Eight drivers started the season, six still remain and all six can still win the title on this week’s final round: Rally Spain. But realistically the final season of front-wheel-drive action in the Junior WRC is likely to be settled between three extremely talented drivers.
Sami Pajari, Jon Armstrong and Mārtiņš Sesks have been the cream of a very talented crop in 2021, sharing the four event victories between them thus far.
Ahead of the final round in Spain, Pajari heads Armstrong by three points with Sesks another 11 behind but with dropped scores applied (each competitor can only carry four scores from five to their final points tally), it’s actually Armstrong who heads to Spain at the top of the tree.
But there’s a twist. As has become tradition in Junior WRC, the final round offers double points meaning that a total of 67 points are still up for grabs – making it mathematically possible for any of the six drivers on the start list to still claim the championship spoils.
To achieve that maximum points haul, a driver would have to win the rally (50 points) and win all 17 stages so it would be a big ask, but nothing is ever impossible in rallying is it?
Here’s how the championship picture looks ahead of Rally Spain before we dive into a deeper analysis of the main contender’s prospects with the help of championship manager Maciej Woda:
|Driver||Current Pts||Max Total|
Season so far
Stage wins: 22
Sami Pajari leads the championship as it stands, but with dropped scores applied he actually trails Jon Armstrong. But the 19-year-old’s season has been an emphatic one and he has as good a chance as anyone of winning the title.
The obvious high point of Pajari’s year was Estonia where he fended off Amrstrong for his first Junior WRC win, but his pace in Croatia – despite an accident – also caught the eye.
“For sure his pace was really impressive in Croatia and I would say he was the biggest surprise of the Croatia Rally because we all knew Sami is mega, mega quick on gravel – especially on gravel – and to see him being so competitive on Tarmac it was like ‘wow, really, really well deserved,'” says M-Sport Poland boss Maciej Woda.
“This was very, very encouraging to see, obviously a mistake cost him but he was lucky to be able to finish the rally and get the points. He actually scored more stage points than he got points from his overall position!
Sami is always a flat out driver so he was very, very clever in PortugalMaciej Woda - M-Sport Poland team principle
“Then we went to Portugal and he finished second, he wasn’t that fast on the stages there he only scored two points but I believe this was Sami being a strategic and sensible person for a change! Sami is always a flat out driver so he was very, very clever in Portugal,” adds Woda.
“He knew he could be super smooth, super tidy and super careful in such different conditions and then when he went to Estonia it felt more like his home ground and his type of stages and he was absolutely flying there. He won the rally, got nine stage points – a very, very good performance.
“And then Belgium I have to say was a bit disappointing because despite him finishing second the pace was not as I would think we should see after what we had seen in Croatia. It will be interesting to see what he will deliver in Spain which is again a completely different [kind of] Tarmac to Croatia and Ypres. You need to be much more tidy and precise so let’s see what Spain will bring.”
Season so far
Stage wins: 20
Armstrong looks to be the favorite for this. He’s the only repeat winner of the season and could’ve won in Portugal too had he not encountered mechanical issues. He also has good knowledge of Rally Spain having competed there thrice before in R2 and R5 machinery.
Nothing is for sure and you cannot take anything for granted but theoretically if you were running a betting agency, I think you would be betting on JonMaciej Woda
“Jon has won both Tarmac rallies already this year so for sure it puts him in a much stronger theoretical position ahead of Spain,” argues Woda. “And if you consider that Jon has been in Spain before again it gives him the advantage of knowledge of the characteristics of the stages and knowledge of the rally and so on.
“OK, nothing is for sure and you cannot take anything for granted but theoretically if you were running a betting agency, I think you would be betting on Jon.”
Armstrong’s tale of redemption is now well-versed as his rallying career stalled and he took to Esports in order to rebuild it. But what’s been impressive is his new approach this year.
“I wasn’t surprised at Jon’s pace because I knew that Jon can be very, very quick however I’m really surprised at how reliable a driver he is this year,” says Woda. “If you remember Sweden last year when he came back after a few years of not being in rallying and I think the expectations were very, very high, he crashed very quickly and that ended his season.
“I was really concerned that this season is going to be similar that he would make some mistakes because he’s maybe been a bit rusty and so on, and it will end up in tears. And honestly speaking, I’m really impressed with how well prepared he came to this season, how strong body language he has, it kind of reminds me of Craig [Breen] and Elfyn [Evans] when they were coming through the Juniors.
“Jon is not a cocky person, Jon is very polite and very calm so he doesn’t give you this ‘elbows out’ impression but his body language is like ‘I’m really strong, I’m here to fight, I’m not a chicken.’ So far he has delivered everything as expected.
“Fair play it’s a very strong season for Jon and when we are talking about his speed he actually only has two less stage wins than Sami Pajari so it’s not like he’s only reliable and finishing the rallies.”
Season so far
Stage wins: 11
Mārtiņš Sesks was an obvious tip for title success ahead of the 2021 season given it was to be his third year in the series and he pushed 2020 champion Tom Kristensson all the way.
But 2021 hasn’t quite happened for Sesks. It’s hardly been a bad season with victory in Portugal and two further podiums in Croatia and Estonia but, for whatever reason, the searing pace that’s been on show in previous years has been lacking this time around.
“My personal feeling is that he feels quite a lot of pressure which he and the surroundings put on himself as this is his third season of Junior WRC and he needs to deliver,” offers Woda.
“I think his approach this year is ‘I cannot be crashing, I must be finishing’ but at the very same time I think he lost this edge of ‘come on we need to be quick as well.’ Especially in this championship when you have stage points, you really need to be quick.
“You need to be finishing the rallies but you need to be quick, and if you look at Pajari’s result in Croatia which we touched on earlier, he only got eight points from finishing the rally but he got nine extra points from being quick on the stages.
“So you need to find the right balance between finishing the rally but also being very, very quick and I think Mārtiņš is missing it this year I have to say. Maybe there’s just too much pressure on his shoulders at the moment.”
Sesks is still very much in the equation, but of the three key players he’s the distant force that’s likely to swoop in if either Pajari or Armstrong encounter dramas.
It would take something rather extraordinary for Lauri Joona, William Creighton or Robert Virves to grab the 2021 title but the unique structure of the points system makes it an improbability but equally a possibility.
Joona and Creighton’s seasons have been particularly noteworthy – typified by recent results if nothing else. Joona claimed a WRC3 podium on his four-wheel-drive debut on Rally Finland while Creighton put his Rally4 Fiesta onto the overall British Rally Championship podium and eighth overall on last weekend’s Mull Rally.
But they’ve shone in Junior WRC too. Joona was third on debut in Croatia and kept racking up the scores ever since, and while Creighton started a little slower he was a victory contender in Ypres – no-one won more stages than him – until he was forced to stop with an engine alarm.
That asphalt pace could make Creighton a real dark horse for Rally Spain, meaning he could actually play a role in the destiny of the title even if not for himself.
“It’s one of the best seasons when it comes to the driver’s reliability of bringing the cars to the finish line. It’s not just speed but they’ve all got very, very good skills at keeping the cars on the road with very, very high competition so it’s been a very, very impressive season I have to say,” says Woda of the class of 2021.
“It’s great that you mention William because I have to say he is another one who should be mentioned this season because it’s the first time of him competing on international ground and he matured very quickly, I have to say.
“He’s mega polite, mega nice to work but he knows what he wants! And fair play, the speed that he can deliver now is really, really impressive. It’s worth mentioning that he is probably a strong contender for being a fighter next year.”