Finland is arguably the most unforgiving round of the FIA World Rally Championship, because if you make a mistake it inevitably results in the sort of high-speed accident that becomes a staple of crash compilation videos for years to come. You can get away with a lot on most gravel rallies but not Finland: a degree or two out on the pace notes over the rapid rollercoaster crests makes the difference between a fastest stage time and an early flight home.
What you need to succeed is to be fast for sure - as every driver says - but also phenomenal consistency and immunity to mistakes. Most of the drivers in Finland at some point made at least one - entirely normal when you’re driving at that speed for so long - but Sebastien Loeb didn’t, which makes him some form of extra-terrestrial. Or more prosaically, an eight-time world champion.
His 73rd win couldn’t have come at a better time, because at the moment Sebastien is deciding what he’s going to do for the rest of his life. Whether he has eight, nine or 10 titles doesn’t bother him: there’s nothing left to do anyway. So it comes down to pure driving pleasure: does he want to keep doing it? He still doesn’t know, but he’s also the first to admit that winning rallies makes it all a bit more enjoyable.
For all that, Loeb definitely had a fight on his hands this time - from his team-mate and former Finland winner. Mikko Hirvonen got very close but he never led, leading most people to suspect that Loeb had something in reserve. To be fair to Citroen, their drivers were allowed to race each other from start to finish: there were certainly no team orders this time. This is the third time now that Loeb has won in Finland, making him by some margin the most successful non-Nordic driver on an event that has been traditionally dominated by locals. And the really scary thing is that Loeb doesn’t even particularly like the Jyvaskyla-based round.
Not that there is anything surprising about the diminutive Frenchman displaying other-worldly skill anymore. The more surprising thing is that Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala - the man who Loeb fears most in terms of raw speed - was not able to get any closer. If there was one opportunity for Latvala to prove that he was the quickest man in the championship, as many people say he is, then it was on the flat-out roads of his native Finland. But that opportunity fizzled out, partly because Citroen is beginning to inch ahead in the car development battle, having started last season with a DS3 that was definitely slower than the Fiesta.
A lot of work has been done in the meantime at Velizy and the results are clear to see. Concrete proof is the fact that the 500th counting rally of the FIA world championship was also the fastest one ever, with Loeb setting an average speed record of 122.89kph - beating his own benchmark of 122.86kph from 2005, when the cars were a lot more powerful.
Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson points out that this isn’t the whole story though, saying that Latvala just “wasn’t himself” over the course of his home event, particularly after the time he lost on Thursday. Let’s just hope he gets his mojo back soon.
The drivers’ championship of course is never over until the end, but look at it this way: it’s going to take something more than just incredibly special to beat Loeb and Citroen now, and in that respect Finland was a turning point. Loeb’s advantage is now up to 43 points (over Hirvonen in second) while this was Citroen’s fifth one-two finish from the eight rounds held so far, meaning that the French team leads the constructors’ standings by more than 100 points. And in the second half of the season, there are a load of asphalt rounds coming, where Loeb’s star tends to shine even brighter.
But the Ford drivers would be advised to look behind them as much as ahead: we witnessed another excellent performance from Mads Ostberg in Finland, who proved that nearly breaking your back in a practice rally can in fact be good preparation for the real thing. Ostberg is now only 14 points behind Petter Solberg in the drivers’ championship, who has proved the more consistent of the two factory Ford drivers and the Norwegian may now be Ford’s best hope of diverting the end of year trophies from their seemingly inevitable trip to Paris.
However, arguably the two most impressive drivers in Finland both had a far from straightforward event: probably because they were both Jyvaskyla virgins. Firstly: Thierry Neuville. The young Belgian was mind-blowingly quick straight out of the blocks, even beating Hirvonen for a while. That sort of speed was clearly never going to last and predictably it didn’t - but a truism in rallying is that you can always make a quick driver reliable but not the other way round.
Secondly, the master Hoonigan: Ken Block himself. The American was stoked never to have been in Finland before but still set some impressive times on the most intimidating event of the entire championship. Anybody who thought that Ken was only about stunts and shoes will be forced to reconsider their opinion after seeing him in action over the famous crests.
The moral of the story? Appearances can be deceptive. According to the results, Chris Atkinson finished 39th on his return - but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He made one small mistake: easily done for somebody who hasn’t seen the Finnish stages since 2008 and never driven a DS3 before. Had it not been for that, he would have achieved his goal of finishing in the top five. Make no mistake: “Atko” still has a hell of a lot to offer.