By Neil Perkins
• Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela and Pole Marek Dabrowski to drive two Toyotas
• Former Finnish WRC co-driver Tapio Suominen joins Overdrive for first time
• New-look route pushes further north into Karelia and Finnish border country
No sooner has the dust settled on another exciting and successful Dakar Rally foray and Belgium-based Overdrive Racing is back in competitive action with three Toyota Hiluxes entered in the Baja Russia Northern Forest ’15 on February 20-22.
In stark contrast to the blistering heat and high altitude that the team faced on the Dakar in South America last month, the opening round of the 2015 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies takes place through the frozen and snow-covered forests of northern Russia’s winter wonderland in the Republic of Karelia.
Overdrive Racing will field three Toyotas for the Brazilian driver Reinaldo Varela, Pole Marek Dabrowski and new Finnish team member Tapio Suominen. Fellow countrymen Gustavo Gugelmin and Jacek Czachor will partner the leading two drivers, while Suominen teams up with Toni Nesman.
Varela has been an integral member of the Overdrive Racing line-up for several years and finished a fine third overall in last year’s Northern Forest event behind Overdrive’s outright winner Yazeed Al-Rajhi and runner-up Vladimir Vasilyev.
Fresh from finishing 23rd overall in the Dakar Rally, Dabrowski is reunited with usual Polish navigator Czachor in Russia, after a family tragedy forced the former enduro rider to miss the Dakar. The Polish duo also enjoyed a useful Russian adventure last season and finished fifth overall in their Team Orlen-backed car.
“I am planning to do all the rounds of the FIA World Cup, starting in Russia,” said Dabrowski. “I have visited the country four or five times before, but last year was the first time I competed here. Before then, I had not had any winter racing experience. This year the race will be located in an unfamiliar area, but we are prepared and looking forward to it.”
Suominen drove for a rival team in Russia last season and impressed many with his turn of speed even though he lost a top five finish after leaving the track on the final stage. The 34-year-old Finn is better known for his co-driving exploits alongside flying Finn Toni Gardemeister in the FIA World Rally Championship. He also turned his hand to cross-country rallying as a navigator in 2014 and finished third in both Baja Poland and Baja Spain alongside the Polish driver Martin Kaczmarski.
Suominen, from Hyvinkää, finished 12th alongside Gardemeister in the 2010 Rally Finland and ninth in the International Rally Challenge (IRC) the following year. In 2013, he finished ninth overall and second in the WRC2 category of Wales Rally GB alongside Jari Ketomaa.
“We tested the Toyota in Finland, where the route and the tracks are very similar to those for the Baja,” said Suominen. “Naturally, I want to win. Even though I like driving much more there is no drama if I have to change seats in some races.”
“Obviously we had a lot of sorting out to do logistically after the Dakar Rally, but the new season starts quickly and we are now raring to go with a new FIA World Cup programme and three cars in Russia,” said Overdrive Racing’s team director Jean-Marc Fortin.
“The relocation of the rally headquarters and the stages didn’t really influence our logistics much. I am well acquainted with the Karelia region, having visited it twice in the past for Russian national rallies. The place is spectacular. It will be a fascinating race.”
Main competition to the Overdrive crews will come from the defending FIA World Cup champion Vladimir Vasilyev, fellow Russian driver Evgeny Firsov, Kazakh Andrey Cherednikov, Latvian Aldis Vilcans and Qatar’s Sheikh Hamed bin Eid Al-Thani.
The move north to the colder region of Karelia, near the border with Finland, is likely to give the organisers more stable winter weather, guaranteed snow cover and lower temperatures. The action gets underway with a 9.5km Prologue stage on Friday, February 20th and then two days of action along a 159km section through the frozen wilderness on Saturday, February 21st and the selective section run in reverse on Sunday, February 22nd.
Event formalities will be based at the Black Rocks tourist centre, while the competitive route winds its way close to the Finnish border, near Yartsevo in the Sortavala region, and then further north towards the district of Suojärvi. The Republic of Karelia stretches from the White Sea coast to the Gulf of Finland and contains the two largest lakes in Europe, Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega.