PARIS: A month after Sebastien Ogier claimed victory in the opening rally of the season in Monte Carlo, the World Rally Championship heads north to the snowy wastes of Finland to start the Arctic Rally on Friday.
The rally has been in existence since 1966 but this is the first year that it has been elevated beyond the Finland Championship to form a part of the WRC as a replacement for the leg in Sweden which was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That means drivers like Ogier, for all their experience, will be on unfamiliar ground.
"The road surface is hard-packed snow with solid snowbanks," said clerk of the course Kai Tarkiainen.
"Beneath the snow, there's always a little bit of water in the gravel and that's frozen solid to make for a great base."
Temperatures this week in Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland which lies six kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, were below -15°C although the forecast is for that to climb during the day and hover around freezing going into the weekend.
Seven-time world champion Ogier will certainly start as the favourite but the 37-year-old's young Toyota teammate Kalle Rovanpera may be the man to watch.
The 20-year-old hails from Jyvaskyla, known as the 'Athens of Finland' and epicentre of the traditional Rally of Finland, but he is at home on the hard, icy surfaces and the walls of snow of Rovaniemi.
Last year he won the Arctic Rally, which only counted for the Finnish championship at the time, giving him an edge on his fellow drivers.
"It's nice to be back here. I did it once last year so that helps a little for sure," said Rovanpera, whose father Harri competed in the WRC from 1993 to 2006.
A Rovanpera win would make him the youngest ever winner of a WRC rally, outstripping Jari-Matti Latvala, now his boss at Toyota, who was 22 when he won the Rally of Sweden in 2008.
Rovanpera finished fourth in Monte Carlo, prompting Ogier to mark him down as one to watch in the Arctic.
"In the Arctic, he's the only one to have done it last year, on a ground where he accumulated a lot more miles than me when he's half my age... So there's a chance he'll fly up there," said Ogier after Monte Carlo.
The rally features 10 specials for a total of 251 kilometres around Rovaniemi.
"We're going north of the north," said Ogier.
"This is good news, especially in the current context, we have a good chance of being isolated from the world!
"And that will allow us to have real winter conditions, which we haven't had for a long time." – AFP