Rally Finland: Proof That Cars Can Fly
To rally fans, flying cars are not just the stuff of fantasies and ‘Back to the Future’ films – they are a regular occurrence on high-speed stages around the world. They rarely get more spectacular than in the countryside around Jyväskylä, where Rally Finland takes place every year.
It’s the end of July 2013, and I’ve been backpacking around Europe for nearly 8 weeks. I plan my return to Finland in time to witness world championship drivers take on fabled venues for myself – Ouninpohja, Ruuhimaki, to name but two – and I’ve been fortunate to get in touch with Matti, a local fan, well before I even arrive in Europe. We arrange to drive out to Palsankylä, the second stage on Friday morning, with a friend and his wife’s son in tow. With work out of the way, this is the first full day of action for us.
Rally Finland stageside: Palsankylä
We arrive an hour early, and fans are still streaming into the forest, occupying every possible spot along the already crowded route. After 20 minutes of trekking, we find a spot with a great view of the biggest jump in the stage. From our vantage point, it looks like a launch ramp that will destroy any ordinary car that doesn’t treat it with respect – but rally cars relish this sort of punishment. Boards placed on the side of the road mark the distance passed after the jump.
The atmosphere is lively, with the aroma of grilled sausages wafting through the cool air from the barbeque stands. Someone has connected the radio to loudspeakers, and the commentators relay the happenings of the previous stage in English and Finnish. The little boy wanders off with his trash bag to pick up recyclable beer cans.
Everyone is relaxed despite the previous day’s events. An accident and one poor stage for Latvala and Hirvonen respectively mean that a Finn might not finish on the podium on pace alone, but anything could happen to the other drivers on the leaderboard. The next time someone says that Finns are a reserved bunch, take them to a rally. When it comes to singing, drinking and waving flags in honour of their heroes, the locals are not outdone by the Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Russians who make the trip!
We gather that Latvala will run first on the road as he restarts after his crash. The marshals lining the route blow their whistles, but no-one hurries to line up along the safety tape because it’s just the course cars arriving on the scene. Despite their ground clearance, each of them slows to a crawl as it goes over the crest.
The next time the whistles go off is different; everyone gets into place, cameras at the ready, eyes trained on the same spot. We hear the angry roar of an engine bouncing off the rev limiter, and it drowns out the radio long before we see the car. The driver adjusts the throttle ever so slightly as he gets races up the crest towards us, accompanied by a crescendo of air horns.
I should be praying at this point, that when I see the car, it’s not heading towards me. But I don’t. These guys are too good. There’s a good buffer between us and the racing line. Racing is safer than it used to be, and serious accidents are still rare. I can’t be unlucky today.
Then the car suddenly appears, caked in dirt, the nose pointing straight ahead even as the road drops away. The dampers, each one the length of a man’s torso, push the wheels away from the body, but even they can’t stop the tyres from breaking contact with terra firma. First, the front pair leaves the ground, still spinning, followed by the rear. A break forms in the dust trail.
We have lift off.
The car soars through the air in front of us, above our heads. The engine is back to singing at the redline. I count the marker boards it passes; 5 metres, 10, 15… amazingly it stays level, neither end sinking faster than the other. Gravity seems content to let the driver coax the machine back to earth, rather than haul it down sharply with a lasso.
All four wheels touch down almost simultaneously, like the paws of a leaping cat, just shy of the 25-metre mark. They dig in as the suspension compresses, and the car races away. The landing is remarkably soft and the crowd roars its approval. The flying Finn has produced a flawless jump on his damage-limitation exercise.
A three-minute gap follows, and the spectators go back to singing, drinking or listening to the commentary until the marshals whistle again. The cycle repeats, and the following drivers try to get the perfect jump with varying degrees of success. Usually, they get either nose or tail-heavy, resulting in shorter distances. Another Finn, Nikara, manages to stay airborne longer, landing only after 35 metres. There is drama when the young Russian takes the jump with an open bonnet blocking his windscreen. Driving at reduced speed, he holds up the following car; the radio broadcasts the angry exchange at the stage end.
And each time, I still neglect to pray. I would get a reminder at a later stage in Leustu when I get too close and a car kicks a pebble in my face rounding a bend.
After the field of competitors passes through, the boy returns with a full trash bag. He is clearly chuffed about the pocket money he will get when he puts the cans through one of the city’s automated recycling machines. He tells us about another kid who claims to have collected 200 Euro worth of cans.
That will buy him a few DeLorean scale models at the toy store.