In motorsport, there is no right of passage. Unfortunately, achieving success at one level does not always guarantee you the opportunity to move up to the next. Just ask Emil Lindholm and Reeta Hämäläinen, this year’s World Rally Championship-2 champions.
There’ll be no Rally1 drive waiting for them under the Christmas tree this year. Instead, another season in the category they’ve already won beckons.
It’s an all too familiar story, and not exclusive to the muddier side of motorsport.
In Formula 1’s primary feeder series, only nine of the 21 champions this century have graduated to the top class with a full-time seat the following year. Some of them didn’t even make it to F1 at all.
The influx of former factory drivers from the WRC’s top level going back to the second tier of late tells its own story in rallying terms. There is nowhere enough room at the inn at the top of the tree, so instead WRC2 has become a jostle to be the one at the front of the queue if and when a Rally1 manufacturer comes knocking.
|Year of title
|Next year’s program
|2014 & ’15
In short, breaking into the WRC’s upper echelons is now almost a harder challenge than winning the world championship itself.
Andreas Mikkelsen is the example most of us reach for when examining this unfortunate situation. How can it be that a driver with three victories, 25 podiums and over 100 WRC stage wins cannot find a drive at the top level?
The same could certainly be said for Hayden Paddon, or even Teemu Suninen. These are drivers who are more than capable of producing results for a WRC team, but yet are forced to settle for rallying’s second tier with such a limited array of factory seats available.
But perhaps the situation for 26-year-old Lindholm and 34-year-old Hämäläinen is even more depressing. Unlike any of their contemporaries that we have just mentioned, their total number of top-line WRC starts equates to the same figure as the square root of zero.
And yet they’re just as deserving of the opportunity to progress – arguably more so now that they can unequivocally call themselves the best crew in the world in the Rally2 class. They’ve done everything they should ever need to in order to progress.
Naturally, that brings with it great satisfaction.
“Now [weeks after Japan] I’m starting to understand what we have done, because this is the second biggest prize you can get in WRC,” Hämäläinen tells DirtFish.
“In some way we are world champions… and wow, just wow!”
But no progressive rally crew rests at just being WRC2 champions, they want to be World Rally champions. So the only logical way forward is a chance to prove their worth in Rally1. A chance that is not forthcoming.
“Obviously, the targets are even higher,” Lindholm adds. “And it just seems like unfortunately it’s not so easy to… there’s still not many places in the top tier and it’s always been like that.
“But especially now in this hybrid era, it’s not easy for young drivers.”
The lack of available drives at the top is nothing new in the WRC, but the scale of the problem is increasing as the bottleneck of talent is building up. It’s one thing having world class drivers searching for a second (or third) shot being cast aside, it’s quite another when a younger talent has done everything by the book and yet may find themself at a ceiling that won’t break.
Hyundai Motorsport’s recent decision to veer away from nurturing young talent such as Oliver Solberg in favor of more experienced heads only exaggerates this further. Of course, as a manufacturer whose interest lies in winning championships – not lending a hand to budding rally drivers – it’s an understandable move.
But with spots at a premium anyway, it’s hardly an encouraging message being sent to the likes of Lindholm, who can’t gain the relevant experience that’s sought after without the opportunity.
“That’s exactly true,” says Lindholm. “Oliver and Kalle [Rovanperä] are, let’s say, the only young guys who have been taken into the top in the last few years and I understand it in a sense.
“On the other hand, what happens then when at some point these experienced drivers want to do something else with their lives? At that point they will need to bring in some younger guys, I just hope that there are enough young guys around at that point.
“But it’s also a functional thing, the number of seats is too low, there’s too few cars in WRC. We need more cars, more teams.”
So what can Lindholm do? Exactly what he has been doing, says his co-driver.
“For me, what we have now also showed this year is the consistency,” Hämäläinen remarks.
“And doing that again will be key. Somehow I wouldn’t be too worried about that because if we can prove that we are fast and we are consistent, then these are the two things that teams will want.”
In reality, with no Rally1 opportunity immediately on the horizon, 2023 will be key to Lindholm’s promotion prospects. It’s an opportunity to reinforce his point.
Lindholm’s 2022 stats
|Pos. in class
His body of work in 2022 was deeply impressive – and the title has, unquestionably, thrust him further onto the radar. But even if the trophy hadn’t shone a brighter spotlight upon him like it has, Lindholm was undoubtedly a better driver this year than ever before.
Dropping into a snowbank on just the second stage of his season in Sweden wasn’t the best of starts, but from there Lindholm was regularly on the podium.
With a season aim of winning the WRC2 Junior title, Lindholm had tunnel vision and concentrated solely on edging his Toksport Škoda team-mate Chris Ingram to the spoils.
But after Rally Finland, his third Junior win in succession, he suddenly noticed that he was sitting pretty in the overall standings too.
“After Rally Finland we knew that, basically, we were in the game, but had a slim chance,” Lindholm remembers. “But after Greece it was quite evident that actually we are in the championship game.”
Acropolis was the rally where it all turned on its head, when Mikkelsen (already hampered by two engine-related retirements) faltered and crashed on a superspecial. By contrast, Lindholm was peerless and dominated the event from SS2 onwards.
