Kris Meeke is hoping to lift his 2014 WRC campaign to new heights as Citroen returns to the scene of some of its more famous victories.
Back when the Swedes were the only drivers that could compete with the Finns at their home event, Citroën enjoyed its first win at what was then the 1000 Lakes Rally, when local drivers Pauli Toivonen and Jaakko Kallio secured 1962 victory in a DS19.
Some 26 years later, another Citroën claimed overall victory in Jyväskylä, as multiple world champions Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena racked up their first win there in 2008 with the C4 WRC. The French pairing went on to repeat the feat in 2011 and 2012, with the DS3 WRC, and it's the sort of success that Meeke is looking to emulate in 2014.
At his very first rally in the DS3 WRC, the Briton made a very strong impression at the 2013 Rally Finland, as lying fifth overall with just two stages to go, he showed his skills in adapting to the extremely quick roads.
“I had set some second- and third-fastest times in the first two days of the rally,” Meeke recalled, “but I lacked a bit of consistency in order to stay in touch with the leaders.”
This time around, he feels even better equipped to deal with the unique challenges posed by the Finnish event.
“The second half of the season is going to be really different,” Meeke, who currently lies seventh in the overall standings, insisted, “I'm going to be driving at events that I am already familiar with, and I'm hoping that my experience will count. This will be particularly the case in Finland. At such high speeds, you need perfect lines - the steering wheel isn't much use when your wheels are flying through the air!
“We'll still be working the day before recce. We are going to prepare for the rally in the best possible way. If everything goes well, we should be able to fight for a top-three spot… but I know there are a lot of guys vying to finish on the podium!”
The 'Finland Grand Prix' is the fastest event on the WRC calendar. When they won here in 2012, Loeb and Elena set an all-time record with an average speed of 122.89kph.
“At speeds like that, you need a lot of experience to be among the leaders,” emphasized deputy team principal Marek Nawarecki, “Having appeared in Finland eight times before, Mads [Ostberg] will be competing at one of his favourite rallies. Kris also knows this rally very well, having made six starts here already and having competed in one of our DS3 WRCs last year. This experience will help our drivers to get up to speed straight away.
“The goal is the same as ever, we will be trying to secure podium finishes. With all the work done so far this season, Mads and Kris feel comfortable in the DS3 WRC. The second half of the season will give us the opportunity to turn their good form into results.”
Since his first appearance at Rally Finland in 2006, when he was only 18 years old, Ostberg has improved his results year by year. Seventh in 2010, he finished sixth in 2011, fifth in 2012 and was third in 2013.
”Experience is the key to going quickly on all of the stages,” he noted, “Having competed here eight times before means I have acquired the confidence you need. It is also one of my favourite events. I think that came across last year.
“You also need a car with a perfect set-up so you can commit fully to the course, no holds barred. Pace notes will also be important to be able to attack the jumps confidently. I'm expecting it to be a good fight. We'll need to go at a strong pace from start to finish to try and keep moving up in the overall standings, which is what I have managed to do every year since my first appearance here!”
To prepare for this round, Citroen has scheduled a test session just before the official recce, during which it will also be preparing for the future. Michelin will be providing new tyres, which will be making their competitive bow at this rally, while the DS3 WRCs will also be equipped with several upgrades as part of the development programme initiated for 2015.
“Nothing is left to chance,” admitted chief operations engineer Didier Clément, “More so than elsewhere, the drivers must be able to feel confident in the car. It has to be particularly responsive. Usually, we always look for a balanced set-up, an effective compromise. In Finland, above all else, you need pure speed!
“Technically speaking, the Finnish route calls for great precision in the set-up of the cars. It's a very complicated rally to win. It took us several years before we managed to win here. You need to know the course very well and avoid making even the slightest mistake. It's a sprint from start to finish and there is virtually no chance of making up any time lost though mistakes.”