26/02/2021 Off By admin

For the second round of the 2021 FIA World Rally Championships, we have ventured far North into the Arctic Circle for the first time in its 49 year history. The Rovaniemi based Arctic Rally event in the North of Finland has come to rescue in place of the fallen Swedish rally and has created much excitement amongst World Rally fans, despite being a non-spectator event, like Round 1 the Monte Carlo was.

A total of 251km spread over just 10 stages in this short winter sprint rally faced the 55 crews on the entry list, 13 of which were World Rally Cars. This is the largest that we’ve seen in a while and is bolstered with a further 10 WRC2 cars and 23 WRC3 cars. With some familiar names from the World of motorsport such as, DTM and WorldRX Driver Mattias Ekström and 3x World RX Champ, Johan Kristoffersson along with a bunch of locals all coming out to play in the snow.

Photos: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

Hyundai’s Ott Tänak set the benchmark at shakedown on Friday morning beating his team-mate Thierry Neuville by just 0.7 seconds ahead of the rally’s first stage later in the afternoon. 

Fridays Leg 1 of the event featured 62 km over a single repeated stage, first run in the afternoon in daylight and then repeated again later in the dark. This opening stage in the Miltary area to the North was the longest stage of the event. At 31km in length, the Sarriojärvi test (which was a reverse ran stage from the National Arctic Rally) saw speeds reach around the 190km/h + mark, as the World Rally Cars bounced off their rev limiter it was a great way to start the proceedings for this Winter Wonderland adventure. 

Toyotas Sébastien Ogier was first on the road assuming the role of the snowplough, however, although he was happy with his driving despite touching one of the snowbanks; he knew that being first on the road was going to be tough and a disadvantage to him. With the rest of the pack behind who was as expected, were going to be faster, he accepted that this is the price you have to pay for winning the season opener, the Monte.

Photo: Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT

Hyundai’s Ott Tänak and Craig Breen appeared to have the best of the road position in their i20’s behind the likes of Ogier, Evans and Neuville, who all reported a bit of fresh snow and the cleaning effect to the first stage. The Hyundai pair were able to capitalise on their road position and secured the top two fastest stage times, with Tänak taking the first stage win of the event setting a time that was 3.6 seconds faster than returning Irishman Breen.

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

At the stop line of the first stage Tänak said that it was “a very demanding stage and the conditions were nice” but acknowledge that it was only the first stage and there’s a long way to go in this new rally.

Hyundai Team Boss Adamo was refraining from getting too excited at this early stage, sighting that there was still another 9 stages to go and that Rovanperä was a concern for his drivers; but he was still demanding a better performance from his team compared to what they delivered at the Monte Carlo in January.

Photo: Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT

The third fastest driver on this opening stage was Toyotas Kalle Rovanperä, a Finn that is no stranger to this Arctic Rally, having competed here on a number of occasions in the past and winning the National Event last year. Setting some great split times early on, he was looking good for perhaps the opening stage win; however, after being stuck for a while in a snowbank approximately 16km in, he had to settle for 3rd overall.

For SS2 it was time to strap on the lamp pods and head out into the Arctic Forest for a very demanding night stage. The conditions had evolved since the first pass in the daylight. With a little bit of loose snow and gravel on the lines, the surface was now a little softer as the temperature had risen slightly to +1 degree. Sparks could be seen in the darkness from the studded tyres and crews were reporting their tyres were degrading as they reached the back end of the stage.

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

For today’s opening leg, Championship leader heading into the Arctic, Ogier had to just accept the situation that he was in, being beating by almost every driver that followed him. Ogier’s team-mate Rovanperä was the best of the Toyotas but for now, the opening leg of the rally belonged to Hyundai.

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

At the end of the opening day, it was a Hyundai 1-2, Ott Tänak was out in front with a 16 second lead over his team-mate Craig Breen. 

Its been a challenging and typical roller-coaster for Finland, its been a very technical and challenging stage today, but everything can change tomorrow, so we shall keep focused.

Ott Tänak

In the WRC2 class, former M-Sport WRC refugee Esapekka Lappi who hasn’t driven a rally car since the season closer at the Monza Rally in December, was leading the class in an R5 VW Polo GTI. Beating Nikolay Gryazin (also in a Polo) on the opening stage and then beating WRC2 Championship leader, Andreas Mikkelsen in the Skoda Fabia Rally2 EVO on stage 2 in the dark, he ends the day leading the WRC2 rally class by 13 seconds to Gryazin.

Photo: Esapekka Lappi (Social Media Channels)

The road order will be reversed for Leg2, the longest day of the rally will feature 144km over 6 stages, (2 loops of 3 stages repeated). The speeds are expected to increase and the road conditions will improve. 

Ogier will start with at least a handful of others in front of him now but with +49 second shortfall from the rally leader, Tänak upfront; the second day will have to be a big performance from the 7 times World Champion if he is to get back in the mix and fight for some very valuable points.

Words: Andy Cook – Xlerate | Feature Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT