In rallying there’s no such thing as a silver-bullet solution. But on the evidence of the 2021 World Rally Championship season, driving a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 and using it to win in WRC2 goes a long way to reinventing a career.
Esapekka Lappi did just that to earn himself a reprieve with Toyota in 2022 having left M-Sport after 2020, and now his old team-mate Teemu Suninen has shown a similar trajectory.
Except Suninen’s final destination isn’t Toyota, it’s Hyundai.
This weekend’s Monza Rally is a massive opportunity for the 27-year-old. Following a successful debut with Hyundai’s WRC2 operation on Rally Spain, he would have likely lined up in an i20 N Rally2 once more for Monza.
But the surprise withdrawal of Ott Tänak presented Suninen with an opportunity to drive a World Rally Car for the first time since July and avenge a damaging run of form with M-Sport earlier in the season that had started to erode his reputation.
“I’m really excited and it’s been a bit of a surprise, I got this chance back to WRC,” Suninen said when asked by DirtFish how it felt to be starting Monza in Hyundai colors. “I didn’t expect things to change as quickly.”
His ambitions for the longer term future are, however, clear.
“My plan is to stay here,” Suninen said. “I’m happy with how things have gone here and I really wish that Hyundai thinks the same way.
“I’ll be happy developing in WRC2 and my main goal or target is to get a good program with a good program of tests and develop the car and myself around the car, and get some good time behind the wheel.”
There can be no misinterpretation there. Suninen may as well stroll into the service park on Thursday wearing a banner saying ‘sign me Andrea Adamo’. But the biggest problem Suninen could face there is Hyundai’s motel is fully booked. Where would he fit in, and does he even deserve another top-class chance?
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This weekend’s event could certainly answer the second question. Suninen confirmed that the team has asked him to “be the third car if something happens for Dani [Sordo] or [Thierry] Neuville” but Suninen should aim higher.
Not too high, as he need only look at his own example on the Monte Carlo Rally in January as to how things can quickly go wrong if you push too hard. But on a weekend where Hyundai has realistically nothing to fight for, he has to make himself the talking point. He simply can’t just blend into the background and go unnoticed.
It may well be that Hyundai’s 2022 Rally1 drivers have been confirmed. Neuville and Tänak will drive the full season while Sordo and Oliver Solberg will share a third factory car. But Adamo has also confirmed to DirtFish that Hyundai Motorsport will run a fourth i20 N Rally1 in the second half of the season once manufacturing capacity allows.
It’s been widely assumed this will be for either Sordo or Solberg to complete the rest of the season, but that theory has never been ratified. Suninen can lay claim to that drive – at least on an occasional basis – if he plays his cards right, and that starts as soon as this weekend.
How does Suninen do that? By proving he has the ability to drive competitively without faltering. While he quite clearly felt dissatisfied with his diminished (or sometimes non-existent) testing program this year with M-Sport, Suninen’s team-mates Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux were making far fewer mistakes and not going much slower, if at all. So that can be chalked up as a mitigating factor but not an excuse.
A change of atmosphere can do drivers the world of good though. You need only look at the unparalleled number of co-driver changes this season, Suninen included, and the positive impact it’s had on several other drivers to understand that.
Switching from the RedGrey operation that runs Hyundai’s WRC2 concern via the various test teams to the main Hyundai Motorsport rally team over the last six weeks has made it “a bit tricky to learn all the people”, but the impression Suninen makes will be crucial.
When he’s at ease, his demeanour improves and he relaxes behind the wheel as a result. As a knock-on effect, his stage times improve and he begins to become the driver he looked destined to be with his stunning WRC debuts in 2017.
Suninen looks at ease with Hyundai.
Does he deserve another chance? Yes, why doesn’t he? Of course, there are drivers such as Andreas Mikkelsen and Mads Østberg that have been snubbed more times than they’d care to remember and can justifiably claim to be just as good – if not better – than Suninen.
But how many cracks of the whip have they had? Mikkelsen and Østberg have both driven for several factory teams and arguably already realized their potential. Suninen is yet to truly have that same chance as when his M-Sport place became more permanent, the car began to slip behind its rivals in terms of peak performance.
To earn his shot, the donkey work will probably be done in an i20 N Rally2 in 2022 – after all, Hyundai needs an experienced driver there with Solberg on the way up and Jari Huttunen departing to M-Sport this weekend.
But switching that ‘2’ against Suninen’s vehicle on the entry list to a ‘1’ can’t be ruled out if he builds on his strong Spanish start at Monza. However, he can ill afford any slipups in Hyundai colors as second chances are valid, but third chances are more difficult to justify.