Does Pajari deserve his Rally1 shot?

The 23-year-old Finn has climbed rallying’s ladder, what will he make of the top rung in Latvia next month?

Sami Pajari

No wonder Sami Pajari looked so chuffed with his WRC2 win on Sunday. He knew. You can tell.

He and co-driver Enni Mälkönen were out of their Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 and enjoying the view of the beach from the roof in no time.

Yeah, they both knew.

If ever there was justification needed for Pajari’s elevation to a factory GR Yaris Rally1, last week’s Rally Italy Sardinia provided it. This deal was, however, struck long before the Finns landed on the island.

From the moment Pajari swapped Toksport for Printsport, Škoda for Toyota, Fabia for Yaris, the speculation began. When we knew Kalle Rovanperä was heading for half a season last year, the chatter was that Pajari was going to be sharing his seat. If anything, it’s a surprise this announcement has been such a long time coming.

Pajari on the roof

The roof-top view for Sami and Enni was a good one on Sunday afternoon in Sardinia

Does he deserve it?

Absolutely he does.

But Pajari’s no Rovanperä. What was it Latvala said in our video?

“Kalle is a unique person, absolutely amazing skills,” smiled Toyota’s team principal. “But the way he came into the sport… it is not a natural way. Kalle has special skills to enable him to come quicker than usually the drivers come. We can’t exactly compare Kalle to Sami.

“Kalle’s route started when he was seven, at 11 or 12 years old, he was, I would say, a semi-professional rally driver. And when he was 17, he was fully committed to the sport.

“Sami’s route has been much more standard with two-wheel drive, Rally4 to Rally3, to Rally2 and now to Rally1. We need to give a little bit more time for Sami.”

To give that some context, there’s only one Kalle Rovanperä. He’s rallying’s Jonah Lomu or Michael Jordan; an extraordinary talent with the potential to make his fellow world champions look ordinary. Less so, admittedly, this season. But this is his gap year.

Back to Pajari. Yes. Totally deserves his shot. Like Latvala said, he’s come in quietly and served his time. Starting in the sport in 2017, he made his world championship debut in Finland two years later. Driving the Team Flying Finn Fiesta (backed by the Finnish ASN) in JWRC, he was fastest by the third stage in Jyväskylä.

In 2020 he started a full JWRC campaign and was on the podium by the second round. A year later he was champion. The 2022 season was about learning four-wheel drive and last year he landed a maiden WRC2 win at home in Finland.

Last weekend he scored his second top-six finish overall of 2024.


Pajari took the Junior WRC title in Spain, 2021 - just four years after he started in the sport

He’s got the tools. No doubt. And he’s worked the levels, served his time.

And now he’s got the opportunity. Much as this move was telegraphed, it’s sensible and something of a relief to see a manufacturer looking to the next generation. Toyota is, of course, doing its bit with the WRC Challenge Program for Japanese drivers and M-Sport is continuing a long tradition of developing talent from the ground-up, but it still feels like the next tier of drivers needs a helping hand.

What can we expect of Pajari in Latvia?

It’s a level playing field. Nobody’s been there in a Rally1 car and only a handful have been there period. He’s one of them. Granted a Ford Fiesta Rally4 three years ago won’t bear comparison with a 530bhp Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 next month, but at least he’ll have an idea of what’s coming his way. Whatever it is, it’ll be coming his way quickly.

Latvia’s a smart move. For some, Finland would have made more sense. But sending him home with a car capable of winning the world’s fastest rally, on his Rally1 debut would have piled unnecessary pressure on his shoulders.

But still, don’t be overly surprised if he does end up at home in a Rally1 car. If Latvia goes sensationally well, if he steps up, scores point and makes an even bigger point, why wouldn’t Toyota accelerate his development? Toyota’s driver roster has an average age of 32. Yes, Rovanperä’s only 23, but the Japanese team is in need of young blood.

Pajari’s making a compelling case.

Latvia (July 18-21) was always going to be a fascinating event, first time out on the WRC calendar for the Baltic country, but now it’s going to be even more so. With Mārtinš Sesks driving a Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid for the first time, there’s a clear comparison for Pajari. Pajari’s recent WRC experience is countered by Sesks’ local knowledge. It’ll be a fight worth watching.

But for Sami, this could very well be the start of something very big and, in his words, something very nice.

Sami Pajari

Pajari has been one of the stars of this year's World Rally Championship from the opening round in Monte Carlo