Pajari receives an asphalt master class at twisty Rally Japan
Sami Pajari and Enni Mälkönen's first rally outside of Europe resulted in fifth place in the WRC2 class at the WRC season finale at Rally Japan. This was the fourth outing for the Finns at the helm of the Toksport WRT owned Skoda Fabia Rally2 Evo, previous events being Sardinia, Finland and Spain. Pajari and Mälkönen now have experience of the car in a wide variety of surfaces and conditions, which is vital for success in the upcoming battle for the WRC2 championship in 2023.
The Japanese round of the World Rally Championship was speculated in advance to be a difficult rally, but few could have predicted just how eventful it became. Pajari opened the event with an excellent performance on the spectator special stage on Thursday and shared the fastest time with fellow Finn Emil Lindholm.
- “Now that was challenging! The feeling is good, however, and I can't wait for tomorrow,” Pajari bubbled with excitement after the special stage.
Drama was at display on Friday from the morning onwards: Already the first special stage saw a retirement-worthy off by Poland's Kajeta Kajetanowicz, who was fighting for the WRC2 championship, and only a short distance further, Spain's Dani Sordo's Hyundai was in high flames in the middle of the road. Even the following special stage had to be canceled, as the competitors could now get past the intensive fire for a long while. Later also the fourth special stage of the event had to be canceled in the aftermath of Craig Breen's crash.
After the mid-day service, the same three special stages were on the itinerary again, except that the first one was shortened due to a burnt car at the end and the last one was canceled again due to broken safety barriers. After the eventful day, the Pajari and Mälkönen found themselves leading the WRC2 class.
- “After the peculiar morning, we were able to run at least some stages in a more normal way. The pace has been good, although our main goal is to gain experience. All in all, it was a decent day for us. Our expectations were not that high, which makes the lead a bit surprising. No complaining though”, seemingly relieved Pajari laughed back at the service.
The damp Saturday morning was a bit more difficult for Pajari and come the mid-day service, he had dropped to third while Emil Lindholm had claimed the top spot in the class.
- "I took it much more carefully now and wanted to avoid mistakes. Frankly, the whole morning was quite difficult, it was damp in so many places and perhaps our choice of tires was not quite right,” Pajari summed up his challenging morning.
After the equally difficult afternoon loop of the stages, Pajari and Mälkönen arrived in the overnight break with a 47 seconds of a gap to the leader Lindholm, but held the second place due to another Finn, Teemu Suninen, having received a time penalty of 50 seconds and dropping from second to fourth. Between the Finns, in third place, was another Hyundai driver, Grégoire Munster, who was also making a big push to catch Pajari and at the end of Saturday had already closed the gap down to 13 seconds.
Pajari and Mälkönen’s Sunday saw an excellent start: the pair claimed two consecutive stage wins and a second fastest time for the third run of the day. This performance narrowed down the gap to the leading Lindholm to less than half a minute. Meanwhile the two Hyundai drivers behind them, Grégoire Munster and Teemu Suninen, seemed to be focusing more on the fight for the third.
However, more Japanese surprises were still on the way. After much speculation, the final two special stages were run in full rain conditions and the tire choices made much earlier in the morning stole the leading role. Both Lindholm and Pajari, who were driving at the top positions, were now at the center of the drama and their time advantages to others were flowing away with the rain.
The hero's role was claimed by Munster, who went on to win both the final special stages and in the process claimed the class victory from Lindholm. Suninen too passed Lindholm, leaving him third. Third, however, was still high enough for Emil Lindholm and Reeta Hämäläinen to secure their WRC2 champions’ crowns.
Another outstanding performance in the rain was demonstrated by the former F1 driver and current Japanese Rally Champion Heikki Kovalainen, who mastered the slippery asphalt and passed Pajari to fourth. Thus Pajari and Mälkönen were to contend for fifth place in the memorable and eventful Rally Japan.
- “Our main goal was to reach the finish line and avoid problems. We are once again richer in experience for next season and that is the main thing for sure. Big thanks to the team, supporters and background troops for this opportunity”, summed up Pajari after completing the last treacherous special stage.
Final Classifications Rally Japan - WRC2
1. Grégoire Munster (LU) 2:51:43.1
2. Teemu Suninen (FIN) +21.6
3. Emil Lindholm (FIN) +34.8
4. Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) +1:09.0
5. Sami Pajari & Enni Mälkönen (FIN) +1:10.0
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Photo: Skoda Motorsport