As one of the most eagerly awaited rounds on the FIA WRC Academy calendar, every driver dreams of lifting the trophy at rallying’s spiritual home in Finland. But as the 2012 Neste Oil Rally Finland came to a close in Jyväskylä this evening, there could be only one winner.In another dominant performance, Elfyn Evans added the ‘Gravel Grand Prix’ to his tally of victories – with seven stage wins – and assumed control at the head of the WRC Academy standings. Rounding off the top-three, Pontus Tidemand claimed second withBrendan Reeves third.
Day 1 saw the crews travel south for three stages around the picturesque harbour city of Lahti where a real battle emerged between Evans, Tidemand and Alastair Fisher -each claiming a provisional stage win on the opening tests.
Unfortunately, the three-way battle was cut short after Tidemand was awarded a 10 second time penalty for jumping the start on SS2, demoting the Swede to sixth place and awarding the stage victory to an ever improving Jose Suárez on the Spaniard’s least preferred surface.
Elsewhere, there was misfortune for Ashley Haigh-Smith 5km into SS1 when the South African incurred damage to the gear lever of his Ford Fiesta R2. Despite forfeiting more than 12 minutes to the leaders, the 19-year-old put his ‘bush mechanics’ training to good use to get his Fiesta back to service where the M-Sport team were able to return the car to full working order.
More heartache followed for Sweden’s Fredrik Åhlin whose birthday celebrations were cut short with an accident on SS3. Carrying too much speed into a tight left-hander, the 22-year old rolled his Fiesta R2. Both crew members avoided serious injury in the spectacular incident, but too much damage to the rollcage put an untimely end to the youngster’s charge.
Day 2, and as the competition moved closer to the rally base in Jyväskylä, the dominanceEvans showcased at the Acropolis Rally shone through once more with six out of a possible nine stage wins. What is more, with Fisher forced to Rally 2 after a puncture caused electrical damage to the wiring for the fly by wire throttle of his Fiesta, Evans extended his lead to more than a minute over his nearest rivals.
Despite Evans’ control of the event, the battle for the final podium positions was one of the closest and most thrilling in WRC Academy history with four drivers separated by just 12.3 seconds heading into the final five tests.
Recovering well from his earlier penalty and having been suffering from flu earlier in the rally, Tidemand secured a stage victory on SS6 – and was rarely out of the top three on individual stage times – to hold the runner-up spot going into the final day. Claiming the final two stage wins over Lankamaa 2 [SS11] and the second pass of the Killeri Super Special [SS12], Reeves was just a further 8.3 seconds adrift in third. Just 3.9 seconds behind the Australian, Van der Marel continued his strong performance on what had been a good event for the KNAF supported driver with Suárez’s ever improving technique on gravel bringing the youngster into contention for his first WRC Academy podium a mere 0.3 seconds behind in fifth.
Day 3 saw the crews embark on what is arguably the most challenging day of competitive driving the WRC Academy crews have ever faced in their rallying careers – featuring some of Finland’s classic tests with wide roads, fast jumps and the infamously demanding Ouninpohja stage.
Rising to the challenge, a composed drive from Evans saw the 23-year-old maintain his lead whilst a clean-sweep of fastest stage times from Tidemand - including glory on the legendary Ouninpohja stage – saw the Swede consolidate his second place. But it was not enough to topple Evans whose faultless drive saw the Welshman claim his second successive win in as many events to assume the lead of the championship.
Elsewhere, the battle for the final podium position played host to some thrilling driving –Reeves, Van der Marel and Suárez separated by just 1.8 seconds at the end of SS13. The battle was so intense, that SS14, SS15 and SS16 each saw the final podium place occupied by a different driver – Reeves on SS14, Van der Marel on SS15 and back to Reeves at the end of SS16.
The final podium position was settled on the classic Ouninpohja stage when Van der Marel went off the road 3km into the final test, thus handing third place to Reeves.Suárez decided to settle for fourth when he encountered Van der Marel’s stricken Fiesta, but with a strong improvement on gravel the 21-year-old will be well placed ahead of the upcoming asphalt events.
A solid drive from Scotland’s John MacCrone saw the youngster secure a strong fifth place with Chris Duplessis enjoying the stages and bringing his Fiesta home in sixth. Portugal’s João Silva secured seventh, with a recovering Haigh-Smith and Fisherclaiming the final points in eighth and ninth respectively.
