The 53rd Neste Rally Finland takes place this weekend, the ninth round in the 2003 FIA World Rally Championship. Finland will also play host to the fourth round in the 2003 FIA Junior WRC.

Finland is the fastest rally in the championship and on account of the long distances in the liaison sections, one of the longest in terms of total distance. The stages are run over closed public roads in sharply undulating countryside, which create the event's legendary high-speed jumps.

Smooth gravel surfaces. If conditions are dry, the running-order first time through stages assumes a major factor in the race for the lead. There is a much greater use of single-usage stages on this event than usual. Finnish drivers have won the past ten events.

New this year:

The rally returns to the Urria jump (stage 13) for the first time since 1987. Relatively few changes have been made to the rally route. The stages to the west of Jyvaskyla this year are run on the first day to improve spectator movement control including considerable improvements in surfacing and enhancement of facilities for VIP guests in the Service Park at Paviljonki.

There will be a separate Shakedown for Priority 2 and 3 drivers on the Wednesday evening 20km west of Jyvaskyla, with a separate Service Park.

This year the rally qualifies for the Junior FIA WRC, not the Production Car FIA WRC.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

Richard Burns starts the event first car on the road as befits his championship leading position, having pulled further ahead by another podium placing in Germany. His last outright win however was New Zealand in September 2001, since when he has achieved 12 podium finishes. Peugeot continue to lead the FIA Manufacturers' series.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Marlboro Peugeot Total:

[Marcus Gronholm, car #1 and Richard Burns, car #2. Also nominated Harri Rovanpera, car #3.]

Gronholm has won this event for the last three years, so have Peugeot. Perhaps the most serious result of Marcus' recent arm ailment, was that he had to miss Peugeot's Finland tyre test. He will rely on advice from his team-mate Harri Rovanpera.

Technical chief Michel Nandan commented: "Once again Finland presents the traditional dilemma. Trying to protect the car from the heavy landings, and trying to maximise traction, two conflicting objectives. We always have to employ technical compromises."

For Germany it was Rovanpera, this time it is the turn of works driver Gilles Panizzi to stay at home.

Citroen Total:

[Colin McRae, car #17 and Sebastien Loeb, car #18. Also nominated Carlos Sainz, car #19.]

Despite their win in Germany and their excellent reliability in Cyprus, there is curiosity whether the Xsara WRC is on a competitive level with the cars of rival teams. Chief chassis engineer Jean-Claude Vaucard noted: "This event is the most demanding on car performance of all, so Finland will be a good test in this respect."

Sainz is not only the first non-Scandinavian driver to win this specialised event, but [with Gronholm] he is the only manufacturer's driver to have finished in the last five years.

Ford Motor Company:

[Markko Martin car #4 and Francois Duval, car #5, in 2003 specification cars. Also nominated Mikko Hirvonen, car #6 in a 2002 version car. Also entered Jari-Matti Latvala, car #20].

Ford boss Malcolm Wilson commented: "This is going to be our chance to tell Hirvonen he will have no orders, he can drive as fast as he likes. With Latvala, however, he is under orders to finish. Remember, this is still only his second ever rally in his home country."

555 Subaru World Rally Team:

[Petter Solberg, car #7 and Tommi Makinen, car #8.]

There will be a ten-year celebration gathering before the event at which the original 1993 1000 Lakes Impreza drivers Markku Alen and Ari Vatanen will be guests of honour. Technically this year's event will be only the team's third event using Sachs shock absorbers, and all events have been quite different. Team director David Lapworth noted: "This is an event both our drivers enjoy very much and where they have always done well."

Skoda Motorsport:

[Didier Auriol, car #14 and Toni Gardemeister, car #15].

The team will run two new Fabia WRCars on this event, built to gravel rather than asphalt specification, so the problem in Germany of weak top suspension mounts should not recur. Subsequent analysis of Gardemeister's car in Germany revealed the car suffered two simultaneous troubles, the suspension failure as well as a seized gearbox. Their number one driver Auriol is the last non-Finn to win the event, in 1992. For this event both cars will be fitted with Xtrac transmission systems: the alternative Unic system is currently intended only for asphalt application.

