Ouninpohja. A stage of superlatives. The fastest stage. the toughest stage, one of the best stages in the whole WRC season. A persistent favourite of spectators and drivers. What makes it so special? How was its past and where is its future? I’m going to observe this in a trilogy of posts.
“This road is so difficult. It can be dangerous sometimes as well. To tackle it you need courage but you have to be clever too. You need to know the road is fast and where it is fastest.”
– Marcus Grönholm, 2009
“Definitely the best road in the world”
– Mikko Hirvonen, 2011
Cover image by Simon Durand / Flickr
The legends of all legends
One of the most iconic incidents in rallying ever happened in the 1000 Lakes Rally 1967 when the bonnet of Timo Mäkinen’s Mini Cooper popped open halfway to Ouninpohja. He thought it would take too much time to stop and try to fix it, so decided to push on, trying to see forwards by looking through the side window and throwing the car sideways, losing in the end only 18 seconds to the stage winner!
Hannu Mikkola’s blast through Ouninpohja in 1985 with the battered Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2 is another legend. He had lost time a couple of stages earlier and was pushing furiously with nothing to lose, beating the rally leading Salonen by 5 seconds and his teammate Blomqvist by 8 seconds.
Mikkola has later described that Ouninpohja drive as the only time he has ever felt “being outside the car, looking in”. He ended the stage with an average speed of 127 km/h, meager by today’s standards, but outrageous for that time.
The road book
These two drives are an essential part of the myth of Ouninpohja, but basically they could have happened on some other stage as well. However, there are numerous well-known and history-loaded places on Ouninpohja that we should take a closer look at, as well as the varying roads.
The exact version we’re about to tackle is 34 kilometres long, last driven in 2015. It’s the version that has been used for the most years after 1994 with minor modifications.
Fasten your seatbelts and put your helmet on, let’s start Ouninpohja!
The Ouninpohja stage start is close to the Hämepohja junction on the west end of the stage. In our 2015 version the start is a bit before it, in 2013 and 2017 it was a bit after it. The Hämepohja junction used to be a popular place for the spectators in the 80’s when the stage ended there, kind of like the Kakaristo junction nowadays.
At 1:05 into the video below, Mikael Ericsson spins his Lancia on the 1988 1000 Lakes Rally in the Hämepohja junction. They were driving then to the other direction, so we’re going to where he’s coming from.
Ouninpohja begins with its namesake road of Ouninpohjantie. It’s a quite wide and very firm surfaced road with series of bends and crests that require controlling the length of the jumps in order to make the car land in time before having to turn to the next corner. Sometimes it’s almost possible to jump sideways “over” a corner.
Right after the Hämepohja junction there’s a left-hander which was actually the first corner of the stage in 2006, but enough to end Petter Solberg’s rally, proving that you need to be focused right from the get-go. The same bend has also been deceptive to Elfyn Evans and Freddy Loix, but on those occasions it wasn’t the first one as the start was earlier.
Ouninpohjantie is not always lined with just ditches and trees, as there are also quite high banks and big rocks close to the road. A good example of this is the place where Dani Sordo crashed in 2006 into a rock about 5 km from the start. If you look closely, you can see the rock has “Toni” painted on it. This is of course a reference to Toni Gardemaister’s earlier crash in the same place. Yes, the rock now says “Daniel” as well. It’s an easy landmark to find.
After 6 km of jumping sideways there’s some tight bends going around a bay. This area is actually the Ouninpohja, as there is the old house called Ouni. These bends destroyed Sebastian Lindholm’s rally in 2004 while leading in a Peugeot 307 WRC
After negotiating through the Ouni area it’s time to start accelerating as we approach the yellow house jump, one of the most famous sights of Rally Finland. In 2002 Richard Burns landed heavily and damaged the turbo pipe of his Peugeot 206 subsequently losing the lead. With today’s cars, the jump can be tackled at almost full speed, flying over 50 meters at best. This place is always crowded with spectators and photographers.
Just after the yellow house there is a very fast section of about 2 kms. In fact, with the yellow house jump acceleration combined, Marcus Grönholm kept here the throttle down continuously for 46 seconds in 2006.
This section also was the fate of Jouko Puhakka in 1994, when his Group N Mitsubishi’s steering broke and the car went straight into the woods. The direction of the stage was reversed but the speed similar. Luckily the injuries weren’t that serious.
