Pajari’s season blasts off with a podium
The Swedish round of the World Rally Championship started Sami Pajari and Enni Mälkönen’s WRC2 season on Thursday evening and ended on Sunday in high spirits for the duo. Their first full season in the WRC2 class got off to an excellent start with third place in the class. Only Sweden's Oliver Solberg, who has experience all the way from the WRC1 level, and Norway's WRC2 veteran Ole Christian Veiby were ahead. A good example of the Finns’ fast pace were the four times the duo clocked in the fastest stages times in the class.
The WRC Rally Sweden, now hosted for the second time in the northern region of Umeå, offered excellent winter rally conditions with mostly ice surfaced roads and high snow banks. Pajari's rally started promisingly on Thursday and looked to continue similarly on Friday morning. After Friday's opening stage Finns had a four-way lead in the class as Emil Lindholm, Teemu Suninen, Sami Pajari and Jari Huttunen all were within 1.4 seconds of each other. Friday's second special stage however changed the standings after Lindholm drifted into the snow banks and Solberg and Veiby behind the Finns found more speed. Pajari took the stage carefully and dropped momentarily down to fifth.
- I tried to keep up the speed on the straights and learn to use the snow banks to carry the speed to the next. I don't really know if I should push harder or if this is good, thought Pajari.
On the next special stage Pajari however found the right rhythm and set the fastest time in the class, which put them already in second place. Throughout the day the Finnish duo set no less than three fastest times of the seven stages in the day’s itinerary. At the end of Friday, only Oliver Solberg was ahead of them with a gap of 13 seconds.
- I wouldn't have predicted that with this experience we would be rocking so high after Friday. We have done our best and, on the other hand, have also been careful enough, and so there have been no problems. However, there are still a lot of stages left, said Pajari at the end of Friday.
Saturday didn't start quite as sharp for the Finns, but the result was still the fourth fastest time. Solberg slightly increased his lead, but Veiby, who was lurking behind, was still a safe distance away. Then on the second special stage of the morning came the rare misfortune for Pajari and Mälkönen and a good half a minute was lost.
- We hit a rut and the rear ran off at fifth gear speeds. A high-speed spin, after which the car stalled and it took some time for us to turn to the right direction on the narrow road. It was a bit lucky that our rally even continued from that moment, the driver recounted the situation.
Pajari’s and Mälkönen’s ranking dropped to fourth with the spin, but ahead was Jari Huttunen with a gap of just 5,5 seconds. A couple of special stages later, Huttunen familiarized himself with the local snow banks and Pajari was once again holding on to a place on the podium. Veiby was ahead at the end of Saturday by more than 20 seconds and as there was no immediate threat from behind either, a safe drive on Sunday would bring in a good start for the season.
- We tried to join the game of tires for the afternoon, which we thought we could steer to our advantage come the evening, but we didn't quite get the jackpot we were hoping for. But it's good to learn that too, perhaps we should have just tried to push a bit harder. After everything we experienced, third place sounds really good for the moment, Pajari summed up at the end of Saturday.
The three special stages on the final day had a total length of 63 kilometers. First in the itinerary were two runs of Västervik and finally the 10 kilometer special stage in Umeå, of which parts were used in the event already for the fourth time.
Pajari and Mälkönen took the opening stage early in the morning safely and clocked in only the sixth fastest time.
- Our goal is just to keep this position, I think that in the second run I can improve, let's see, thought Pajari.
And improve they did: on the second run of the Västervik stage the duo set the fastest stage time in their class for the fourth time of the weekend.
All that was left was the event climaxing Power Stage, which would offer the chance to score additional championship points by clocking in a top-3 stage time. However, by pushing over the limit there could end up costing the entire good performance in the event so far. The decision in the end was to take no unneeded risks as the first ever WRC2 podium in itself was a result worthy of celebration.
- For sure it's a really amazing feeling! We did have a few chances for the podium already before, but now we managed it and the feeling is really nice. A big thanks to everyone who has made this possible for us, thankful Pajari joyed at the end of the final stage.
Success brings success, and as a byproduct of a successful weekend, the Pajari-Mälkönen duo took 10th place in the event general classification, which also means the first World Rally Championship point of their career. Also at the same time, the duo took the lead in the WRC2 Challenger series, which is aimed at rookie drivers helming Rally2 cars. Last year, that championship was claimed by Emil Lindholm with Reeta Hämäläinen, who at the end of a successful season also won the WRC2 championship.
The World Rally Championship flies next to Mexico in mid-March, but Sami Pajari and Enni Mälkönen's season in WRC2 continues instead at the end of April on the asphalt of springtime Croatia.
Rally Sweden - WRC2
1. Oliver Solberg (SWE)
2. Ole Christian Veiby (NOR) +42.3
3. Sami Pajari & Enni Mälkönen (FIN) +1:15.1
4. Georg Linnamäe (EST) +2:21.1
5. Marco Bulacia (BOL) +2:41.5