Kiwi rally stars Hayden Paddon and John Kennard head to Rally Finland this week expecting the competition to be close at the front of the field.
The New Zealanders hold third position on their respective WRC drivers’ and co-drivers’ championship points-tables, so the pair will run third on famously high speed Finnish roads for Friday and Saturday’s special stages.
Making their seventh appearance together on the rally dubbed the Finnish Grand Prix, due to its high speeds, Paddon says it’s the event that feels most like home in terms of the roads and the country.
“The atmosphere in Finland is also incredible and that makes it an unforgettable rally to be part of,” says the Hyundai Motorsport driver, the only New Zealander with a full-time drive in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Kennard, Paddon’s long-time co-driver, adds: “I think nowadays you’d have to say Finland is my home rally, as I spend more time living here than in Blenheim! And like Rally New Zealand, it has such a fantastic character that it completely overwhelms you, even when you’ve competed here many times before.”
Paddon says the target for the 28 to 31 July rally is to keep being competitive at the front.
“We are at that point [career-wise] where we expect to be competitive on all gravel events, but stringing the results together comes down to so many variables given that the competition is so close. Variables such as weather, road position, strategy on the day and preparation are all vital. It’s fair to say we give it 110% at every event we go to in order to keep building towards our ultimate goal.”
Finland is the European WRC event of which Paddon and Kennard have the most experience, yet organisers have compiled a route for the 2016 event which is 43% different to last year’s.
“There’s a lot of this year’s rally which has a different configuration, but the character and the challenges – fast stages, lots of jumps and lots of speed – that make Finland so unique remain the same.
“Our only disadvantage this year is that our retirement here last year means we missed most of the stages that remain unchanged this year. But we have done those stages in 2014 and studied all the stages a lot in the build-up, so the changes are just one of those things we work through in our preparation for every event.”
Of the route changes, Kennard says: “As usual with new notes, you have to work harder at ensuring the linking of the notes is done well, so you know just when the next bit of information has to be read. Luckily, as Finland is a relatively smooth rally, there's not so much tidying of notes required, so it gives us the time we need to work on this with the recce videos.”
Based in the university town of Jyväskylä, the rally draws huge crowds with its classic, smooth, high speed gravel stages and massive jumps.
The Neste Rally Finland gets underway on Thursday evening a street stage in Jyväskylä before Friday’s route takes the 17 WRC competitors west for a series of classic forest challenges. On Saturday they head south for eight tests including two runs of the legendary Ouninpohja stage. The rally concludes on Sunday in the south-east into areas that have not seen WRC cars this millennium.
Fresh from their pre-event test with Hyundai Motorsport, Paddon says they enjoyed a successful day-and-a-half test where they refine the setup from the most recent gravel WRC event in Poland.
“The harder base and wider roads in Finland requite a bit more precision. We know the New Generation i20 WRC is working very well on fast stages so that’s in our favour. I also feel compared to Poland that Finland plays into both my and the car hands a bit more.”
Paddon and Kennard will be joined in Finland by Hyundai Motorsport team-mates Thierry Neuville and Kevin Abbring in Finland following a pre-event test accident during which Dani Sordo sustained an injury.