Taking an embryonic WRC team to Rally Finland is a little like taking an U21 team to the senior World Cup. Raw talent is not enough on the ultra-fast, fluid, forever changing surface of gravel and grief that cuts through the rugged Nordic landscape; experience and local knowledge must be slowly accrued before dreams of a podium finish can become reality. Try too hard to tame Finland's dips, crests, camber and forest banks, and she'll exact her price in spectacular, bone-crunching fashion.
BMW's new Mini WRC team understood last weekend's challenge all too well. Rally Finland may have only been its second event in a shortened developmental year, but the operation is run by Prodrive, the British firm which guided Subaru to three manufacturers' championships. For now the team is not all that interested in the podium as this season is a dry run for next. Mini arrived in Finland with simple objectives: finish, gather vital data and equip its new British driver - Kris Meeke - with some vital experience of the rally's idiosyncrasies.
The Northern Irishman's learning curve is arguably even steeper than his employers. He's only been rallying for 10 years, and this is his inaugural season in WRC after taking the lesser IRC championship last year in a Peugeot 207 S2000. He must learn the new Mini Countryman John Cooper Works car while serving his 'apprenticeship' in Finland.
We're learning too. The importance of Meeke's dress rehearsal is hammered home to us by an evening spent in the company of Rauno Aaaltonen, one of the original flying Finns, and the self-proclaimed inventor of both left-foot braking and the Scandinavian flick (apparently the only way of making an original Mini handle on a rally stage). His anecdotes fizz with enthusiasm and knowledge, and are interrupted only by the sudden presence of local well-wishers, drunk on their proximity to a national treasure.
Rauno's automotive ardour is infectious. The flying Finn describes slip angles and overhangs like a priest discussing the apostles, except the sermon is delivered with the mischievousness of a child telling a secret. Yet even the boisterous former Mini driver will not advance a prediction on the rally's result. The Finns harbour their local knowledge like Indian guides; their lines will be longer, faster and braver than any of the foreigners', promises our sage, but he does admit that Citroen's seven-times world champion Sebastian Loeb is the greatest rally driver who ever lived and anything can happen on the 'gravel grand prix'.
We get our own introduction to the Finnish stages the next day but it's not initially a lesson in outright speed, but a tutorial in where rallying lies in Finnish affections. Despite being in the middle of nowhere and super-heated by the sun, the corner our Prodrive guide and WRC guru has picked is engorged with spectators. And not just the conventional young men of motorsport fandom, but also children, wives, grandparents, girlfriends, mothers and sisters. Rallying is a family affair in Finland, and the crowd's willingness to drive, park, walk, pay, sit and drink all day long is one of the revelations of the weekend.
Given the size and enthusiasm of the turnout it's not hard to see why the Finnish drivers regularly suffer a rush of blood to the head when competing on home soil. Mikko Hirvonen, Ford's works team driver and one of the pre-race favourites, puts his Fiesta RS into a tree almost immediately and spends the rest of the weekend fighting back in vain. His gritty determination and daredevil pace is palpable on the gravel, and comes in contrast to the impossibly smooth Loeb, edgy Ogier and combative Latvala.
Predictably the Mini drivers sat further back in the field. Both Dani Sordo and Meeke were instructed to bring the car home, and they had to content themselves with less than full throttle. We caught up with a frazzled and frustrated Kris during one of the periodic service stops and it was clear that the driver is fighting his own instincts, an unfamiliar car and a challenging surface all at the same time. His words eerily shadowed Rauno's comments: decisions about cornering speeds in Finland are made many metres before the approaching bend, and the extraordinary balance of pace, camber and line required can be infuriatingly difficult to master. Meeke admitted he is learning every second but some turns called as fives are flat out sixes, and there's not much reward in risking the difference anyway - the job was to finish, and he's honouring his part of the bargain.
Of course as soon as Kris steps out of the car, the mechanics step in. Regulations dictate that Mini gets just four Prodrive technicians per entry, but in the evening they're allowed to throw all eight at one car at a time. The team is a pick-and-mix of old and young, and in truth look no different from the mechanics in your local garage until you witness the skill and single-mindedness of their allotted work. Mini's area hums with an overtly masculine tempo of banter, grunts and sweat, but the action is overseen by Teena Gade, Meeke's lead engineer and a tiny slip of a girl.
Her focus and attention to detail drives the team at their task, and no one seems to notice the hundreds of Finnish spectators who watch spellbound from several metres away. The close proximity between fan and participant is one of rallying's defining features. Just as the sport cuts through its host nation's terrain, it also pierces the public domain, fusing the teams to their camera-happy supporters. Even at the side of the track, enjoying the auditory structure of silence, whistles, distant echoes, thunderous arrivals and pealing, fading departures, there is the impression that you, the squidgy fan on the sidelines, is a critical component of the unfolding action. You're in the driver's sightline, an unmissable part of the scenery, actually waiting to be covered by even more of the scenery each and every time a car passes in a hailstorm of dust and stones.
The physical interaction with the spectacle had us hooked by the final day, and Finland's parting gift is the final Jyväskylä Laajavuori Special Stage which draws a huge crowd to witness the drivers' attempts to best each other's time over a televised 4.19km course. Much to the locals' delight, it was Hirvonen on top at the end - a fitting reward for his spectacular charge back through the field to finish fourth. But once again it was Loeb's rally. The unflappable French genius became the first ever non-Scandinavian to win the event twice, and his stranglehold on the championship looks unlikely to be relinquished this season.
Unfortunately for Mini, neither works driver made it to the glamorous final run. Both cars succumbed to mechanical faults during the last stages, and quietly retired. Nevertheless there were plenty of reasons to be proud. The team ran almost the entire punishing distance, accumulated a mountain of new information and discovered problems they can now focus on fixing. The ultra-competitive Brit behind the wheel deserves a lot credit as well; nothing harder for a racing driver to do than take it back a notch and show patience, but the hard-fought experienced earned this year will serve Kris well when it all gets serious in 2012.
In hindsight, perhaps we'd already said farewell to Finland before the power stage too. On the way back to the final service station the road was dotted with people, again mostly families, holding cameras and wearing wide, easy smiles. The rally itself costs money to watch when you're standing on a stage, but it's free to sit in the street and watch the WRC cars bellow slowly by. Clearly no speed limits or any amount of traffic could dampen the Finns' spirit or their anxiousness to be involved in the motorsport event held on their countryside's doorstep. They kept waving their little flags and we waved a heartfelt goodbye to an unforgettable weekend in their company.