Henri Haapamäki tests successfully for Wales Rally GB
Henri Haapamäki, who left a powerful mark on Neste Oil Rally Finland this summer and piloted his Citroën C2 to an overwhelming class victory, prepared for Wales Rally GB by spending two days with co-driver Marko Salminen testing in Britain on tricky Welsh roads. In mid-November the talented pair, representing Hannu´s Rally Team, will start this classic WRC event in an Autosport Technology-prepared Citroën DS3 R3T and offer WRC3 category drivers a chance for revenge.
The car is now faster and a class bigger than in Jyväskylä, where Haapamäki in his ´mini-Citröen´ indeed showed a clean pair of heels to all those nominally quicker two-wheel drive cars. In Wales, however, Henri will face new challenges and he goes into the event with a clean slate. Rain, fog, mud, mire and sometimes even snow are elements which add their own spice to proceedings in a rally driven predominantly on narrow but occasionally high-speed stages. Even the smallest of mistakes can be costly, but taking things too carefully quickly sees a competitor drop down the leaderboard.
The first day of testing took place at Walters Arena over greatly varying roads. The car took a little getting used to, but Henri soon found his feet and was able to concentrate on the main business, in other words finding the right lines, braking points and pushing the car´s grip to the limit. On the final test road, a stretch of about five kilometres, Henri´s times only improved by a couple of seconds after the initial pass and then remained within half a second or so of each other. This demonstrates that the speed needed on the event itself was already there on the very first day.
Day two saw a move to Higgins Rally Center, where the type of road on offer was as close as possible to that awaiting Haapamäki and Salminen on Wales Rally GB. Indeed the legendary Hafren Sweet Lamb special stage would have been visible from the test stretch if a small hill had not been in the way. The weather, too, was on its best behaviour and soaked the road at regular intervals, producing just the right kind of slippery conditions. A solid turn of speed was quickly found now as well and even practice wheel changes from unbuckle to buckle went well, taking less than a minute.
Of the DS3 Henri had this to say: "The car has an unbelievably good chassis and in a way it´s quite straightforward to drive. It first it was a bit nerve-wracking to drive a muddy road in sixth gear at more than a hundred and fifty and turn into wet, treacherous bends, but soon both the pace and the slippery conditions were forgotten. In the rally you have to be completely focused on what you´re doing - if you start thinking about something else then you´re likely to be off in the bushes in the blink of an eye".
Marko Salminen has co-piloted a DS3 on many previous occasions. After all, he is the British champion for 2013, when he read the notes for Jukka Korhonen. In Marko´s words: "Henri was extremely quick to find that relaxed, bold rhythm for which he is well known. The pace felt really good, although at the beginning of Wales Rally GB I´m sure we´ll still be on a steep learning curve. Henkka usually starts very well, so in spite of this I believe we´ll be in contention on those special stages right from the word go".
The days were long and almost 300 kilometres were covered in the DS3, almost half the number of kilometres driven on special stages in the entire Finnish championship series. Since on the Monday before the event they get to drive the tests for P3 drivers, Haapamäki-Salminen have their sights set on a possible victory. And precisely with that idea in mind of course they are headed for Wales Rally GB, since as far as the weather and one´s pocket are concerned there are better tourist destinations elsewhere. Team boss Hannu Lehessaari on the prospect of victory: "In order to win we simply need to be better than the rest, but in order for the others to win they have to prove they are better than us. We can´t promise to win, but we´re going to make every effort to do so."
The RAC rally has strong Finnish traditions dating back to the 1960s. All the big Finnish names from the 60s, 70s and 80s have won in Wales. Also taking part now are two previous Finnish winners: Jari-Matti Latvala (2011 and 2012) and Mikko Hirvonen (2007). What could be a better complement to this than a Finnish victory in all three WRC categories?