Make or break? Suninen explains his 2022 approach

It's a big year for Teemu Suninen, but he's feeling rather relaxed about what lies ahead


We all know that feeling, and it’s not a nice one – watching your mates out playing while you’re stuck at home doing your homework.

Welcome to Teemu Suninen’s world, but not for much longer. Twenty five weeks and 172 days since he was last in World Rally Championship action, Suninen is back for Rally Portugal ahead of a full season campaign with Hyundai in WRC2.

DirtFish caught up with the Finn on Sunday, the day after his pre-event test, to learn how he’s feeling about what could ultimately be a rather career-defining season.

Suninen’s 2021 was, after all, a bit of a messy affair. Starting the season with some fastest split times in Monte Carlo was magical right up until the moment it wasn’t. Perhaps trying too hard to impress, the M-Sport driver shunted at the end of the very first stage of the year and wouldn’t play any further part in the weekend.


This, coupled to the resurgence of Adrien Fourmaux in M-Sport’s WRC2 squad, ultimately spelt the end of Suninen’s five-year stay with the team. He was already due to be sharing the Fiesta WRC with Fourmaux and dropping back to Rally2 when not in the car, but Fourmaux’s purple patch and Suninen’s dip didn’t bode well for him.

In the end, he walked after the Ypres Rally last August and didn’t exactly hold back in his dismay at a lack of testing ahead of rallies. It was a brave move and one could argue it was a bit naive to turn your back on a WRC team, but when Timo Jouhki’s in your corner anything is possible.

A ride in the same Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 Esapekka Lappi had relaunched his rallying career in for Rally Finland awaited – and Suninen won. He was soon into the Hyundai fold for Rally Spain (and was an impressive second) before he got an unexpected call-up into the main team for Monza in Ott Tänak’s absence.

Which takes us to the present day. Suninen’s run to sixth place on the 2021 season finale wasn’t just his last WRC rally but last rally of any description. 

He was involved in a Rally2 development test straight after the Monte Carlo Rally and has helped a few drivers with coaching – a tactical move as it allowed Suninen to “keep the thoughts in rallying” and also learn from others as “all the drivers have some strengths and some weaknesses and then if you can find some good points you can maybe take it for yourself”.

But it’s fair to say he’s itching to get back going himself again.

“Honestly it’s been quite a long time,” he said, “but yesterday when I jumped into the car I did 10, 15, 20km and I felt happy with the car so it was super easy to jump into the car and the car is behaving well so it let’s say smoothens [the process of] jumping back into the car. 

“Of course it’s different to driving in the stages after a long break, but we will see how I cope.

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I'm happy that the team is working with the car and they are getting upgrades Teemu Suninen

“Yesterday the people were seeing that I was smiling a lot and happy to be in the situation we are in now, back into work, the weather was nice and it was nice to be working back behind the wheel.”

‘Smiling’ is a good word to describe Suninen’s period at Hyundai thus far. Although he’s not got any kind of program in a top-class car this year, from the outside Suninen looks visibly happier than he was this time last year.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “For me the team is working well and I would say the best thing.. OK we have a new car so it’s not like perfectly setup yet.

“With a new car there are always some small details to improve and I’m happy that the team is working with the car and they are getting upgrades, and test by test I feel that the car is improving so that’s the nice thing for the drivers, that we are working for something good.”

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Asked directly if he is happier now than he was at M-Sport, even though he’s only in WRC2, Suninen added: “My goal in rallying is to do the work as well as possible and when there are good people around us who are working hard and doing things in the same way then I’ve been feeling happier. 

“Yeah, honestly it’s been good to be here.”

But will he still be saying the same thing at the end of the season? 

The i20 N Rally2 isn’t considered as strong as some of its rivals like the Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo, which could potentially prohibit Suninen from making the big impression he needs to to get back into the WRC’s upper echelons.


But that’s not how he sees it. He doesn’t feel under major pressure to perform or prove his worth, instead declaring “I’m happy with the opportunity I have here” with Hyundai in WRC2.

However there is a long pause before the next part of Suninen’s answer.

“I would say I kind of feel a bit more relaxed because now I have seen it is not the end of the world if you don’t get the seat in WRC,” he said. 

“Of course I want to work to get back and that’s my ultimate goal, but I still have good wishes and a good view for the future that if everything goes well then I have a good chance to be sure of a seat back in WRC, or in Rally1.”


The WRC2 title would be a good way to do that, wouldn’t it? But again, that’s now necessarily how Suninen will be appraising his season a success or not.

“I would say it’s possible of course,” Suninen said of winning the title. “We’ve been strong in Rally2 cars and in rallies but I would say I’m more focused on doing my best and developing the car and myself and not maybe targeting that I have to win everything.

“I think it will come, if it will come, and later in the season we will know more [where we are and if it’s possible].”

Officially Suninen is joined by Fabrizio Zaldivar in Hyundai’s team for Rally Portugal this week and indeed Rally Italy in a fortnight too. But he will have a rather useful benchmark in another i20 N Rally2 in the form of Oliver Solberg.

With Dani Sordo taking his turn in the Rally1 car, Solberg has been given an opportunity to compete in WRC2 this weekend and would be a very clear and obvious target for Suninen given he’s in the same car and currently has a Rally1 seat – something Suninen wants for himself.

David Evans said as much on this week’s SPIN, The Rally Pod – arguing that Suninen will be “absolutely gunning” for Solberg. But ask the man himself and he takes the opposite view.

“I would say honestly he has developed the car, he has more experience in the car, he has a seat in WRC so maybe he has more pressure to beat me than I do to beat him,” Suninen explained. 

“But of course if we have a good feeling and good pace in the car I would like to go for it, and I’m wishing that I have a good feeling in the rally that I can take some risks and get the good flow and push me and the car to the limit.”

Unfazed, isn’t he?

Suninen appears to have found the same sweet spot within his own head that has unlocked his compatriot and old team-mate Lappi. 

Lappi could’ve been buried under the pressure of filling in for Toyota in the absence of Sébastien Ogier this year, yet instead he’s totally at ease and at peace with himself and his capabilities. It shows in his driving.

We’re yet to see if this feeling of serenity transforms into Suninen’s performance in Portugal. Maybe it’s a well-spoken game that isn’t able to translate into on-stage results. 

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But write Suninen off at your peril. If the feeling is there from Thursday’s shakedown stage, why can’t he challenge in Portugal and beyond?

“I think after shakedown or during the rally I will know a lot more where we are and what’s the situation,” he said. 

“Now it’s a bit of a step into the unknown because we have no-one to compare [to] on the test and after a long break it’s kind of a big question mark where the pace will be.

“In one day with the new car, OK I was able to find some good setups but not able to try everything, different combinations, so I think after Portugal we will have a bit more knowledge which way we have to go with my driving and which way we have to go with the car itself, with the car setup,” he said.

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“But the feeling was good so that’s the main thing.”

For now Suninen will remain rooted in WRC2. He admitted he doesn’t “know at all” if he will have any opportunities in a Rally1 car – whether that be a test or in a rally – throughout the year but he would gladly “take it” should that opportunity arise.

Instead, Suninen’s not choosing to occupy his mind with the bigger picture stuff. Ultimately that’ll only take care of itself if he can sort out the immediate future, and that means performing in WRC2 and showing Hyundai the full range of his skillset.

Words:Luke Barry