Teemu Suninen’s M-Sport World Rally Championship career came to an abrupt end on Friday with the announcement that he would be leaving the team with immediate effect.
It’s a journey that began back in 2017 when Suninen, after pushing Elfyn Evans hard in WRC2 the previous year with his own Škoda Fabia R5, switched to the team for another WRC2 assault that also included two events in a Fiesta WRC.
Suninen earned a full WRC promotion in 2018 alongside Evans and Sébastien Ogier, and remained with M-Sport for three full seasons before his program was altered in 2021, sharing his drive with Adrien Fourmaux and competing back in WRC2 on the events he was ousted from the World Rally Car seat.
His last event turned out to be the Ypres Rally, and it was a somber way for the Suninen/M-Sport relationship to end, but there were plenty of high – as well as low – points throughout the four-and-a-half year partnership.
Perhaps Suninen’s tenure with Malcolm Wilson’s operation will be remembered for the frustrating nearly moments more than it will be the beacons of hope, but DirtFish has picked out 10 key moments that will ultimately define the Suninen/M-Sport era.
1 The WRC debut
Rally Poland 2017
Suninen’s start to life as an M-Sport driver was emphatic. He had impressed in WRC2 the previous year, but adapted to the Fiesta R5 with aplomb. Second place WRC2 in Sweden, Corsica and then also Portugal – the opening three rounds – was testament to this.
But it was his sudden pace behind the wheel of the World Rally Car that really put Suninen on the map. Making his debut on the super-fast roads of Poland, it took Suninen just six stages to set a scratch time – 0.7 seconds up on Hayden Paddon’s Hyundai.
He would eventually finish sixth, surviving a costly overshoot, but this was a truly impressive drive that marked Suninen out as a driver destined for victory in the not too distant future.
2 First podium fight
Rally Finland 2017
On the very next rally in Finland, Suninen was again strapping himself into a Fiesta World Rally Car and proving his Poland form was no fluke. Quickest on the first forest test was a good way to lay down a marker.
While Rally Finland 2017 will ultimately be remembered for another young Finn, Esapekka Lappi, proving his prowess, Suninen more than held his own. He couldn’t quite match the Toyotas of eventual winner Lappi and Jari-Matti Latvala, but Suninen was lying third after the first day and holding his own against far more experienced campaigners.
An overshoot on Ouninpohja momentarily dropped him to fourth, but that was suddenly second when Latvala’s Yaris WRC slowed. However, Suninen would falter as a high-speed spin on the penultimate stage allowed both Elfyn Evans and Juho Hänninen to sneak through and relegate him to fourth.
Fourth should’ve been second in Finland, but fighting for a podium on his second outing at the top level was nothing to be sniffed at.
3 Maiden podium finish
Rally Portugal 2018
After those swashbuckling World Rally Car drives, Suninen regressed back to a Fiesta R5 and won the WRC2 class in Spain to seal third in that year’s championship. But in 2018, a near full-season (bar the Monte and Corsica) beckoned.
It started off on a more muted note than those sizzling runs the year before, but on start number six behind the wheel of a Fiesta WRC Suninen’s feet would grace the World Rally Championship podium.
It was a rally that got away from several drivers – namely Ott Tänak and Hayden Paddon – but not Suninen. Rising up to third at the end of the first day, Suninen was briefly jumped by Hyundai’s Dani Sordo but he was driving “on the limit” and determined to earn his first podium finish.
Three top three stage times, including a stage win on the penultimate stage, secured the spot for Suninen by 13.6s. “The feeling is so great,” he said, “first podium ever in the WRC. It took a year, but I’m so happy!”
4 The win that got away
Rally Sweden 2019
The 2019 season was Suninen’s first full campaign in the WRC, partnering Evans as one of only two permanent M-Sport entrants. The Monte Carlo Rally didn’t go particularly well as Suninen went off on the first evening, but Sweden was another story.
Suninen, now with Marko Salminen instead of Mikko Markkula, was used to winning stages, but he had never led a round of the WRC before. A stage victory on the second pass of Svullrya, SS6, changed all that.
Beating Sébastien Loeb by 5.2s on the stage, Suninen relieved Latvala of his lead and ended the leg at the head of the pack, two seconds up on Tänak despite the lamp pod on the hood of his Fiesta WRC flailing around and obscuring his vision.
Tänak had the beating of Suninen on Saturday’s first stage, but Suninen was still within 1.8s when he undid all his good work and got sucked into a snowbank. It dropped him to eighth, but worse was to come as he hit a tree and damaged his rollcage.
Defeating Tänak in his Toyota pomp may have been asking too much, but throwing the car off and squandering M-Sport a likely second place wasn’t ideal.
