World Rally Championship: Why Finland is fond of gathering


He watched the big eyes, as Ari Wattanen, a Finnish rally driver, turned a politician, came out of the blocks to a Ford Sierra.

"I remember the jump of the car and the flames that come out of the smoke," Lampinen says. For a young boy, it was a dream come true. This was the moment when the self-accepted superfan fell in love with the sport.

Lampinen estimates he spends 25 to 30 days a year watching a rally. Once the routes for an event are published, they study the course, visit the scenes and mark the corners where they will show – "the corners we expect to act, you know, crash," she says.

In Finland, a dedicated rally fan is not uncommon. The sport is extremely popular in the country, with the Neste Rally attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers every year.

The fans favor the Finnish team of TOYOTA during the 2017 Rally Neste.

"Rallying has become a kind of national sport," says Kai Tarkianen, an employee of the Neste Rally, told CNN. "Many athletes known outside of Finland come from motorsport – obviously we have Formula One world champions, but we also have our world champions."

With a population of just 5.5 million, Finland produces a disproportionate number of motor racing champions – a total of three in the F1 and seven in a rally – commonly known as "Flying Finns". In fact, it leads both sports with the number of champions per inhabitant.

So what makes Finland a successful breeding ground for motorsport champions?

Wild roads

Finland's road network is about 450,000 kilometers, according to the country's transport agency. Of these, 350,000 km are private and forest roads.

For new drivers this means a huge practice arena at their doorstep.

The isolated streets of Finland are a perfect training ground.

"The guys from the village just come and close a street route in the middle of the night and they go and see who's the fastest," says Tarkianen. "Then one thinks," Hmm, that's a lot of fun "… and then they go to hobbies rallying and working their way from there."

This is part of the general call for concentration. "It is a popular sport," says Tarkianen. "Anyone with permission may appear."

Excellent conditions

Finland hosts one of the fastest rallies in the world.

Unlike race cycles, there is no controlled environment. The sport takes place on normal public roads – it's about going as fast as possible from a to b under any circumstances.

And in Finland, a country where ice and go-karting are a popular hobby, drivers are ready to take ice, snow, dust and mud. Even the national driving test – which is known to be one of the toughest in the world – requires special training for slippery conditions.

"The weather in Finland gives us the ideal basis for learning driving skills," says Lampinen. "You need to know how to drive in the winter, you have to know how to ride the gravel in the summer."

The Finnish edge

Slip control is vital for the gravel roads in the country.

Neste rally is famous for jumping, blind peaks and hard gravel streets, making it one of the fastest races in the series. As cars usually slip more easily on gravel than the asphalt, they also make it one of the most demanding.

Finnish drivers have an advantage, says Jari-Matti Latvala, a driver for TOYOTA GAZOO Racing (TGR). "You know the characteristics of the roads … so you know what to expect, where to fly and how the corners will go".

Former world champion rally Juha Kankkunen of Finland jumped during the Neste rally in 2001.

Now at the age of 68, the race was a family walk, joining the nation, says Tom Fowler, chief engineer for the TGR.

"Everyone knows something about the rally in this country that brings everyone together," he says.

Popular support makes the race even more accessible, it drives investment in infrastructure and inspires drivers.

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"Land in your home brings pressure," says Latvala. "But on the other hand, it motivates you because you have many Finns who support you."