Sami Pajari and Enni Mälkönen finished fifth of the Rally2 category cars at the penultimate round of the World Rally Championship, the Central European Rally that concluded on Sunday. This particular round, beforehand often dubbed the toughest of the season, truly lived up to its reputation, with challenging conditions created by the wet weather on the asphalt.
The rally, which started on Thursday, set off from the Czech capital, Prague. The first special stage took place at a horse sports center just south of Prague, followed by a road section approximately a hundred kilometers south to Klatovy, where the second special stage of the evening was held. After Thursday’s special stages, the Finnish pair from Toksport WRT held the 11th position, trailing the leaders by 9.9 seconds.
“I tried to find a good feeling, but then I overshot one braking point at an intersection and lost some time. Nothing dramatic, though,” Pajari reflected after Thursday’s stages.
Friday was expected to bring wet conditions, and the forecasts proved to be accurate. On the second day of the rally, the route passed through southwestern Czech Republic, featuring two sets of three special stages. Grip variations on the route were significant, making the margin between top performance and mishap more than narrow and sharp.
In the battle for the WRC2 championship, both France’s Yohan Rossel and Norway’s Andreas Mikkelsen encountered difficulties and dropped out during the morning, although Mikkelsen did manage to continue with a large loss of time. After the three special stages on Friday morning, the Finnish duo had climbed to eighth place, but they were still searching for consistent speed.
“In some places, there’s grip, but in others, not so much. By raising the risk level, we could’ve shaved off seconds, but we also need to stay on the road. It’s been a mix of good moments and many occasions when my driving was far from being in the flow,” Pajari mused after the morning stages.
There was no mid-day service on Friday; instead, the drivers relied on the tools in their cars come the tire change break before the same special stages were rerun during the afternoon. The first special stage of the second loop was canceled however due to poor spectator placement, but on the following stages the predicted challenging conditions made their presence very much known.
On the first special stage they got to drive in the afternoon, the Finnish duo faced a challenging situation as Pajari’s Skoda Fabia RS Rally2 car slid wide from full speed in a left-turning corner and ended up on a field, where fortunately there were no ditches, so they continued almost without slowing down. Naturally, after this incident, they were not inclined to increase their pace.
“It was a minor incident, nothing extraordinary. It’s probably been the toughest rally day of my career so far. It’s not easy to predict where there’s grip and where there isn’t. It’s a constant internal struggle as we’re not here to earn points, and it would be nice to learn everything from this challenging event,” Pajari pondered on the challenges of Friday.
On Saturday, the first two special stages were driven in Austria and the third in Germany, with the same stages rerun in the evening. The conditions hadn’t changed significantly from Friday; mud and slipperiness were to be expected throughout the day.
The first special stage of the day seemed to suit Pajari, and for the first time in the event, they posted a top-5 spot earning stage time. However, the other special stages in the morning did not go as smoothly in terms of stage times. In the afternoon, the same special stage again resulted in a top-five time, but otherwise, the second loop was still all about learning where not to push too much. By the end of the day, they had however climbed all the way to sixth place in Rally2 class overall standings.
“It’s been quite a learning experience. I was extremely cautious in these conditions, and the situation didn’t differ much from Friday. On the final special stage of the day, it was especially slippery and challenging in the dark. At one point, we arrived at a spot where we saw our teammate had just been lifted back onto the road,” summarized Pajari of Saturday’s experience.
On Sunday, the special stages alternated between Austria and Germany. Already before even starting the first stage Pajari and Mälkönen moved up one place when Emil Lindholm had to retire due to a technical issue.
Most of the special stages on Sunday were run on dry asphalt, but there was some mud on the road in certain sections. The Finnish pair achieved their best result of the day with a fourth-place finish on the penultimate special stage. There were no changes in the overall standings, securing the Finns a fifth-place finish in the final results. Although Pajari, who had the second-highest number of stage wins in the WRC2 class this season, wasn’t entirely satisfied this time, the season as a whole was a success.
“Our season in the World Rally Championship has been successful overall, despite a couple of zero scores along the way. We managed to showcase our speed in various races and learn from those where we didn’t quite make it to the top. A huge thanks to the team and all our supporters for everything that’s been accomplished throughout the season.”
Pajari’s teammate, Andreas Mikkelsen, secured the WRC2 class championship in Central Europe ahead of Gus Greensmith, who ended up tied in points but has fewer wins collected during the season.
Results: Central European Rally – Rally2
1. Adrien Fourmaux (FRA) Ford 3:04:15.7
2. Nicolas Ciamin (FRA) Skoda +17.3
3. Eric Cais (CZE) Skoda +50.0
4. Kajetan Kajetanowicz (POL) Skoda +2:24.2
5. Sami Pajari & Enni Mälkönen (FIN) Skoda +2:45.1
1. Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR) 111p
2. Gus Greensmith (GBR) 111p
3. Yohan Rossel (FRA) 104p
4. Oliver Solberg (SWE) 91p
5. Sami Pajari (FIN) 86p