Hyundai World Rally Team:

[Armin Schwarz, car #10 and Freddy Loix, car #11. Also nominated Jussi Valimaki, car #12.]

MSD hope this event will be the first useful experience using MSD in-house shock absorbers, following their abbreviated events in New Zealand and Greece when they had fitted these before. Proflex shock absorbers were used in Germany. These have been worrying days for Loix. All night after his return home to the South of France he was protecting his house from advancing forest fires.

Priority two entries:

Favourite has to be Janne Tuohino, the joint 2003 FIA Scandinavian Winter champion (the first FIA champion of the season!) in a Focus. Other strong contenders include Marcus Gronholm's prot?g? Jusso Pykalisto and the reigning Finnish champion Sebastian Lindholm, both in Peugeots.

News from the Junior WRC:

The rush is now on! The remaining four rounds of the season will be held in three months. Renault driver Brice Tirabassi continues to lead the series from Suzuki drivers Salvador Canellas and Urmo Aava. These are special days for the Frenchman: since Greece, he has been married to Alexandra!

All the four Suzuki drivers have new cars for this event, now fitted with Reiger shock absorbers. Daniel Carlsson is expected to be fully fit after his recent eye injury.

A new co-driver is to replace Miikka Anttila beside Katajamaki (fourth in series) in the VW Polo it will be Jani Laaksonen, former co-driver for Juha Kangas. Recent work by Lehtonen Motorsport in Turku means the Polos of Kosti Katajamaki and Oscar Svedlund should be some 20kg lighter than before.

Chris Birkbeck Rallysport report that fifth driver Guy Wilks (Puma) will have a new engine specification. Only one car this time for Astra team, Abdo Feghali. There has been no chance for Top Run to go testing the Puntos for Marcos Ligato and Massimo Ceccato. Both Martin Stenshorne and Beppo Harrach have withdrawn their entries.

No driver has finished all three rounds held so far, in fact only six have finished two.

Dimitar Iliev tested his Peugeot in Italy a month ago, hoping for improved reliability, while his fellow Bulgarian Krum Donchev has been busy in his national championship which he is now leading.

Other top runners:

There will be a strong presence of non-championship Super 1600 cars on this event, with three Renaults (Simon Jean-Joseph, Mark Higgins and the Swedish driver Per-Gunnar Andersson).

Special facts:

Two drivers will claim the same achievement in Finland. This will be the 100th FIA World Championship Rally for Drivers' series leader Richard Burns, the 12th driver to have made this achievement. The 1981 world champion Ari Vatanen will also be able to claim his 100th rally as well. Vatanen's co-driver will be Juha Repo, lately associated with Juha Kankkunen. Both Burns and Vatanen have won ten FIA World Championship Rallies. Five of the previous 11 to reach this milestone have been Finns.

The tyre supplier Michelin, meanwhile, is wondering if they also will have a celebration in Finland. Sebastien Loeb's win in Germany was the French company's 199th world rally win. Before this event, Peugeot and Ford are tied as the most successful teams on this event: both have won eight times.

The Olympic gold medallist skier Thomas Alsgaard enters his first world championship event in a Group N Mitsubishi. Probably Norway's most famous sportsman, he had hoped to compete in Finland in 2002, but withdrew because of an injury sustained in a cycling accident.

Challenge of the event:

The special feature of Urira's jump is the vertical drop factor after the crest, rather than the speed or the distance the cars fly through the air. Simo Lampinen, Clerk of the Course, tells about the hazards of Urria's jump from personal experience from his days as a professional rally driver: "Once we approached the jump at slightly the wrong angle and slightly too fast, and the car landed terribly heavily. It was a miracle the car could be driven away afterwards. The height from the top of the crest to where you would land is about five metres, but to that you have to add the extra height you gain when you actually take off at the crest. It can easily be an eight metre drop I predict it will be exactly the same now as then."