Pajari’s season continues under the Portuguese sun

Finnish drivers Sami Pajari and Enni Mälkönen will continue their season this coming weekend at the WRC Rally Portugal. Driving a Skoda Fabia RS Rally2 for Toksport WRT, the Finnish duo will not be competing for championship (WRC2) points this time, so the pressure for adding points to their books is off for the weekend.

As usual, the HQ of Rally Portugal is Matosinhos, a port city on the Atlantic coast just a stone’s throw from Porto to the northwest. The weather is expected to remain dry, with outdoor thermometers scraping the upper limit. A total of 19 special stages will be run from Friday to Sunday, covering just over 325 kilometers.

Pajari has previously competed in the Portugal Rally twice in the Junior World Rally Championship (JWRC) category. He took second place in 2019, but last year he improved to win with Enni Mälkönen as his co-driver. Friday’s itinerary includes eight special stages, covering 121 kilometers. The main challenge will be the absence of service during the day, with only one tire change available, during which small repairs can be made using the tools packed in the car.

On Saturday, there will be seven special stages, covering nearly 149 kilometers. There is a service break during the day for the drivers and their equipment. Sunday’s four special stages are about 55 kilometers long, with the legendary Fafe stage, known for its jump, ending the rally, starting in the afternoon local time.

“From the co-driver’s point of view, this is very similar to Sardinia. The biggest challenges are the quite tough conditions for both the driver and the car. Friday will be without a service break, and especially when driving the stages for the second time, they will be in rough condition in some places. I have good memories of the race from last year when we won here, so the memories are pleasant,” says co-driver Enni Mälkönen.

“It’s hot, dusty, rocky, bumpy, that’s what I remember in a few words. You can’t go full throttle from start to finish, it’s easy to make mistakes and hit rocks on the road or on the edges of the road. We even got a little rain during reconnaissance on Tuesday, but the road dries up pretty quickly here. If it were continuous rain, then it would be a pretty muddy surface, but the forecast shows dry conditions,” Pajari describes the conditions.

There haven’t been any major changes on the Portugal Rally route, and most of the special stages’ names are already familiar to most followers of the sport. However, there are some marginal changes for this year.

“One stage is new, one is driven in the opposite direction, and one has a few extra kilometers. Most of it is the same as in previous years, and I have a pretty good memory of the road myself. Many of our competitors have been here several times, so we are not in an advantageous position in that sense.”

Nowadays, WRC2 drivers have the opportunity to participate in all 13 rounds of the WRC calendar, but they can only accumulate points in seven events, with the six best scores counting towards their total. Thus in the sunshine of Portugal, Pajari’s team doesn’t have to think about the standings at all, so they can approach the competition with a bit less pressure. However, their starting position is further back on the list than usual, as the point scorers are prioritized and start in the front.

“We’re probably the 20th car on the road on the opening day. In theory, the road may still clean up a bit for us, but there won’t be any significant difference within the class, as there are already eight WRC1-class cars ahead of us cleaning the road before the WRC2 cars,” Pajari considers their starting position.

The Portuguese round of the World Rally Championship has a long tradition of 50 years, and there have been many enthusiastic rally fans along the routes year after year, and autographs are also in high demand. In the 1980s during the era of Group B, the audience was practically engulfed by the cars passing by, but nowadays safety thinking has fortunately come a long way.

“Of course, it feels good to see the audience in some places watching in large numbers, but you don’t really have time to think about it while driving in the cockpit. We have an autograph session before the competition starts, and we’ll probably take a few fan pictures then,” concludes Pajari.