After this flat out section the road becomes again very technical for 5 kms with bends that can be almost 90 degrees tight, giving it a start-stop feeling. The high crests produce some blind corners making it impossible to see where the road turns until you are already reaching the apex. Thus, you need to have good pace notes and trust them.
At 14 kms into the stage we turn left at the Mutanen junction onto Okskulmantie. This is where Philip Mills said to Petter Solberg in 2004 “It gets faster now”. He wasn’t wrong. Okskulmantie is wider and less technical than Ouninpohjantie. Especially the first few kilometres are really fast. Esapekka Lappi’s average speed on the 10.5 kilometres of Okskulmantie in 2017 was as high as 142 km/h even though the section had two slow chicanes.
There are some infamous places on Okskulmantie, such as the “Amazon jump” over a left hand corner where a Volvo Amazon infamously rolled in 1968 in front of the film crew (17:07 on the video below).
Back in 1968 it was rare to get runki on video. 49 years later the same jump was documented by dozens of HD-video-recording smartphones saluted by a spectacularly sideways Ott Tänak.
Another very famous corner is “Sokolov’s place”, a right hander going over two crests with a difficult line, named after this crash by Igor Sokolov in 2006. This corner has also given Thomas Rådström his share of misfortune, not to mention Gigi Galli, P-G Andersson and Juha Salo in 2008 when the direction was reversed.
The 10.5 kms of Okskulmantie ends to the infamous Kakaristo junction, again one of the most famous sights of rallying in the whole season. The fields are packed with thousands of fans and apparently it’s one of the few places where a rally driver can actually hear the noise from the crowd through his helmet and over the car engine. But don’t lose your concentration, the last corners on the fields can be treacherous, like for Craig Breen in 2012. It’s an embarrassing place to crash in front of all that people. Mikko Hirvonen was a bit luckier in 2007.
Until the year 1985 Ouninpohja typically started from Kakaristo, as the stage was shorter and the direction reversed. Thus, the following roads weren’t present in the rally until 1991. But for us the stage is anything but over yet!
The Kakaristo area has a tight hairpin junction which leads into Salinmäentie, one km of a simple road amid farms, but enough to surprise Lorenzo Bertelli in 2016 (although the driving direction was reversed that year). This section also contains the artificial Tommi’s jump, as if there weren’t enough jumps on the actual roads!
After an easier but spectator-friendly section we turn right onto Pitkäjärventie, which is everything but spectator-friendly or easy. It’s a forest road, but still fast considering how narrow it is. There is also a fair share of jumps but not much margin for errors.
Pitkäjärventie has been especially brutal for Marcus Grönholm, who slid into a ditch in 1998 (17:44 on the video) and retired after losing a wheel while leading in 2003. No wonder he used to say it’s the most crucial section of Ouninpohja. To balance his misfortunes he also gained there valuable seconds in 2006 when Sebastien Loeb suffered a puncture. In later years Pitkäjärventie has taken drivers such as Craig Breen, Kris Meeke, Jari-Matti Latvala and Gigi Galli as its victim.
Hopefully there’s still four intact wheels on the car as the stage reaches the wider and firmer road of Hassintie, of course related to the Hassi stages, as discussed earlier in the blog. The first corner on it is called Minnanmutka, which has surprised some drivers. It can be hard to find the rhythm and grip again for the wide road after the forest section, but luckily there’s only a kilometre until the finish. Still, in Rally Finland, every fraction of a second counts so pushing here could gain a couple of positions.
Catch your breath and give yourself a pat on the back, you made it through the 34 kilometres of Ouninpohja, well done!
Now it’s a good time to reflect on what we saw on the way. Lots of daring fast sections, blind corners and carefully lined sideways jumps. At 33-34 kilometres, the stage has often been among the longest of the rally and there’s many different kinds of roads from fast and flowing to technical and narrow. There’s a lot of history on the stage, many hazards, countless incidents, numerous spectator favourite places and most importantly, legends. This all is needed to make Ouninpohja so superlative.
In the next post we find out how Ouninpohja evolved throughout the years to be the stage it is today.
If you want to share your best memories or places to spectate from Ouninpohja, you can leave a comment below.