5 Lehtinen jumps in, Suninen’s second podium
Rally Italy 2019
After retiring from professional co-driving when Mikko Hirvonen called time on his WRC career in 2014, Jarmo Lehtinen was recruited to join Suninen in place of Salminen halfway through 2019. Remarkably, the pair were second on their first event together – Rally Italy – to land Suninen’s best ever WRC result.
Suninen led an M-Sport 1-2 early on but soon slipped back and keeping a consistent pace, he settled into third behind Tänak and Sordo. Crucially, he was staying ahead of his more experienced team-mate Evans and managed to bank second spot instead of third when Tänak’s steering famously jammed.
Most importantly, Suninen and Lehtinen’s partnership had worked handsomely.
6 A final WRC podium (for now)
Rally México 2020
It would be harsh to call Lehtinen a poisoned chalice for Suninen, but the highs of that Sardinian podium didn’t necessarily prove the permanent breakthrough that that result may have suggested.
But the pair would stand on a WRC podium together again, albeit a very makeshift one, as Rally México’s final leg was abandoned and the rally ended on Saturday due to the rapidly developing COVID-19 outbreak.
México last year was arguably Suninen’s most accomplished performance in the WRC to date. Fourth after the two Guanajuato street stages, Suninen was never outside the top three for the entire weekend when the rally transitioned to gravel.
He ran second behind Sébastien Ogier for most of the contest, but despite dropping to third behind Tänak, a podium was richly deserved but poorly timed as the lockdown prevented Suninen the chance to build on his momentum, and the financial impact pegged M-Sport back thereafter too.
7 An untouchable stage win
Rally Italy 2020
In the modern era of the World Rally Championship, stages are usually won by small margins: a handful of seconds or even tenths of a second. So when Suninen established a double-figure lead on the very first stage of Rally Italy last year, we all thought we were living in a simulation.
Tempio Pausania wasn’t a stage to be attacked – with its slow, narrow, hazardous corners – but merely survived. However, that script wasn’t sent to Suninen, who blasted second quickest and team-mate Lappi away by 12.4s.
Suninen sadly couldn’t keep up this searing pace, slipping to second behind eventual victor Sordo before first service and ending up down in fifth at the end, 1m33.9s down. But in a car that wasn’t as developed as Toyota or Hyundai’s machines, Suninen showed what he and the M-Sport Ford Fiesta could do when an opportunity presented itself.
8 A microcosm of a career
Monte Carlo Rally 2021
Out of context, the opening stage of the 2021 season wasn’t the end of the world for Suninen. His pace was extraordinary, several seconds up through the splits before he got caught out, understeered into a bank and careered off the other side of the road and down a bank.
But in today’s context, it feels like the beginning of the end of Suninen’s M-Sport career.
It had been announced prior to the event that Suninen – now reunited with former co-driver Markkula – was sharing his ride with Adrien Fourmaux, therefore spending half the season in a Rally2 and half the season in the WRC car.
Perhaps he was pushing too hard to make a point? A stage win would’ve been epic, but to not even complete one stage of the rally certainly wasn’t.
9 Lightning strikes twice
Rally Italy 2021
Suninen has had some ups and downs on Sardinia, with three of his four World Rally Car appearances on the island making this list. 2021 was one of the low moments.
On his first rally in the top car in just over three months, plenty was expected of Suninen who had a favorable road position and clearly good form on the Italian stop of rallying’s global tour.
But he didn’t deliver. A simple error towards the end of the stage on a tightening right-hand bend, Suninen approached the bend with too much speed and slid off the bank on the left. The gradient was too steep for him to release his Ford Fiesta WRC from the undergrowth.
With the rumor mill starting to accelerate about the 2022 driver market, this was poorly timed from Suninen.
10 A sour end
Ypres Rally 2021
We didn’t know it at the time, but Suninen’s fairly anonymous sixth-placed finish on Estonia would prove to be his last in a Fiesta WRC. His final rally in M-Sport colors transpired to be the Ypres Rally in the Rally2 version.
It wasn’t a particularly positive way for Suninen’s spell with the team to end. He had been doing everything right, leading the WRC2 contest, until he faltered, overcooking a square-left bend and taking a trip into a field.
That punctured one of his tires and clogged up his radiator with grass; and it’s the latter problem that turned out to be terminal. The engine overheated and forced him to retire, and although he would restart on Saturday Suninen wouldn’t make the end of the rally.
He leaves M-Sport a rather different prospect than he joined it, but he still has plenty to offer the WRC. And you never know, there may be more chapters to this story. Stranger things have certainly happened.