1st Elfyn Evans said:
“I am very happy to take the victory and make it to the finish on such a prestigious rally, it is such a good feeling. We held it together throughout the event and got the reward. We take away vital points towards the championship, especially after our pace yesterday, and I am very pleased to take seven stage wins.
“We had to look after the car today so I did not push for more points. But it was a great haul of points over the event and our championship attack is back on track, brilliant!”
2nd Pontus Tidemand said:
“I am really happy with second place and six stage wins throughout the rally. I was not feeling well on Day 1 and struggled to find a good rhythm, but my pace and consistency has improved over the past two days. I am very happy to take away so many points towards the championship and I will take away some confidence in my pace from this event.”
3rd Brendan Reeves said:
“We are very happy to be on the podium at the finish. It has been a great battle right from the start, so it was a real shame that Timo [Van der Marel] went out like that, but we managed to keep Jose [Suarez] at bay and kept pushing on.
“Our outright time was really good it the last stage [SS17], which was a great way to finish. We have consistently improved over the course of the event and have gained some great experience. We will go away very happy and confident ahead of the change to Tarmac in Germany.”
4th Jose Suárez said:
“I am happy with our progress over the event and with fourth position. It is an incredible feeling to get to the finish of such a famous event. I have learnt a lot over the event and found a good pace. We have collected good points towards the championship, which I am also very happy about. I go to the next round on Tarmac with a big smile on my face.”
5th John MacCrone said:
“We said before the start of the rally that we would be happy with a top five finish and we take away fifth place. We were in the mix pretty much all of today, apart from two stages. I do not really understand where we lost the time, maybe our pace notes where a little cautious.
“We always knew this would be a difficult event, and are delighted that we can take away strong points towards the championship. It was all about learning and gaining experience on this event and we certainly did that. The stages where exceptionally fast, but great fun. We will come back here next year and hopefully be able to challenge for a podium finish. This result was a great confidence boost ahead of Germany in a few weeks time.”
6th Christopher Duplessis said:
“This event has been so much fun and it is great to be here at the end of such a challenging event, especially after the hard work which went into making sure we could compete here! There were some stages where we pushed hard and had some good times, but we need some practice to match the pace of the front runners, it is an honour to race against them.
“Unfortunately this is my last event in the [FIA] WRC Academy as I am out of budget. I have had an absolute blast and for sure I have learnt a lot and gained invaluable experience. I have loved every minute of it, what better way to finish than on Rally Finland!”
7th João Silva said:
“This has been a really tough event, but I guess without any kind of experience on a surface with the characteristics of Rally Finland, we managed to pass through all of the stages without any major problems, which is a great achievement for us. OK the pace in the last stage [SS17] was not so great for us, but we just wanted to take our car to the finish safely.
“I have learnt the most from of all rallies to date from this event and we take away some great experience and driving confidence. I have really enjoyed the stages and leave here happy. Hopefully we will be in Germany to make good use of what we have learnt here.”
8th Ashley Haigh-Smith said:
“This has been a really challenging event for us, which I have learnt a lot from. It really has been a character building rally. We have suffered some issues over the rally, but have really enjoyed the stages and I am happy to still be here at the finish.
“The stages were fantastic today, although a little rough on the second pass, but we expected this when we started. Otherwise, we found a good rhythm this morning and were going well, but unfortunately we had a gearbox issue on the second pass which resulted in us loosing time to the others.
“Craig deserves a lot of praise on this event, I am so glad he was sat next to me, he has helped me to get the car to the finish that is for sure.
“We have a lot of work to do in preparation for Germany in just over two weeks time, but I will use the experience from here to build confidence.”
9th Alastair Fisher said:
”I have mixed feelings at the end of this rally. We started very well lying second going into Day 2, with a very strong pace and rhythm shown on Day 1 leaving us just 5 seconds behind the lead. Then we got a puncture and decided to continue, but unfortunately encountered issues with the throttle and had to retire from the rest of the day two stages.
“Today we returned under Super Rally regulations and found it a little difficult to push on the limit, but we are here at the end and I really enjoyed the stages. They certainly live up to their reputation!
“I am obviously disappointed to finish at the back of the field on this event after such a competitive start, but we will take away some good experience from the event in preparation for Germany, where we will be looking for maximum points towards the championship.”