A crash for Junior rival Ingram was another timely boost and meant that Lindholm had completed his season’s mission by just starting Rally Spain.
At the season finale, Rally Japan, Lindholm was then battling Kajetan Kajetanowicz (and the absent Mikkelsen) for the overall WRC2 crown. He once more proved his pace, assurance and ability to soak up the pressure and got the job done.
In many ways it’s a fast-tracked result. Nobody really had Lindholm down as WRC2 champion at the start of 2022, but then that’s fair, he assures DirtFish, “because neither did we!”.
2022 WRC2 standings
But he absolutely drove like a champion this season. And now that he has become one, the Rally1 question has become so pertinent. Had he not won WRC2 this season, it’s unlikely we, or even he, would have been contemplating it with such sincerity.
However Lindholm is sure he is ready for that leap, at least on certain rallies.
“What I am somehow confident we would be able to do is, let’s say, some selected events, we would probably be able to be somehow competitive and I mean competitive in the sense that I would, myself, be happy with our job,” he explains.
“As ambitious as it is, that’s as good as I think I could be, but for whole season I don’t think so yet”
Of the rallies on the 2023 calendar, they have contested eight of them and scored points at five of them this year to come 15th overall in the WRC.
“For sure we are all the time improving and getting experience and I’m also sure that Emil is ready for hybrid when, and if, the opportunity comes at some point,” she adds.
Which brings us back to the importance of 2023. Lindholm has done his stock no harm by becoming an against-the-odds WRC2 champion, but surely the pressure is now firmly on him next year to repeat the feat? Otherwise he risks being jumped in the queue by somebody else when the Rally1 door does eventually open.
“I think to win a championship, especially when it’s only basically six rallies that count, if one rally goes wrong it can hurt your chances of doing a good result in the championship,” Lindholm responds.
“It’s always a bit tricky but sure, usually in any sport you are as good as your last result and surely our target needs to be winning WRC2.
“But I think, and I hope, that if it won’t happen at least we will be able to show that our speed is on the level that it needs to be on – on the top.”
Hämäläinen’s take is actually quite inspiring: “We need to believe in ourselves, because otherwise no one else will. For me we need to have faith in ourselves, because otherwise we won’t get anywhere.
“I don’t compare us to anyone, but we need to have the faith that we can do this.
“I’m confident that if we can keep the pace and the speed and also the consistency and have everything else that a team wants – we have all the skills like teamwork skills, media skills and that kind of thing, I have to trust that at some point it will pay off.”
Early suggestions had been that Lindholm’s title defense would begin in Monte Carlo, but instead he’s set to first appear in Sweden instead as “if the target is to do only seven rallies next year, then I think it doesn’t make sense to have Monte as one of those,” given he has never entered it before.
And even there, there’s a tricky balance to strike. In strengthening their case to earn a shot in a bigger car, Lindholm must make sure he keeps winning but also ensure he obtains as much experience of all the different rallies as he possibly can. But creating a calendar that focuses mostly on the latter could jeopardize the former.
Given how the tactics unfolded to win this year’s WRC2 fight, Lindholm said he’s “not really willing to discuss the full program for next year with you!”. But he did acknowledge that “you need to be realistically minded when you choose the rallies because obviously the target is to win the championship”.
It’ll be another tall order to do it again, but Lindholm has proven he is more than up to the task. Truthfully, he’s already shown more than enough potential – and delivered more than enough top results – to have a Rally1 opportunity in his hands next year, even if it was just for a few rounds.
But, at least for the time being, he’s in the place he feasibly can be. Firmly trusted by and embedded within Škoda Motorsport’s setup as one of four drivers trusted to develop the all-new Fabia RS Rally2, Lindholm finally gets to drive one in competition next year – and it’s a car that’s expected to set the pace.
As for the future, I want to think positively! We will do our everything and then it's up to the team managers to decide if we are enough or notReeta Hämäläinen
“It is the next best thing,” he says. “Again, to be able to continuously be testing with Škoda and to do a proper program with the new car is… I mean, I would surely want to do some events in a Rally1 car but I think realistically this is the best program we can do.”
“I’m really looking forward already to next season because now it has been a few weeks without rally car and I want to be in a rally car again!” Hämäläinen adds.
“It’s really, really exciting to be working with Toksport, driving the car from Škoda Motorsport. Working with Toksport, I really have to say that they are a really professional team and somehow the support that we get from that is great.
“The team is great and it’s also really nice to finally give them the results this year because as much as it’s our victory it’s also the team’s victory.
“As for the future, I want to think positively! We will do our everything and then it’s up to the team managers to decide if we are enough or not.”
Your move, WRC teams.
But perhaps the greatest and most painful irony within all of this is had the FIA opted for the much-talked about Rally2+ formula as the basis of Rally1 (and theoretically guaranteed more top-line drives in the process), Lindholm and Hämäläinen would, actually, be in the best seats in the house.
Instead, they must wait. But there’s a steely determination within this crew that means that somehow, some day, you sense their names will be on the side window of a top-line car after all.
Let’s just hope, for everyone’s sake, it’s sooner rather than later.