Jari Huttunen had waited a very long time for this.
He’d toiled away in the support categories, seemingly been dropped by Hyundai’s junior program only to come back in WRC3. Then, with no obvious progression route open to the senior team, he defected to M-Sport at the end of 2021.
August 2022. Finally. Huttunen was making his top-flight WRC debut. On home soil, no less. A Ford Puma Rally1 awaited.
His mentor Marcus Grönholm had been bullish about what Huttunen could achieve beforehand.
“Top five. Yes, yes. No pressure!” the two-time world champion quipped, with Huttunen standing right next to him.
“We hope that he has no problems, like normally that you have in rally first day: puncture, lose one minute. Without all these problems I think it’s much easier and it will be a good result there.”
Alas, there were problems. Fuel pressure and power steering, to be specific. After several minutes were lost on Friday afternoon, hopes of a strong result were dashed.
But when he was able to push on without mechanical gremlins, he knew one thing: a single day of testing in Estonia over three weeks earlier wasn’t enough to grasp just how much faster a Rally1 car is than the Fiesta Rally2 he’d been driving in WRC2 this year.
“It was even more hard than I was thinking,” confessed Huttunen.
“OK the test day in Estonia, always when you learn the stage and go step by step it gets easier, but now when you have to go immediately fast it’s difficult to trust the aero on the car.
“It’s much faster than a Rally2 car.”
Speaking of Rally2 cars, he’ll be back in one for Ypres. But having gotten a taste of the top level, he doesn’t want to go back. He wants to be in a Puma again.
“I don’t really want to go anymore back in Rally2 car, but yeah…” he said.
That’s hardly surprising, even if it was a bigger challenge than he’d anticipated. The question is: will he get his wish to be back in Puma again?
“That is a good question. I don’t know.”
That’s hardly surprising. WRC deals are hardly the work of a moment and he’s only just finished his Finland one-off. But is a return to the Puma a work in progress?
He won’t be taking someone else’s place in the M-Sport line-up any time soon, though, as team principal Richard Millener had made clear pre-event.
“It would be fully down to funding at the moment,” Millener pointed out after Estonia.
But there’s one bit of good news for Huttunen. Unlike Craig Breen, who was in the boss’ bad books for crashing, Huttunen had done what Millener asked of him.
“As long as he gets a solid result and finishes and makes an improvement, that’s the best he can do, and we’ll see what comes from that.”
For Huttunen, it will undoubtedly be a long, anxious wait to see what comes from that Rally1 debut.