Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

At home with the Iceman - Kimi Räikkönen heads to Finland for some more rallying action

Published by Lady Snowcat

Somehow I never expected Finland to be hot. But it was steamy hot on the day we arrived and only got hotter until shakedown, which took place on the hottest day the country had ever known. It was totally weird to have Middle Eastern temperatures in such a green land. I was very glad of the shades, sunhat and sun cream, I consigned the fleece to the suitcase and wondered what had prompted me to take it at all!

No time to stop in Helsinki (we’ll do that on the way home) we head for Jyvaskyla, the home of the rally, and about 4 hours drive north. The roads are like a smooth grey carpet rolled in front of us across flat or slightly undulating terrain. We wend through forests of silver birch and thin straight tall conifers which suddenly give way to beautiful views across clear crisp lakes beckoning us for a swim in the humid sticky day.

Although the countryside feels welcoming there aren’t many towns, villages or even houses around. But then you get to Jyvaskyla and it is buzzing with the rally guys in town.

In fact Service seems to be in the centre, right by the bus and train station. Everyone seems to be walking briskly across the enclosed (and very hot) bridge, hurrying on the knotted wooden surface, to see their heroes.

In the heat, the Service Park forms a fierce contrast to the icy airfield of the other Scandinavian round of the WRC. A conference centre, with an exhibition and a karting track as well, offers a little respite from the heat of the large area where the teams’ trucks, tents and paraphernalia cook in the too fierce sunshine.

Six guys are on duty for the Press on Thursday including Seb the older and Seb Mark II. However neither the multi-champion, and France’s new hot shot, or even last year’s Finnish winner Mikko Hirvonen, are wanted for as many pictures and questions as the 2007 F1 champion. Even so Kimi squats down to have his picture taken with a very young rally fan as he leaves the official photo opportunity but people don’t generally harass him. It strikes me afresh that Kimi at rallies feels a lot less taut and wound up than he seemed in his last year in F1.

Kimi Räikkönen kicks up some dust and stones during the rally in Finland
Credit: GEPA pictures/ McKlein

Going out to shakedown and the stages, although we start on smooth tarmac (I can’t help wishing for Kimi’s sake that some of the stages were like this), we leave these for secondary byways and soon discover the gravel and why Finland is famous for rallying. These are well compacted and hard with only a thin layer of surface stones. Moreover they flow like swift streams through the stands of trees, breaking out into open country before plunging back amongst the foliage. The gently rising and falling terrain is fast, very fast, and the small crests therefore assist the cars to take to the air in a way a more vertiginous countryside often doesn’t allow.

Finland is clearly rallying country and whilst superstar Kimi gets a great reception the warmest welcome is for Juha Kankkunen, 4 times a WRC champion, now 50 and having a “Cameo” appearance here to help celebrate 60 uninterrupted years of Rally Finland. It’s a fun one-off and is done with verve and enthusiasm and no expectations to revisit the podium. (His appearance prompts me to think that it may well have been more dignified and appropriate if a certain ageing multi-winning F1 driver had had the same approach).

Back to rallying and the opening Super Special Stage takes the guys up a steep hill, zigzagging in hill climb mode and then rushing down again, now through the trees. This is a short adrenaline fix for the many fans out to see their combatants on Thursday evening. After this the two days of intensive rallying that follow start very early and finish late and so the guys head back to the Service Park and their hotels to prepare for the ordeal. The crowd are not quite following this example, and with live music and drinks flowing in the evening sauna-like temperatures, it looks like being a late night for some.... but not for my team as we plan to be attending in the morning.

We are up early on Friday and head off feeling very relieved that the temperature has relented. Over the next few days we perform our own rally. We have plotted a course from stage to stage to see as much as possible. At times the rally cars overtake and at others they are heading in the opposite direction. But we have not gone wrong we are just looking for a special spot. We need to read the map pretty well, as there is no recce for us, but we don’t get lost because as we get close we can follow the other spectators.

It’s fun being part of a large crowd chatting amiably as we watch and wait for the bright cars to come dashing towards us. This is supplemented by the radios keeping us up to date via Rally Radio. These very usefully let me find out as soon as possible that Kimi has made it to the end of the previous stage and, after he speeds past our position, that he reaches the end of this one. On Saturday I almost abandon the trek when I hear he is in a ditch. But he gets hauled out and continues with what looks like half a car when he finally passes us.

Sometimes the land and views open up whilst at other times we are in relatively dense forest. Given the general lack of population it’s almost a surprise to be up close and personal to some Finns at home. Each of the stages involves hospitality from the locals in one way or another. Either we tramp through their back gardens by their greenhouse or stand near to their postbox (deliveries have been suspended for the duration). The co-drivers could certainly leave a calling card in the cute little post box for No 94 but their speed forbids it. You want to get close to the cars but on some more stony sections you need to beware the spitting rocks churned up by the Pirelli Scorpions. I now sport at least several decent bruises from unexpected trajectories.

The popularity of rallying means that every stage is well subscribed, car parks full and ticket sellers busy. Unlike other rallies there are VIP areas at several stages which give you the opportunity for a great view, and even occasionally a big screen showing the progress over the stages from the air. Getting to see the jumps sometimes means peering through the trees trying to get a vantage point along with people who seem to have been there since last year. But everyone is having fun and is very friendly.

Sidepodcast image
Credit: GEPA pictures/ Red Bull Photofiles/ Vesa Koivunen

Sometimes, just before the cars arrive, the air is filled with a small swarm of helicopters who land, allow the team personnel and VIPs off for the passage of the WRC cars, before taking off again. From one of these decends a very, very tall Marcus Gronholm (another Espoo guy - do they put something in the water there?) in a white windcheater and with thick hair blowing in the stiff breeze. Awed, a few of the crowd members shyly ask for an autograph and a couple of the bolder souls request a picture. He doesn’t smile much but he very graciously obliges whilst being deep in conversation with his companions (perhaps about driving the Prodrive Mini in 2011).

All too soon late on Saturday afternoon, after two frantic days we arrive at the final stage and the rally finishes, as did Sweden, on a downhill ski slope, or in this case adjacent to one. The difference being that there is no snow this time. The final finish stirs up the gravelly dust of a small holiday village which is fun but seems a little odd when we have been in the lovely countryside up until now. As with Sweden a Finn triumphs but not the same one this time as Jari Matti garners the honours.

So we head back to Jyvaskyla for the ceremonials, the concert and the fireworks. The Service Park is full of madly celebrating Finns having an excellent time. A totally wonderful end to a totally wonderful rally.

I trip over Kimi as he emerges from Parc Ferme. It’s after the podium where he has smiled rather shyly at the crowd, given a few words to the MC in unintelligible (to me) Finnish, waved and accepted the cheers. He’s still in his overalls and sporting a golden stubble, impossible to see except when close. There are only a few people around and he smiles and signs a couple of autographs before jogging back to the team. He seems happy and relaxed although perhaps I imagine that I can see a little disappointment.

I think he expected more here in this second pass at Rally Finland, and although he always appears harshly realistic as to his chances I wonder if he had a keener expectation and whether this will factor in his future career plans. But regardless of any sense of regret, here, in this lovely clean and peaceful country, the bad feeling of Hockenheim and Hungary seem a world and a lifetime away. I think about whether I would go back to F1 if I was him.... and I have to say it would not be a difficult decision.