I wouldn’t have thought that the last three days in Finland could get any better until my host Hyundai Motorsport took me to the WRC test road in Yijalantie, south-west of Jyväskylä, where New Zealand WRC driver Hayden Paddon was waiting with the Rally Deutschland winning Hyundai i20 WRC car.
It was a full co-driver experience, including the opportunity to try and keep up with pace notes written by Marc Marti a week earlier during Hyundai’s testing on the stage. Unfortunately there’s an art to transcribing pace notes and combined with my lack of Spanish and the pace Hayden was travelling, the idea of even trying is futile.
Yijalantie is a short 3.8km run that consists a variety of everything you’ll find in Finland including several jumps where Alexey Lukyanuk had a reasonably severe crash during testing for Rally Finland.
After a few runs Hayden tweaked the suspension some more and then I was ready to go. A short ‘normal’ drive out of the farm and we come to a halt on a straight strip of gravel, and it’s clear Hayden is ready to launch: “Let’s do this!” he says.
The car transforms from a muffled rumble to outright raucous. Launch control is initiated and I instantly feel the magnitude of the situation – I’m in one of the world’s fastest rally cars with a driver who is here purely to thrust me at corners at unfathomably fast speed. In a second I recall some of the stages I watched earlier, where mid-corner bumps and ever changing road conditions caused drivers to come unstuck and head at, or into, Finland’s famous tall pines.
There’s a twitch of nervousness in my excitement, but I have faith in the Hayden and the roll cage we’re sitting in.
It’s a rare opportunity to sit in a competing WRC car and be driven at full pelt by one of the world’s best rally drivers. I’ve had the fortune of doing hot laps in a less powerful rear-wheel drive rally car, but the speed, grip and adjustability achievable in the i20 is completely incomparable. It’s not the acceleration of the car that is so impressive, but the ability to brake so sharply and then demand steering response that is beyond what most road cars can do on tarmac.
Hayden is dancing with the car as we blister through the narrow track, his feet shuffling faster than a pianist’s fingers while up top there is no end to micro-corrections in steering amongst a flurry of lock-to-lock turns. I try to keep up with the process in my mind while anticipating what’s coming ahead but it’s fruitless.
The mid-section of the stage involves a technically demanding manoeuvre that seems almost impossible at the speed Hayden is travelling; surely we’ll at least clip the curb?
The Hyundai i20 WRC’s incredibly well composed body and suspension transfers the smallest of driver adjustments with precision, even on a surface as loose as gravel. It feels as if there’s no conceivable way the car will grip, steer and adjust its line as we’re sliding towards the edge of a quick corner at 120km/h, but then my orientation is spun 90 degrees and we’re accelerating out towards a jump.
There’s sensation in the stomach that we’re in the air, and the sudden extension in revs signals we’re flying, but landing the 1200kg car after a 160km/h jump is barely felt.
There is however a rough thump if the car is unable to get all four wheels off the ground, and it’s especially evident when negotiating a quick corner over a crest; a common occurrence at the world’s fastest rally. While the car feels unsettled initially it is very quick to recompose itself, but Hayden says it’s not always such a sure thing, referring to a blind rock he hit three days earlier on his favourite Finland stage, Pihlakakoski.
Although still a little sore from the incident, Hayden is not shy to push through the tightly forested road with full pace. It follows a slogan plastered around Rally Finland “Moor Gääs, Nou Bräeks”.
Vision from the low positioned co-driver seat isn’t great, but in competition it’s not required. When competing, Hayden’s co-driver and fellow New Zealander John Kennard cannot miss a direction from the notes, relying on feeling what the car’s doing to keep up with the pace.
It’s incredible to experience first-hand why rally is one of the world’s most demanding sports, the ‘sisu’ of the drivers and the incredible performance of the cars.
The drive doesn’t seem to last long and I return unscathed physically, but it’s exhausting keeping concentration after just under 8km of track; what would it be like to do the same over a 40km stage, relying purely on pacenotes and immense talent?