Mon, 22 Aug 1994

Top drivers in do or die race at Finnish rally

JAKARTA (Agencies): Top three drivers find the 1994 Neste 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland the most hard fought round of the series this year in their chase for the world rally championship title.

With only two legs left, Frenchman Didier Auriol, Finnish defending champion Juha Kankkunen and Spain's Carlos Sainz are currently separated by merely three points, and outright victory is each driver's goal. The Aug. 26-28 rally, dubbed the Finnish Grand Prix for its high speeds, is the eighth leg of the world series.

Auriol tops the driver's standings with 75 points as Kankkunen and Sainz are tied at 72.

Auriol, in a bid to stretch his championship lead, will meet his strongest opposition in his Toyota Team Europe colleague Kankkunen. The Frenchman, who finished only fifth at the previous round in New Zealand, said he felt at home on the bumpy stages around Jyvaskyla.

"Whoever wins here will have a big advantage both on points and psychologically for the rest of the season," said Auriol, winner here in 1992.

Kankkunen is perhaps the red-hot favorite on home soil -- he hails from this town. His victory here last year confirmed Finnish drivers' domination on the 522.76-kilometer stages through the forests of central Finland.

"I've got a good chance to retain the title," he said. "For a Finn, this is the most important event of the year and the biggest challenge in the sport."

Sainz, two-time world champion and the first non-Scandinavian driver to master the 1000 Lakes, looked doubtful about his chance and said the laurels rested with both big rivals Auriol and Kankkunen.

"Nothing is certain in this sport," he said. "I experienced my only mechanical retirement of the season in New Zealand, so Finland will be a mixture of hard work and a little bit of luck like all rallies."

The Spaniard has an extra incentive to take the victory in Finland: to give his Subaru World Rally Team a hat trick, following Colin McRae's win in New Zealand and Possum Bourne's triumph in Malaysia recently.

The three-day race will also welcome Ford team's ace driver Francois Delecour. The Frenchman has recovered from a road accident which kept him out of the last four world championship qualifiers.

Ahead of the victor lies the challenge of fastest up and down gravel roads in the world, characterized by the many jumps which see cars reach heights of between two and three meters.