In more than half a century, just four non-Finnish drivers have ever won the 1000 Lakes Rally, now known of course as Neste Rally Finland.

This simple statistic highlights the difficulty of the challenge faced in Jyv?skyl? by the crews of the three Xsara WRCs Citroen has entered for this year's event.

Colin McRae/Derek Ringer and Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena will be teamed up with Carlos Sainz - co-driven by Marc Marti - the man who, in 1990, became the first of only two 'Latin' drivers to ever have succeeded in breaking the Nordic stranglehold.

Finland's road system features an extensive network of gravel arteries. Designed to withstand the assaults of the region's long, tough winters, these superb roads wind their way gently - with very few sharp turns - through a landscape of pine trees and countless lakes. At the same time, they hug a barely undulating terrain that was sculpted during the ice age and consequently include a high proportion of crests and brows. This characteristic means that the average speeds recorded during Rally Finland are amongst the highest of the championship. It also accounts for the event's celebrated 'third dimension': its famous 'yumps' that cause the cars to spend a high proportion of their time airborne!

"The jumps are difficult to judge," explains Loeb. "They all look the same as you approach them. Like a wall that rises up in front of you. After that, all you can see through the windscreen is sky. It's only after the crest that you get to see the 'landings strip' and find out whether or not you're on the right line...!"

In 2002, Citroen's first attempt at this rally enabled the team to harvest an excellent crop of data and information: "The Xsara's 'in flight' balance was good," analyses technical manager Jean-Claude Vaucard. "The car stayed horizontal in the air and landed on all four wheels. But we weren't as at ease over the narrower, cut-up stages. During the winter break, we worked for this event by isolating the different parameters: vertical performance, differential mappings, etc.

"Even though further work remains to be done in this field, we have made progress. As far as new developments are concerned, we will be using new rear brake callipers. These improvements were all validated during a test session in Finland organised after the Cyprus Rally. All our drivers had a chance to drive over the two main types of terrain found on the event, namely the wider, hard-packed roads and the narrower, softer ground."

With no local drivers in its line-up, the Versailles-Satory based squad knows it won't be starting this event as favourite since, more than anywhere else, local knowledge makes a primordial contribution. Even so, McRae, Loeb and Sainz are determined to do everything in their power to ensure Citroen comes through the Finnish challenge with extra valuable championship points in the bank.