First, second, first, first, first, second, first. That’s some 2020 formbook to boast, but whose might it be? Ott Tänak? Not quite. Sébastien Ogier? Have another go. The resurgent Elfyn Evans? Nope.
Try Jari Huttunen. The same Jari Huttunen that looked set to be Hyundai’s next World Rally Championship star a couple of years ago before drifting into the wilderness. The same Jari Huttunen that looked to have squandered his chance after brilliantly seeing off a cast of drivers more fancied than him in 2017 for a place in the Hyundai Motorsport Driver Development Program (HMDP) the following year.
As reputation rebuilds go, this one has been emphatic. But nobody should really be surprised because in truth, Huttunen has always had this in him, it just hasn’t all clicked together up until now.
The Finn’s junior career speaks for itself. Winning the ultra-competitive Opel Adam Cup in Germany in 2016 first brought him into the spotlight, and a superb campaign in the European Rally Championship Junior U27 for Opel further raised his profile. Had he not picked up a double puncture on the season-concluding Rally Liepaja, he could have beaten team-mate Chris Ingram to the title; a man with more ERC experience than him.
He also shocked everyone that year when he rocked up to his native Rally Finland and won the WRC2 class on his debut, beating far more experienced names like Eric Camilli. It was all this and more that convinced Hyundai to choose him for its WRC2 seat in 2018 over the likes of Kalle Rovanperä, Pierre-Louis Loubet and Gus Greensmith – all now in the WRC.
But that 2018 season in the i20 R5 didn’t live up to the hype. A foray back to the ERC for Rally Poland yielded second spot, as did Rally Finland, but the rest of the year was sub-par. For whatever reason, he wouldn’t finish higher than fourth on another event and blended into the background rather than reshaping the foreground like his talent had promised.
The HMDP prize was only ever meant to be a one-year deal, so Huttunen was off to forge his own path for 2019. Starting, and then crashing, on Rally Sweden in the Škoda that brought him that Finland victory a couple years before wasn’t exactly what the doctor ordered. It looked like Huttunen had simply lost it.
But he never completely lost his relationship with Hyundai Motorsport, and thus the rebuild process began to take shape.
Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing Operations leader Andrew Johns tells DirtFish: “Hyundai recognized there was a talent there which is why he won HMDP in the first place.
“There was an interest from Hyundai Motorsport’s side to continue support in a non-official capacity during 2019 to help him, including two events in a WRC car.”
Those followed an outing in the British Rally Championship – where he finished third – and fell either side of a WRC2 return with Hyundai which was fairly eventful for all the wrong reasons.
The i20 Coupe WRC outings on two Finnish national rallies netted a second to Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta and a first place, and it’s since that win on Pohjanmaa Ralli last June his form has been simply sensational.
Antti Linnaketo stepped aside for Mikko Lukka in the co-driver’s seat, and in their 11 rallies together, the pair have bagged 10 podiums, which is simply sensational. And what makes that even more impressive is the range of rallies, surfaces and championships they’ve been accumulated on.
Johns reckons Huttunen’s relationship with Kowax 2Brally Team – with which he has won two out of two in the Polish Rally Championship this year – has been key but is quick to credit the 26-year-old for a new found assurance behind the wheel.
“From the outside looking in, the Polish championship campaign of Jari’s this year may appear a little bit random: how’s a Finn arrived in Poland to make the national championship?” Johns says.
“Basically last year, Jari and Mikko on their first event together actually, made Rally Poland with a team called Kowax 2Brally Team, which is a Polish and Czech collaboration, and from there they hit it off, there was a really good vibe between the team, Jari and Mikko.
“That was to be a one-off event but from there the program expanded to two more rallies: Rally Finland and Rajd Barbórka. At the end of last year the team said ‘look, we love working with Jari, we see him as a talent, we want to help him and he can help us promote our team in Poland in the Polish championship’.
“A program was therefore made between Kowax 2Brally Team and Jari and there was also some support from Hyundai Poland to make the full Polish championship but as we know COVID-19 changed calendars.
“The Polish series was reduced to four rounds which freed up budget to be able to make the likes of Sweden, Estonia and next will be Sardinia in WRC3.”
That WRC3 campaign is the obvious pick of the bunch when pinpointing standout results given Huttunen won Sweden and was second on Rally Estonia, leaving him second in the standings.
But actually, there have been some even more distinguished performances if you dig a little deeper. Huttunen’s pace on asphalt for example has been something of a revelation in 2020. Both Polish rounds he won have been on the black stuff, he almost beat seven-time Czech champion Jan Kopecký in his homeland where he’s considered to be almost untouchable, and he split Craig Breen and Dani Sordo on Rally di Alba.
Finishing as the highest Hyundai i20 R5 on both South Estonia Rally and Rally Estonia was a clear statement too. Johns admits Huttunen’s recent performances have “heightened” the attention of Hyundai Motorsport.
“He got the opportunity to drive at Rally di Alba where he had quite an amazing result and at South Estonia Rally so the season has been quite a patchwork quilt I suppose but it does make sense with Kowax 2Brally Team and the fact they got on like a house on fire,” Johns explains.
“Jari can be quite a quiet character but the Polish guys have really started to bring him out of his shell, they’ve struck up a strong bond and from there I think they’ve made a really nice season so far.
“Despite the randomness of rallies in Poland, Sweden, Estonia etc, all this can do is broaden a driver, a crew and a team’s experience in a good way which is what we’re seeing. We’re seeing a very versatile driver, crew and team come to the fore now.”
Johns says that he can recognize the 2018 season wasn’t what Jari had wanted from himself, but reckons that experience, mixed with an uncertain program that developed rally-by-rally last year, has helped unleash Huttunen’s best form to date in 2020.
“I think we’ve seen probably a set of circumstances over the 2018/19 season lead to let’s say a different type of focus for Jari. One that is operating at a much, much higher level than we’ve seen before, an increased amount of professionalism and he’s really got the bit between his teeth at the moment.
“And I think during his career he’s on the highest part of it now so far and he’s actually thriving. I don’t think he’s feeling the pressure, he’s responding very, very well as we’ve seen with the results this year especially.”
Huttunen himself however is typically understated when DirtFish puts it to him that he’s had a sublime 2020 season so far.
“Actually my driving feels like normally but OK I’m happy about this year because we’re driving without any big mistakes all year,” he says.
“I have still many rallies to do and I hope I can drive still without those mistakes but the car feels so good now so maybe that’s why it’s going well.
“Mikko helps and our team Kowax 2Brally Team, they’re both working so hard so it’s a nice feeling to drive. I think when you have good feeling then you can make good results,” he adds.
“I think always you have to improve something. I always try to drive better. Maybe with Mikko we can improve a little bit my driving on Tarmac, I think it’s nice because he tells me also what he feels and we can speak together and I think that helps a little bit.
“And like I say I think the team working so hard they make the car how I like it. The car is now quite good on my driving style.”
So what does the future hold for Huttunen? Could he officially be welcomed back into the Hyundai Motorsport family?
“I think I can speak for the company here and say the door has always been open for Jari as it is for others names as well,” says Johns.
“In this competitive world doors can start to slightly close but I think in Jari’s case this year the door’s been flung wide open as a result of the results. What we’re seeing are the qualities you want from a talent that you want to move forward.
“We’re seeing a guy that can go to it seems any rally, any time, Tarmac, gravel, and put in a really top, top level performance and be competitive from the get-go even with little experience of a rally or a set of conditions and circumstances.”
There are definite shades of Tänak and M-Sport to this story in terms of drifting away from a team and then emphatically clawing back in and making amends. And we all know how that panned out in the end.