Sami Pajari and Enni Mälkönen finished fifth in the WRC2 class in the Croatian round of the World Rally Championship. The duo driving a Toksport WRT provided Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 earned valuable championship points for their fifth-place finish, building on their third-place finish in the season-opening Rally Sweden.
Friday saw a total of eight special stages in Croatia, and the challenging rally provided plenty of difficulties for the Finnish pair. They started off feeling their way cautiously in the first stage, but then posted the fourth fastest time in the class on the next stage. On the sixth stage, they executed a stylish spin at a left-hand corner. They finished the day in fifth place, trailing Frenchman Yohan Rossel, who was leading the class, by just under one and a half minutes.
“To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect before the rally. I’m pretty happy with our afternoon’s driving, but it still feels like something is missing. However, we’ve improved since the morning, and that’s positive,” reflected Pajari at the end of Friday.
The Saturday morning went well overall, even if the crowd was entertained by some spectacular skids on the second stage. While Emil Lindholm, who has suffered technical difficulties previously, was able to pass Pajari and Mälkönen, their position remained the familiar fifth as the spaniard Alejandro Cachón crashed out on the same stage.
“There were some spectacular slides towards the end, but overall it was an improvement compared to the start of Friday,” pondered Pajari after the morning loop.
Before arriving at the midday service, Pajari was seen on the TV broadcast looking perplexed by his car’s instrument panel during the 12th special stage of the rally, which caused concern among Finns supporters. However, the small moment of slower pace didn’t not seem to return and Pajari himself did not seem too concerned at the stage end: “I got a warning light on the downhill section. Possibly some kind of sensor malfunction.”
Soon, the pair were also summoned to appear before the race officials, following a peculiar incident on the same special stage. The stage included a spectator section that featured making a “donut” around a barrel. Pajari’s car hit the barrel, which rolled away, and forced Pajari to complete the required donut around an imaginary barrel. As a result, the officials imposed a ten-second time penalty for failing to complete the move around the actual barrel.
In the afternoon, the four special stages from the morning were run again, and now everything was running smoothly. After the service, Pajari and Mälkönen moved up to fourth place when Frenchman Nicolas Ciamin crashed out of the rally. On the next stage, the Finnish duo set the fastest time and their pace on the other stages was also close to the top times.
“The fastest time was a bit of a surprise. It felt like we were sliding quite a bit, so I didn’t think we’d get such a good time. Overall, it was a really good day, although I’m still being too cautious in some places”, summarized Pajari on Saturday evening.
Sunday’s four special stages promised a battle against France’s Adrien Fourmaux, who drove a Rally1 class M-Sport Ford Puma last season. Pajari’s lead into Sunday was just 4.5 seconds, so things were about to get tough.
Immediately in the opening on Sunday, indications were that both drivers wanted fourth place. Fourmaux started the day by closing the gap by 0.4 seconds.
“We really have to push hard if we want to keep Adrien behind us. The stage went nicely, let’s try to keep it up,” said Pajari at the end of the stage.
For the next special stage, Pajari had two kinds of memories from his JWRC years. Two years ago, he set the fastest time, and last year he slipped into a ditch while in the lead. This time around Fourmaux did the better job on the stage and pushed himself 3.8 seconds ahead.
“I try to attack where I can, but in certain places, I need to be more daring. I’m still learning how to use the car in certain situations,” said Pajari.
After two stages, all the rally had left was the second running of both stages, the final one as the rally’s point scoring Power Stage. On the penultimate stage, it was Pajari’s turn to beat Fourmaux, but even after a good run, the gap narrowed by only 0.4 seconds.
“Not bad at all, but at the end we had a bit of a battle with the tires,” Pajari mused at the end of the stage.
The Power Stage that climaxed the rally would also be the Grande Finale between the two. Going into the stage Fourmaux led by 3.4 seconds, but there was still a chance to close the gap. Pajari headed onto the stage as the first competitor, and as such also opening the international TV-broadcast. After the battle for seconds, it was the French driver who set the better time and beat the Finnish pair by another 4.7 seconds. In the overall standings, the gap was ultimately 8.1.
“It was challenging, we tried to push a bit more, but in some places, there was uncertainty about where there was mud and gravel, which made it quite interesting,” Pajari summarized at the end of the last stage.
Overall, the weekend was successful, as the event provided good learning on asphalt in racing conditions, and the battles against more experienced WRC2 class competitors gave a reliable picture of Pajari’s speed and development.
Pajari and Mälkönen will compete next in the Rally Portugal from May 11th to 14th, but the pair has not registered to score World Championship points in that event.
Results: Croatia Rally – WRC2
1. Yohan Rossel (FRA) Citroen 2:58:45.6
2. Nikolay Gryazin (ANA) Skoda +16.1
3. Emil Lindholm (FIN) Skoda +1:27.5
4. Adrien Fourmaux (FRA) Ford +2:18.5
5. Sami Pajari & Enni Mälkönen (FIN) Skoda +2:26.6
6. Gus Greensmith (GBR) Skoda 5:12.4