How I Learned To Love the British Winter – I Found Something Worse.

Toyota Yaris GR
The Toyota Yaris GR, very fast. Probably.

Happy belated New Year to my readers! As I write, we are in early January, arguably the least favourite month of the year for the car enthusiast. The weather’s terrible, and even when there is a clear day, you’re so worried about any residual salt, there’s so much dirt and detritus on the road, it hardly seems worth the hassle. Our storage facilities are bursting at the seams, cars tucked up for the winter, waiting for an Easter that feels months away. Speed traps and average speed cameras dog our drives even in the best of weather, and our towns and highways have downgraded us car drivers to the lowest form of road users. Thanks to the new Highway Code. Soon we’ll be behind those electric scooters in the priority stakes. But before we get to carried away with our woes, let’s spare a thought for our friends in Finland.

Finland is a beautiful country. Its not for nothing that Santa decided to base himself there. And the Finns are pretty confident that they are the world’s best drivers – a quick look at the roster of world class rally and F1 drivers would certainly seem to support their claim. So, when we finally booked the flights last summer, and arranged to do a little driving while we were there, I was pretty excited. It had been a while.

For our trip, we’d tried to borrow something interesting from BMW Finland, but they were momentarily changing most of their press fleet, so we plumped for Toyota’s kind offer of a Yaris GR. I’d heard a lot about this new machine, and it seemed every collector and enthusiast had put their name down for one, so I was looking forward to checking out the competition – to see what the fuss was all about.

The Finns are a sturdy, pragmatic race, with a character and humour that is easily compatible with the British demeanour. Hemmed in by much more economically, culturally, and of course stronger nations – Russia and Sweden – the Finns have developed a concept known as Sisu, which for them represents their own vision of themselves – stoic, reliable, tough and durable, hardy and endlessly resilient. Their good manners and welcoming attitude, however, doesn’t seem to extend to its government. For the Finns live under tyranny.

Taking the wheel of my – ahem, Toyota, we tore out of the car park and our adventure began. But no sooner had I planted my foot to the floor, in my usual devil-may-care British way, than my wife filled me in on the facts. The Finns, it turns out, live in fear. Speeding fines are means-tested, which means that they are designed to hurt, to the max, regardless of who you are. Rumours abound of a top executive at Nokia who was fined a whopping €116,000 for basic speeding – back in 2002, when 116 grand was a lot of cash. A guy who inherited his parents’ sausage business then topped that with a €170,000 penalty – I’m guessing he’ll have needed plenty of Sisu to write that cheque. At least he got into the Guinness Book of Records.

The thing is though, you’d understand that sort of approach if the Finns lived on a small, crowded island like Great Britain, but they don’t. Finland is half as spacious again as Great Britain, with a population half the size of London. Within ten minutes, I started to get the picture. Speed cameras are everywhere. Every time you get to a corner – where I’d be barrelling in with a grin on my face at home – there’s a reduced speed limit. And remember, they’re not politely suggesting you go slow. Its an order. The worst part is the roads. Ribbons of perfectly maintained tarmac, flat and curvy as they thread through flowery summer meadows and fragrant woodland, picturesque coloured wooden homes and farmsteads dotted here and there, with clear blue lakes and waterways filling in between the lush pastures and craggy rocks. I’m there, in my rally homologation special, all flared arches and low centre of gravity – driving at 80 kms an hour. Trust me when I say this is the seventh circle of petrolhead hell. So, in the summer, when the roads are perfect slices of automotive heaven, you’re stuck, behind three Volvo drivers, all adhering to the strict limit. On the odd occasion when my patience snapped and I could no longer resist the need for speed, I could feel the tutting as I whizzed by, almost hear them saying to their kids in the back ‘he’ll be poor, very soon, Juha’.

By the end of the first day, as we arrived back in Helsinki, I got ready to take stock of the situation over supper. Being as it was late, we plumped for the easy Hard Rock Café. I eased myself into a booth and ordered a bottle of Rioja to help me contemplate what I’d learned. But when I came to pay the bill, they’d made a mistake. They’d charged me €50 for a bottle that costs £7.99 in Tesco’s express. Well, actually, it turns out this was not a mistake. It turns out the tyranny stretches to my second favourite hobby.

Alcohol in Finland is state controlled and thus of course heavily taxed. All off-licenses are owned and run by the state. They charge inhuman sums of money for terrible quality and to top it all, they’re closed on Sundays, by law. Restaurants can serve booze, but its so expensive, nobody can afford to drink it anyway. The ferry service from Estonia from Finland is full of grumpy looking people dragging round hand-carts full of beer. They’ll even buy Fosters if they can get a good price. That’s how bad things are. And its not as if these draconian rules stop people from becoming raging alcoholics – if history has taught us one thing, surely, its that people will find a way to drink what they want, regardless. If you make it illegal, they’ll go underground. Shut on a Sunday? They’ll stock up on a Saturday. Limit the supply? They’ll make moonshine. Its enough to make a grown man cry.

So, what of the Toyota Yaris GR? I’ve no idea, other than to say that it looks really fast. It corners supremely, at 50kms per hour. I have a feeling that the main reason these Finns go so fast around the race track is due to years of pent up speeding, finally finding an outlet. Makes sense if you think about it. But you can see why they all own Volvos. And I haven’t even been there in the winter yet.

I love Finland. I love the Finns. I had a supremely relaxing time, and I even learned two Finnish words. But I made my decision right there on the flight home. Britain isn’t perfect, and there are many things I’d change, starting with the winter weather. But as long as I can take the fast/scenic route to the pub for a Sunday pint without risking mortgage-sized fines, and have a swift one with change from a tenner, I’m gonna say Life Is Good. Maybe Great Britain in 2022 isn’t looking so bad after all – before long, it’ll be Easter – you’ll see.

Dan Norris, Straight Six Magazine by BMW Car Club GB (February 2022 issue)

Straight Six Magazine February 2022