After a six week break, the Neste Oill Rally Finland heralds the return of the 2008 FIA World Rally Championship.

Victory in Finland, the sport's spiritual home, is one of rallying's most sought after achievements and the 'home' drivers have a distinct advantage on one of the most specialised events of the season.

Only six non-Finns have won the rally in 57 years, and huge crowds flock into the countryside amid the lakes and forests near the host town of Jyvaskyla to cheer on their fellow countrymen.

It is based on blisteringly fast roller-coaster gravel speed tests and drivers who grew up on this type of road have a clear advantage over 'outsiders' who require several years' experience before they can hope to challenge for a win. Rally Finland boasts five of the six fastest rallies in history, the 2005 round topping the all-time list at a remarkable average speed of 122.86kph.

The wide, hard roads are as smooth as a billiard table but technically it is an incredibly difficult rally. Precision driving and bravery are more important here than anywhere else. The awesome stomach-churning jumps frequently hide bends over the crest, so accuracy and delivery of pace notes must be exact and picking the right line before 'take-off' ensures maximum pace through the following curves.

Special notes:

Along with the Swedish Rally, Finland is one of the fastest of the year - a real gutsy challenge where the brave will top the timesheets.

Based from the town of Jyvaskyla, one of Finland's cultural hubs, the rally route winds through spruce forests archetypal of the region and skirts some of Finland's 60,000 mirror-smooth glacial lakes.

Serene as it sounds, the landscape is unforgiving and wayward cars stand little chance of dodging rocks and trees to rejoin the rally.

In contrast to the rough, rocky and inconsistent nature of both the Acropolis and Turkish rallies - the last two events - the smooth, fast and flowing characteristics of the '1000 Lakes' make it a maximum commitment and confidence rally.

Rather than an overriding onus on endurance and reliability as in recent rallies, Finland marks a return to flat-out no-compromise competition right from the start.

The Rally Finland comprises 24 stages, of which five are new, totalling 340.42 competitive kilometres. The event starts with the traditional spectator stage at the Killeri trotting track on Thursday night. Run at the end of their summer, the temperature is expected to be around 20 degrees Celsius, milder than many would expect for northern Scandinavia.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Mikko Hirvonen re-took the lead in the race for the 2008 drivers' title following his tactical win on the Rally of Turkey back in mid-June, prior to the summer break.

His second win of the season increased his points' tally to 59 points and with Sebastien Loeb 'only' finishing third, the Frenchman is now 3 points adrift. Jari-Matti Latvala is third in the rankings - albeit 25 points off his team-mate.

In the Manufacturers' championship the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT continues to lead and following its 1-2 finish in Kemer, the 'Blue Oval' extended the lead over Citroen from 2 points to 9.

Since Turkey there have been a number of developments in relation to the WRC, the main being that following the World Motor Sport Council meeting on June 25 the FIA has been 'directed' to 'finalise negotiations for the appointment of a central promoter for the Word Rally Championship' - something that the manufacturers' are keen to see happen as soon as possible.

A statement from the FIA last month also added that from 2010, 'Group N and S2000 cars will be renamed Superproduction cars', while 'Group R cars will become known as Production cars'.

In addition Cyprus and Poland have both been approved for the 2009 calendar following the observers' reports.

The schedules for the 2009 FIA Production Car World Rally Championship and 2009 FIA Junior World Rally Championship were also released - with eight events included in both. The rounds in Cyprus, Portugal, Argentina and Italy will have dual status, just like Finland this season.

The full route for next year's Monte Carlo Rally has also been announced, although that event of course won't be part of the WRC in 2009, but a round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Daniel Sordo, car #2]

Loeb won't go silly in pursuit of first Finland win.

Sebastien Loeb has said that while he would dearly love to win the Rally Finland this week, he isn't going to get distracted and lose sight of what is really important.

Loeb heads to the ninth round in the WRC trailing Mikko Hirvonen by three points in the race for the 2008 drivers' title, despite having won five events to the Finn's two in the first half of the year.

Seb's focus then is very much on regaining the initiative as he strides to win the drivers' crown for a record fifth time - something that has never before been achieved in the history of the sport.

The '1000 Lakes', as it use to be known though, is one of the few events in the WRC that Loeb has yet to win on and while he has done well there in the past - and finished on the rostrum in 2007, 2006 and 2005 - he has yet to finish on the top step.

"We have never won this event and that is one of the targets I set myself for 2008," he confirmed ahead of what will be his ninth outing in Finland. "But however dearly I would love to win it, and despite the ground that would enable us to make up in the Drivers' standings, I have no intention of taking any more risks than usual just to add a fresh line to my personal record.

"This time last year, we were nine points down. This year, the gap is just three points. We therefore can't afford to make any mistakes, yet it is so easy to put a foot wrong in these forests where you're constantly driving on a knife edge, with all the concealed bends and the trees so very close!"

Loeb's team-mate Dani Sordo meanwhile is feeling confident heading to Jyvaskyla having had his morale boosted by his relatively recent success on the O.K. Auto-Ralli.

