Robert Virves has become the new Junior World Rally champion, winning an epic four-way tussle for the title.
Heading into the Acropolis Rally reigning champion Sami Pajari led the way, tied on points with 2021 runner-up Jon Armstrong and with Virves a single point behind, who in turn was five points clear of Lauri Joona.
But with the JWRC finale offering double points for all competitors (plus points for winning stages, as usual) it effectively became a winner-takes-all showdown.
Pajari started the brightest, winning Thursday night’s superspecial stage in Athens’ Olympic Stadium, but it soon unraveled for the 20-year-old on Friday morning.
Pajari was incredulous to pick up more punctures than he had spare wheels after SS4 – insisting he drove in the middle of the road – and be forced into retirement.
It was a stage that claimed fellow Finn Joona too, as he damaged his suspension and leaked a massive amount of time thereafter.
That left just Virves and Armstrong to duke it out for the rally win and the coveted title, and it was advantage Armstrong in the morning as he produced strong speed to keep Virves at bay.
But Virves snuck ahead in the afternoon when Armstrong backed off to save his tires, leading by three seconds before Friday’s final stage.
However, Armstrong would never know if his strategy would’ve worked, as a puncture dumped him 1m47s behind at the end of the first full day.
From there, Virves held all the cards. Without a victory all year – denied in bizarre fashion in Croatia when he and old co-driver Aleks Lesk were gestured forward by a start marshal only to creep into the stage-in control and cop a four-minute penalty – the 22-year-old knew he just had to keep it clean and steady to get the job done.
Starting the final day with a 53.2s lead over Armstrong, Virves suffered a brief scare when Armstrong stole 19.6s from him in just 10.5 miles on Sunday’s opener.
It was the wake-up call Virves needed as he duly beat Armstrong on the next test and despite another mega push from last year’s Junior WRC runner-up on the final stage, Virves clung on by just 17.5s.
He becomes the first ever Estonian to win Junior WRC and the first driver to be junior world champion in a four-wheel-drive car – clinching four fully-funded European rounds of WRC2 next year in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta Rally2.
But uniquely, due to Virves changing co-drivers halfway through the season from Aleks Lesk to Julia Thulin, Armstrong’s navigator Brian Hoy is the new co-driver champion.