Finland where event specialists were a common sight. Asphalt rallies were also the cue for several one-off appearances over the years.
The most famous specialist was Peugeot’s Gilles Panizzi, a man whose feeling for sealed surfaces was so other-worldly that Richard Burns used to sit with him in tests to try to understand it. And was still none the wiser. Put Gilles on gravel, though, and he was nowhere: his best result on the loose was fifth in Turkey.
Citroën frequently used to enter the much-missed Philippe Bugalski on asphalt rallies. A charming gentleman who survived this fearsome sport only to lose his life five years ago falling out of a tree at his home, aged just 49. Ford’s guest on asphalt was Italian hero Piero Liatti, while Subaru even gave a factory drive in Spain and Corsica to Brice Tirabassi, a man whose only real claim to fame was winning the Junior World Rally Championship in 2003.
The sudden appearance of the specialists, while seen as confusing and antiquated by many, was good fun. It opened doors for younger drivers (Alister McRae got his break in a one-off drive with Subaru as team-mate to his brother on the 1998 Rally GB), gave some past legends an opportunity to return and provided a wild card that mixed things up (the very first asphalt victory for a Citroën Xsara WRC was taken not by Sébastien Loeb, but by Spanish Tarmac king Jesus Puras).
Since then the sport has moved away from guest stars. But the tide had started to turn many years before with Carlos Sainz, through sheer force of will as much as sublime talent.
“I thought it was crazy that you were automatically seen as either an asphalt expert or a gravel expert when I first started rallying,” says Sainz. “To me, it was obvious that to be a good driver, you had to be fast on both. So I applied myself and I think I succeeded. In a way, this helped to change the sport.”
It certainly set the tone for what was to follow, with a series of moves to make rallying gradually more homogenous, easy to understand and therefore televise: centralised service, permanent drivers, shorter stages, and so on. For traditionalists, the sport never fitted comfortably into many of these boxes.
But, ironically, in the current data-saturated era of instant gratification, both Formula 1 and the WRC have recently returned the emphasis to pure entertainment and – whisper it – the ghosts of the past. Modern F1 cars have something of the wide look of the 1970s, while the current generation of World Rally Cars has never more closely resembled Group B.
Along with that, the one-off guest driver might well be making a return. The hero of Rally Poland was arguably neither Thierry Neuville nor Ott Tanak, but Teemu Suninen. On his debut in a World Rally Car, he finished sixth and set a fastest stage time. The last person to do that was Esapekka Lappi in Sardinia: another Finn, tipped as a future champion.
Suninen is back for one more guest appearance in the 2017 Fiesta on Rally Finland. While highly rated, and managed by Timo Juohki – the man behind so many Finnish champions – Suninen is not (yet) a household name. Back in 2014, he too was elected ‘Future Star’ by the Finnish motor sport federation and this year he was picked up by Malcolm Wilson and M-Sport for their WRC2 campaign.
There’s plenty of talent coming through the ranks, despite what some say. You just have to know where to look – and often it’s Finland.