The Spaniard took in the fifth round in the Finnish Rally Championship as a warm-up for the ninth round in the WRC and the 'test' went very well - both for himself and Citroen. Indeed Dani set the pace in virtually all of the eight stages, eventually beating his closest rival and taking the win - his first ever in a World Rally Car - by over one minute.

While he knows the 'Finnish Grand Prix' will be a lot tougher, he is determined to try and get good points and get to the end, something he failed to do in 2007 and 2006 - with engine problems sidelining him 12 months ago and a crash putting him out the year before.

"It was first my win in a WRC car, and on gravel, too, so that was particularly pleasing. I am aware that the competition wasn't all that strong though, and that we will face stiffer opposition on the Rally Finland," he stated.

"I have felt comfortable over these fast stages and long jumps on all my previous visits. I enjoy them, and the work we did in July should enable us be even more competitive against the local specialists.

"I am pleased with the settings we have found for the different types of surface we could well face, and I think we should be competitive with our C4. Our aim is to finish as high up the order as possible with a view to scoring points for Citroen."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:

[Mikko Hirvonen, car #3 and Jari-Matti Latvala, car #4 and Khalid Al Qassimi, car #18]

Hirvonen targets home win.

Mikko Hirvonen has insisted that he won't let the pressure get to him this weekend as he heads to his home round of the WRC, the Rally Finland, eager to win for the very first time.

The BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT number one went into the summer break on a high by taking a 'tactical' win on the Rally of Turkey, something that lifted him back into the lead in the battle for the 2008 drivers' title - three points up on Sebastien Loeb.

While Hirvonen will have to run first on the road in Jyvasklya as a result now, he isn't bothered and will be hoping to go one better than last year, when he finished second to his then team-mate and fellow countryman, Marcus Gronholm.

Speaking ahead of the ninth round, it was clear he will be after the maximum ten points, and that would be the perfect result, especially as he will celebrate his 28th birthday this Thursday, when the event gets underway with the first run through the short 2.06 km Killeri super special.

"I've stood beside these stages since I was a kid watching heroes like Markku Alen and Ari Vatanen driving. My family and friends will all be out watching and it would be a fantastic feeling to stand on the top step of the podium in front of them on the Sunday afternoon," said Hirvonen, ahead of his seventh participation on the '1000 Lakes'.

"But there are other drivers who are capable of preventing me from doing that. There is a little more pressure on me to win in Finland than on other rallies but it's nothing I can't cope with. I can't wait because it's the first time that I will start my home rally leading the championship."

Hirvonen's team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala could be one of those threats and he is also just as eager for the action to get underway: "It would be special to win on home ground in Finland. Victory here is more highly regarded than in some other world rallies. It requires solid experience of the rally and I need to be able to drive flat out from start to finish without making mistakes. Anyone hoping to win needs to have completed the full rally - from start-to-finish - at least twice. I've done that and have started on three other occasions," added the 23-year-old.

Khalid Al Qassimi meanwhile will join Hirvonen and Latvala on the event in the 'third' car. Rally Finland will mark the first anniversary of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's partnership with Ford and Khalid is eager to see how much he has progressed since finishing 16th in Finland twelve months ago.

Subaru WRT:

[Petter Solberg, car #5 and Chris Atkinson, car #6]

Solberg, Atkinson can't wait for Finland.

Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson are both looking forward to the Rally Finland this week, an event which will mark the start of the second half of the season.

Petter and Atkinson both got their hands on the all-new Impreza WRC2008 just prior to the summer break and while Greece and Turkey didn't go well for Chris, 'Hollywood' got his first podium of the year on the Acropolis and then backed it up with a solid sixth place finish in Kemer.

Speaking prior to this week's rally, Solberg noted that the Banbury-based outfit definitely feels like it has made a lot of progress since round eight back in mid-June: "I'm looking forward to getting back out again after the break. Finland is a good event, and one that we've gone well on in the past. It's not an easy event, as we have also seen in previous years, but for me it's a proper rally," said Solberg, who has competed there seven times with the SWRT, his last finishing come in 2005 when he was fourth.

"Fast, flowing, blind jumps, and so many crazy fans - Finland is great! I hope we'll have good pace there and can get another strong finish in the new car. The team have been working hard since Turkey and doing lots of testing, and we all feel that good steps forward have been taken."

Atkinson meanwhile is also looking forward to getting back into the Impreza WRC2008 and seeing just how they compare to their rivals. Unlike Petter though, he has only done the event four times, taking his best result last season when he was fourth.

"I definitely want to get back into competition, so I'm looking forward to Finland. We've done a lot of testing since Turkey and the guys have learned a lot, so I hope we can make some good steps in fine-tuning the car," continued the Aussie. "Finland is a rally of big risks and you have to push hard right from the start to get a good result. We've seen some good and close battles here in the past, and I hope we can be up there this year."

For more see Part 2 of our preview for the Rally Finland.