He was a wildcard entrant again in 2010 when he won the Super 2000 World Rally Championship division at the wheel of a Skoda Fabia.
Following the capture of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge title later that season, Hanninen is now a permanent fixture in the SWRC, the world championship’s fastest support category, which he leads by 11 points after four rounds.
“For the last two years it hasn’t been so crucial to me because I haven’t been fighting for a championship,” said the Red Bull-backed Finn. “This year I really have to think about the championship. Everyone is expecting I am winning the rally again and, of course, I will try but it won’t be easy against drivers like Ott Tanak, who will be very fast. I don’t have any other goal than to win but I know I have to get a perfect weekend to do it.”
Ford Fiesta driver Tanak, meanwhile, will be desperate for strong points in Finland after he crashed out of the last month’s Acropolis Rally while leading. The Estonian showed his ability on the Finnish stages last season when he top scored in the PWRC section of the gravel event but his exit in Greece means he’s 21 points shy of Hanninen’s current total.
Bernardo Sousa has a new co-driver in fellow Portuguese Paulo Babo and will be a contender for a podium finish, as will ace Czech driver Martin Prokop, who like Sousa pilots a Fiesta. Young Estonian Karl Kruuda, who returns to his Fabia after contesting the non-championship Rally Estonia earlier this month in a Fiesta, will also demonstrate good pace.
Promising German Hermann Gassner partners Hanninen in the Red Bull Skoda team as he continues his acclimatisation to Super 2000 technology. Like Gassner, Eyvind Brynildsen has yet to fulfil his obvious potential in his Petter Solberg Engineering-run Fabia but is more than capable of running at the front if fortune finally favours him.
Frigyes Turan will make his Rally Finland debut on a high after securing an SWRC podium finish in Greece in the MM Motorsport Fiesta his team-mate Tanak helps to prepare and maintain when he’s not competing behind the wheel.
Albert Llovera has previous Rally Finland experience and will be hoping to increase his championship total aboard his Abarth Grande Punto, which he shares with Spaniard Diego Vallejo. The Andorran’s car is equipped with hand controls as Llovera is paralysed from the waist down following a skiing accident in the 1980s.
Juha Salo remains an unknown quantity at the wheel of his R4-specification Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, which is eligible for SWRC points as it is designed to be more competitive against the Super 2000 machines that dominate the class. Salo is a Rally Finland veteran and will be hoping the high-speed and flowing nature of the stages will hand his turbocharged car the edge over his normally aspirated rivals.