Suninen’s plan for another top-level WRC comeback

2024 WRC2 program with Hyundai is designed with only one goal in mind


Teemu Suninen is en route to Rally Sweden. He’s back with Hyundai once more, though this time relegated to the Rally2 ranks.

Except he’s not driving at all in Sweden; Emil Lindholm will fly the flag alone for Alzenau this week. While the competing crews are busy out on recce, Suninen is still packing a suitcase when DirtFish reaches out to get the inside track on his new Hyundai WRC2 deal.

This isn’t where Suninen thought he’d be. His part-time role with Hyundai last season led to a couple of top-five finishes on fast gravel events – and he’d hoped to remain part of the lineup in 2024.

But there was no room at the inn. Ott Tänak arrived, Esapekka Lappi was moved to a part-time role and Andreas Mikkelsen arrived for asphalt. Seats at the Hyundai table were fully booked up.

A few months have passed since the decision was made. Suninen has already come to terms with the choice made by Hyundai president Cyril Abiteboul: “I just didn’t fit to the full picture for Hyundai,” he tells DirtFish. “Maybe I was too similar a driver to Esapekka, even if I see we are a bit different.”

It was a decision that took Suninen somewhat by surprise. In his M-Sport days, his ultimate pace was rarely the question mark raised by onlookers. It was whether he could bring the car home in one piece. And for the most part, he did that in 2023.

“At the end of the season it still seemed pretty good, that I was delivering good results,” says Suninen. “My pace was getting better rally by rally; my pace wasn’t too bad. So I was expecting to get something but in the end, I didn’t.”

2023ESTONIA_FD_ 301

Suninen is at home on Estonia's fast gravel, where he flew to fifth last year

Esapekka Lappi getting in Suninen’s way is a bit of a running theme. Twice Suninen was in contention for a seat at Toyota, twice Lappi was chosen ahead of him. With Lappi present in Sweden and third driver of choice for Hyundai on fast gravel, he’s in the car Suninen piloted last year for similar types of events.

Winding the tape back nearly a decade, Suninen recalls the first time it happened: “It started already from 2016 when he was chosen by Toyota back at that time. It was easy to see why they took him because then he was already a lot more experienced with four-wheel-drive cars.

“Then when Esapekka went back to Toyota, he had a lot more experience from different teams so again, it was easy to say that he was the correct choice. But I felt that I was getting closer and closer. But still, it wasn’t enough.”

And so Suninen is back in Rally2. He’ll be Lindholm’s team-mate in a Hyundai-supported team run by CHL Sport Auto. He’s only got five WRC2 events lined up for the year ahead; you’re allowed to enter seven and take the best six results for your final championship score.


Second in Sardinia was the result on Suninen's last WRC2 outing

So while on paper Suninen might look a title contender, he doesn’t start 2024 as a full-time driver.

Those five events will “more than likely” include the fast gravel trio of Poland, Latvia and Finland. But Sweden is, on paper, a rally that suits Suninen down to the ground too.

It was on the Värmland iteration of the WRC’s snow round that he came closest to an elusive maiden WRC victory, battling eventual champion Tänak for the lead in 2019 before stuffing his Fiesta WRC into a snowbank.

But there are two reasons he’s biding his time to get started in 2024. One is to give CHL a chance to get up to speed, with Sweden its debut running the semi-works Hyundai WRC2 entry. The other is to wait for Hyundai to implement updates to its Rally2 car in the next homologation cycle which should hopefully mean more power from the engine.

“It’s basically the main reason for me to delay a bit the start of the season,” says Suninen of the impending i20 N Rally2 upgrades. “And maybe give a bit more time for the team to prepare because Sweden comes quite early [in the season] and it would have been a whole different challenge for them to run it with two cars.”

All of this is geared towards one objective only: stay in the running for a future Rally1 seat. Suninen’s not here to add a WRC2 title to his resume; his objective is to stay active and remind the Rally1 contingent of his ability behind the wheel.

“I believe if there will be any more seats, or the times will change, the older drivers are retiring, then my time will come.

“That’s my reason basically to drive in Rally2. I will be ready, staying around and if there is a free seat, then I’m ready to jump into it. And I have already proven that with a very limited amount of time or testing, I can jump into the car and deliver fourths or fifths and even podium pace after a few rallies.

“I just need to work hard and get a new opportunity.”

There is one team with a clear vacancy in Rally1 right now: M-Sport. It has only two cars, for Adrien Fourmaux and Grégoire Munster, this season. It has the operational capacity, if not the funding, to run a third car.

Suninen parted ways with M-Sport towards the end of 2021 after a difficult period, having already been demoted to the Rally2 squad that year.

Two years have already passed since the split. Would Suninen consider picking up the phone and calling team owner Malcolm Wilson for a drive?


Sweden 2019 was set to be M-Sport highlight until snowbank intervened

“That wouldn’t be a problem for me,” Suninen replies. “I don’t have anything against Malcolm; I really appreciate him. He’s doing an excellent job with the project and with the opportunities and budget that he has.

“Back in the day, in 2021, the situation got so tricky for me that I had to leave and go somewhere else to get a bit more of a fresh mindset. It was good to do something different, something new for me.”

So Suninen would be happy to make an M-Sport return. But, as is usually the case in rallying, it’s a question of money.

“I would be ready to go back but it needs quite a lot of budget,” he concludes. And Suninen simply doesn’t have the budget to compete for a seat on finance alone, considering that even a full Rally2 campaign is beyond his reach as things stand.

Suninen’s first shot at the top level didn’t work out, nor did the second. But his story hasn’t reached its final page quite yet. A trip to Sweden to meet his new CHL team is the beginning of what the seven-time WRC2 winner will hope is third-time lucky.