The four Suzuki drivers run by Monster Sport Europe are ready to face round four of the Junior World Rally Championship [JWRC], the Rally Finland.
Finland is the quickest and probably the most famous rally of the entire championship, containing a daunting series of flat-out stages with rollercoaster crests that challenge every driver and car to the maximum.
The rally takes place over the compact gravel stages around the university town of Jyvaskyla, in central Finland. In order to prepare for the most challenging round of the series, Monster Sport Europe's drivers have notched up 200 kilometres of testing between them on roads similar to those they will face on the rally itself.
The flowing gravel stages could well have a slightly different complexion to them this year because of recent heavy rain, making the surfaces softer than usual. Mirco Baldacci, Guy Wilks, Kosti Katajamaki and P-G Andersson have all tested the Ignis on gravel roads near Mantyharyu, to the south east of Jyvaskyla, and are feeling confident ahead of the rally start on Friday morning. The test concentrated on suspension set-up, with particular attention paid to wet-weather settings that could prove necessary later in the week.
The Ignis dominated the last round of the JWRC, in Turkey, but Finland could not provide a greater contrast. However, Suzuki comes to Rally Finland with a proven track record, after Daniel Carlsson took the Ignis to a resounding victory last year.
Baldacci, who led the last two rounds of the JWRC before being sidelined by problems beyond his control, said: "I love fast gravel roads like the ones you find in Finland and I hope we can do well there. Nonetheless, Finland is probably the most challenging rally of the year for me. Luckily we had a good test and I found an excellent set-up straight away. This is a very specialist event, so my plan is to start off wisely, before building up speed as the rally progresses."
Wilks stunned the JWRC establishment last year by finishing third in an old car that was outclassed by much more modern machinery. Now with a Suzuki, the Acropolis Rally winner is hoping to spring another surprise in Finland this year.
The Englishman said: "I love the roads in Finland, as you have to be so committed. We've had a very positive test and I'm feeling quite confident. Finland is a real driver's event, which is very technical but also allows you to attack. We're currently second in the Junior World Rally Championship points, so our objective is clearly to try and build on that."
For Katajamaki, his home event is another chance to shine after setting a class-leading pace over the last two rallies.
Kosti, who narrowly missed out on victory in Turkey, commented: "Finland is always a very special event, being home to both me and the fastest stages of the World Championship. I love driving these roads and my target is definitely victory, although this will probably the most closely-contested round of the entire series. My Ignis feels perfect after an excellent test, but it's sure to be a tough fight!"
Andersson heads into Rally Finland brimming with confidence after winning the last round of the JWRC in Turkey. The young Swede has led every round of the JWRC held so far this year and his prospects have been boosted by a successful outing on the Pirelli Rally last weekend, that uses roads similar to those of Rally Finland.
Andersson noted: "The roads in Finland are similar to those which I grew up on, so I am really looking forward to this event. Winning in Turkey gives me a big lift: I reckon it adds almost 30 per cent to your performance. The feeling with the car after the test was excellent: I hardly changed anything. The Pirelli Rally in Finland confirmed that we are looking good: unfortunately I lost a lot of time with a puncture in the opening stages, but after that was fixed we could set some competitive times."
Monster Sport Europe team manager Risto Laine added: "Our test was extremely successful, yet basically the car is not hugely different to how it has been all year. Finland obviously requires a different set-up to most over events, but we soon established settings that our drivers were happy with. However, Finland will probably be the most competitive event of the entire season, as there are so many good drivers and cars out there. We're all looking forward to it!"
As always, the four Monster Sport Europe cars will face competition from the 2003-specification Ignis of Urmo Aava. For the Estonian, Finland is practically a home event, and he can't wait to get started.
"Finland is one of my favourite rallies of the year," he said. "Myself and the car feel in very good shape, so let's see what we can do!"
In addition to the usual line-up of Suzuki drivers registered for the JWRC, Jari-Matti Latvala will also join the Suzuki squad in Finland. The young Finn - a promising JWRC competitor - is driving an Ignis for the first time and is confident of challenging for a strong result.
"The competition will be stiff," he noted, "and I am not yet used to the car, but I'm sure it will give me an excellent chance of a podium finish if everything goes well."
Rally Finland comprises 22 stages containing 382 competitive kilometres. Leg one gets underway from Jyvaskyla at 0800 local time on Friday morning.