Robert Virves is in a prime position to win the 2022 Junior World Rally Championship title on a day when all three of his title rivals ran into problems.
Reigning champion Sami Pajari, who remained in the series as it switched from two-wheel-drive Rally4 cars to the four-wheel-drive Ford Fiesta Rally3, looked to be the marginal title favorite both in terms of championship position and recent form.
He led overnight after a win and vital championship point on Thursday night’s superspecial but the 21-year-old’s bid soon unraveled on the second gravel stage, when he collected two punctures and was forced out due to running out of spare tires.
“I think it’s almost like a comedy,” Pajari said. “We did two stages and I was all the time really careful, trying to avoid all the hits and to be honest I don’t know where we catch all these punctures.”
There was trouble for fellow Finn Lauri Joona too. He also arrived at the end of SS3 Havarti looking rather concerned as he had damaged his suspension.
Unlike Pajari, Joona did manage to complete the rest of the day, albeit 12 minutes down on the overnight leader.
That left Jon Armstrong and Virves left to duke it out for the lead.
Armstrong, who was in the thick of last year’s Junior WRC fight, was dominant across the first few stages to open up a 7.4s lead over Virves, but Virves struck back on SS5 to grab the lead of the event.
But Armstrong had a plan. With no spare tires in the car, he took it cannily on the final stage before the tire fitting zone and duly hit back on the penultimate stage of the day, reducing Virves’ lead to just three seconds.
However, it all went wrong for Armstrong on Bauxites when he punctured and lost 1m18.6s to Virves. Given he had impressively executed the wheel change in 1m33s, it shows what might have been.
It’s a welcome reprieve for Virves, who’s yet to win a round this season. But victory – plus a handful of points for stage wins – would be enough for him to win the championship come Sunday.
In WRC2, Emil Lindholm has dominated in his Toksport Škoda to hold a 30.5s overnight lead over team-mate Nikolay Gryazin.
Lindholm’s main interest this weekend however is in the WRC2 Junior series, and his hopes have been massively boosted as main rival (and another team-mate) Chris Ingram went off the road on stage five.
Ingram had been a shave over half a minute down on Lindholm anyway before he lost over three minutes, running wide and hitting a parked car which caused a puncture. That time loss for Ingram has given Lindholm a golden opportunity to take the championship initiative.
Another Toksport Škoda driver, Andreas Mikkelsen, is gunning for the overall title and knew coming into this weekend that realistically he needed to win to stand a strong chance of denying Kajetan Kajetanowicz the crown.
Kajetanowicz isn’t competing in Greece but is expected to enter the last three rounds of the season, where he would likely have a strong chance of victory in both New Zealand and Japan with a slimmer entry on flyaway rounds of the series.
Mikkelsen’s bid was severely dented when he crashed into the barriers on Thursday night’s superspeical within the Olympic Stadium in Athens, but the reigning WRC2 champion insists he hasn’t given up making it a title double.
Mikkelsen was marginally the quickest Rally2 car across the day but currently finds himself well outside the points in 41st place with his 10-minute retirement penalty from Thursday.
Teemu Suninen is third in the category ahead of another title contender, Yohan Rossel, who lacked confidence with his Citroën throughout the day to end 56.9s down on runaway leader Lindholm.