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Defending champion Tanak aiming to repeat Finland triumph

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Jyväskylä (Finland) (AFP)

The World Rally Championship comes out of its seven-week aestivation with Ott Tanak looking to build on his lead in the drivers' championship at the Rally of Finland which starts on Thursday.

"I'm really looking forward to getting the second part of the season started on Rally Finland," the 31-year-old Estonian told his team website.

Tanak, who won here last year, finished only fifth after a mechanical problem in the last race in Sardinia in mid-June.

It was still enough for Tanak -- part of former world champion Tommi Makinen's Toyota Gazoo team -- to nip four points above six-time defending world champion Sebastien Ogier.

The Belgian Thierry Neuville is a further three points back in what looks like a three-horse race for the title.

"It's a rally that I enjoy a lot with the fast and smooth roads and it was an incredible feeling to win last year," said Tanak whose title challenge has been built on victories in Sweden, Chile and Portugal.

"Of course, we will try to achieve the same result this year but it looks as though it will be more difficult, as we will be running first on the road on the Friday."

Tanak has resisted the temptation to spend his down time on the beach. Two weeks ago he raced in, and won, his home rally in Estonia -- not part of WRC.

"It was great to win the rally again," said Tanak. "But it was also a really good test for Rally Finland. I believe that we learned a lot so I'm feeling well-prepared."

- Tough test for Ogier -

This week's rally is held on smooth gravel roads in the forests of central Finland, close to the Jyvaskyla headquarters of the Toyota Gazoo team, a factor that should help them in the battle with Ogier's Citroen Total.

"This rally, contested pretty much in the back yard of one of our main competitors, is set to be a serious challenge," said the Frenchman who is pressing for a seventh successive world title in spite of abandoning the Tour of Sardinia after hitting a rock.

"But I was able to recharge my batteries during the summer break and I feel fresh. As usual, I'm ready to put up a fight."

Ogier, who will be retiring from the sport at the end of the 2020 season, has won in Monte Carlo and Mexico this year and is confident he can add a third win and reclaim the title lead.

"With the high speeds on the stages, this is definitely a rally where you need to be completely at one with your car in order to really go for it and I have to say that I finished my two days of testing with a good feeling."

It is a fast course that features a number of large jumps and crests.

"Finland is a challenging event, and one I enjoy driving," says Hyundai Motorsport's Neuville, already a winner in Corsica and Argentina this season.

"You have a lot of good sensations in the car and a lot of adrenaline, especially after the huge jumps.

"It's what we drivers really love."

One man who will not be on the starting line is Hayden Paddon who was due to drive a one-off for M-Sport Ford.

The New Zealander wrecked his car during testing when he hit a rock.

Team principal Rich Millener insisted that the accident was not the fault of the 32-year-old Kiwi.

"The rock hit the bottom of the sump guard and lifted the car into the air. They were just passengers, nothing they could do about it."

The rally begins on Thursday evening with the traditional mixed-surface Harju stage in Jyvaskyla before heading across country, taking in 23 competitive stages over a distance of 307.58 kilometres.

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