Finland is a nation with a very proud and very extensive motorsports culture, and this year they decided to remind the world but putting up a challenge. Tomorrow (July 26), as part of the run-up to the 2014 running of the Neste Oil Rally Finland, four of the nation's greatest rally legends will take on six of the current generation's best in an all-out street fight in the middle of Finland's capital city. This is The Helsinki Battle
•Rally wins: 96
In the 27-year-span from 1977 (the first year the WRC had a drivers' championship) until 2003 (the year before Loeb took over) Finnish drivers won a ridiculous 14 titles, cementing themselves as the kings of rally. For The Helsinki Battle the nation has tapped their three multi-time champions, as well as their nation's first WRC champion.
In 1978 Alèn became the second ever WRC champion, and Finland's first, after a dominant season that saw him score three wins and seven podiums in 11 rallies. While he would never win another championship he would go on to score 19 total career wins, making him the ninth winningest WRC driver of all time.
Kannunen is one of only three drivers to have won at least three WRC championships, and the only one to do it in non-consecutive years. Kannunen won his first title in the final year of Group B, piloting his Peugeot 205 T16 to three wins and six podiums, and ultimately edging out fellow Finn Alèn in a championship that wasn't decided until the final round. Kankkunen backed up his victory the following year, becoming the first Group A champion in his Lancia Delta HF (in another close fight that wasn't decided until the end of the season, if only it were still that close), but then wouldn't win another title until 1991, when he traded wins and the championship lead with Carlos Sainz before finally winning the title by a scant seven points. Kankkunen's final title came in 1993, a season he dominated by winning 5 of the 13 rounds despite starting the season in a new car via a switch from Lancia to Toyota. In all Kankkunen won 23 rallies, placing him sixth on the list of all-time wins. For extra badassery, he once drove his Delta by sitting under the hood on the hot engine after his throttle cable snapped.
In the late 90's the World Rally Championship was effectively the Tommi Mäkinen Super Happy Fun Time Show. Tommi won four straight titles in four generations of Mitsubishi Evo (III-VI) in what will go down in history as one of the greatest driver/manufacturer pairings in WRC history. The Reign of Tommi began in dominant fashion in 1996 when Tommi won 5 of the 9 rounds, easily beating out McRae and Sainz for the title. McRae attempted the upset the following year, but Mäkinen won his second title in the closest championship finish in WRC history, a title decided by a single point. '98 was won in similar fashion, beating Sainz by two points, and in '99 Mäkinen once again fought off all challengers in a fight that went to the very end, beating Richard Burns by seven points. Mäkinen earned 18 of his 24 career wins in this four year span, the truest testament to just how dominant he was during the era.
Everyone loves Gronholm. He's tall, colorful, passionate, not afraid to talk about the condition of his co-driver's asshole, oh, also he's the second winningest driver in WRC history, with 30 career wins. Gronholm won his first title with Peugeot in 2000, picking up where Mäkinen left off, a title he won by scoring four wins and ten top 5's in 14 events. After losing the 2001 title to Richard Burns (and a string of retirements, seven in the first eight events) he came back in dominant fashion to win the 2002 title with five wins and nine podiums in 14 starts. He ended the season with more than twice the points of his nearest rival. But the most impressive season of Gronholm's career is probably the one he didn't win, the 2006 season. Loeb dominated 2006, winning eight of the first 12 rounds, and finishing second to Gronholm in the four events he didn't win. However, with four rounds left in the season Loeb was injured in a mountain biking accident and forced to sit out the rest of the season. Gronholm responded by putting on an absolute clinic, absolutely destroying the competition in three of the final four rounds (average margin of victory was 98 seconds), and finishing fifth in the one round he didn't win. Ultimately Gronholm came up just short of Loeb, losing the title by a single point, but it was a brilliant demonstration of just how capable he was.
•Rally wins: 42
In fairness, the stats of the current stars are skewed a bit by having to compete in the Loeb era, and by half the field being new blood, because there's some definite talent and speed in this pool.
What happens when you take one of the best drivers of the modern era and put him in the most dominant car the WRC has ever seen? You get the last two years of Sebastien Ogier's career, a span that has seen him win 14 of the last 20 events. Ogier has been described multiple times by WRC commentators as "greedy" and he'll want nothing more than to beat the cream of the Finnish crop.
For years Hirvonen was Loeb's chief rival, the fly in the ointment that made sure Seb actually had to work for his titles. Despite having to compete almost entirely in the era of the "Greatest Of All Time" Hirvonen has 15 career wins and 67 career podiums. He, like Gronholm, has come within a single point of Loeb at the end of a season (but unlike Gronholm, Mikko didn't need Loeb to be injured to pull it off). One of three Finns on the "Stars" roster, Mikko will want to impress in front of his home crowd.
I love Jari-Matti, mostly because he's been Ogier's biggest annoyance so far this year. Latvala has historically had issues with being a magnet for random rocks, but for pace he's one of the best. Like Mikko he'll want to impress at home. Fortunately rocks are unlikely to be an issue in downtown Helsinki.
Not Finnish, but still a fellow Scandinavian, Østberg has been one of the top stars of the young guns. As a privateer he just barely missed the podium of the 2012 season championship, though he did get his first career win in the process. Now driving for Citroen, he's found the podium three of the seven races this year and is the highest-scoring non-VW driver.
Considered by many to be a champion in the making, Neuville has shown incredible growth in the 2.5 years he's been racing at the top level of the WRC. Last year he scored podium finishes on 7 of the 13 events, including four straight runner-up finishes, and finished second to Ogier in the championship. Considered to be a bit of a tarmac specialist he should do well in Helsinki, so long as none of the new Hyundai's reliability issues show up.
Juho is a newcomer to the WRC, with only seven career starts in top-spec equipment, but in S2000 class he was a dominant force, winning 19 of 46 events and landing on the podium for an additional 14. Invited to compete in the Helsinki Battle because he's the only other Finn competing in the WRC this year, he honestly probably won't be one of the top challengers, but the potential is there for an upset.
Both the legends and the stars will use current-spec WRC cars, with each legend being assigned to one of the four manufacturer cars currently competing in the WRC. The vehicle breakdown is as follows:
•Hyundai: Thierry Neuville, Juho Hanninen, Marcus Gronholm
•M-Sport/Ford: Mikko Hirvonen, Tommi Mäkinen
•Citroen: Mads Østberg, Juho Kankkunen
•Volkswagen: Sebastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala, Markku Alèn
Each "stage" will be a two lap run of the short city course, totaling about 1.7 km in distance. The course includes two hairpins and a 360° run around a roundabound, a unique challenge for the legend drivers, who never had to deal with this particular feature during their days of contesting Rally de Espania.
Each driver will get two runs on the course. Their best time of the two runs will be taken, and then the fastest Legend and the fastest Star will be put up against each other in a best-of-two final battle.
CAN I WATCH IT LIVE PLZ?
YES YOU CAN! The WRC homepage will have links leading to the live video stream, and I will update this page with the stream's direct link once I have it. Practice starts at 12:30 Finland time and the live stream is scheduled to start at 15:00 Finland time (8:00 U.S. Eastern).
So, folks. Where does your money lie? Who will be the best of the Legends, who will be the top Star, and who will win the final battle?