While naturally the core attention of the rallying world is fixated on the World Rally Championship and its top class of cars and drivers, the Rally2 class is arguably where the most competitive – and sometimes entertaining – action can be found.
Whether it’s within the WRC itself, in the European Rally Championship or several other national series across the world, there have been plenty of star performers in Rally2 cars this season.
And just like we did in 2020, DirtFish has decided to rank the top 10 Rally2 drivers of 2021 – based on who has had the best season considering their circumstance, not necessarily who the best driver to be driving a Rally2 car this year was.
This is an entirely subjective list which means that some drivers, that you perhaps might expect to see in the ranks, have been omitted.
Some of the big names that miss out include Marco Bulacia who was under deliberation for a long time but hasn’t improved quite enough in the last year to warrant a spot on this competitive list, Efrén Llarena who was a superb second in the ERC and Jari Huttunen who topped this list 12 months ago.
Huttunen’s season has been impressive on paper with three WRC2 wins, but even he would be one of the first to admit that these were largely inherited rather than his own driving being the decisive factor.
Here though are the drivers who did make our top 10.
10 Nikolay Gryazin
Co-driver: Konstantin Aleksandrov
Car: Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, Ford Fiesta Rally2, Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo
Season highlight: Dominant Rally Liepāja win, raw pace
Nikolay Gryazin has genuinely spent nearly half of 2021’s weekends competing in a rally car. It’s a gripe many of his rivals often hold against him – that he benefits from absurd amounts of seat time. And maybe they have a point, but nobody can deny that Gryazin has been one of the quickest drivers at this level this year.
The issue is his results don’t necessarily show it. Gryazin’s reputation took a hit in 2020 with a trying season in Hyundai’s WRC2 stable, but the swagger was back once he’d strapped himself into a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
Oliver Solberg’s pace on the final day of Monte Carlo received great plaudits for example, but over that leg Gryazin was quicker. It’s just that he wasn’t on the one stage they were both in the overall top five.
He obliterated his opposition on both Rally Poland and Rally Liepāja too – winning the latter but cruelly being denied on the former due to a double puncture with just one spare wheel in the trunk.
His WRC2 was one of epic speed but frustrating lows, whether that was accidents or small mechanical mishaps. A mid-season car change to M-Sport really didn’t work and instead Gryazin found refuge in a Škoda to help deliver Movisport the WRC2 teams’ title.
All in all a strong season, but Gryazin is running out of years in this category. To make a step up, he needs to marry his blinding speed with far better consistency with Toksport in 2022.
9 Giandomenico Basso
Co-driver: Lorenzo Granai
Car: Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo
Season highlight: Italian champion
It’s not easy for a driver to steal a march in a national series as impressively dense as Italy’s, but that’s what Giandomenico Basso did in 2021. Having lost his crown to Andrea Crugnola in 2020, he duly snatched it back and then some this time around.
Back behind the wheel of a Škoda (albeit the first time in updated Rally2 evo guise) after a year in a VW last term, Basso’s season was a bit of a slow burner with third – second in Italian points with the unregistered Thierry Neuville winning – on the Ciocco Rally before just fifth on Sanremo when a puncture wrecked his victory bid.
But from the Targo Florio onwards, Basso’s class shone through. He took what perhaps many would consider an unpopular victory given it denied Craig Breen – there for the first time since losing co-driver Gareth Roberts on that event in 2012 – but Basso had a championship win and Targa Florio kickstarted it.
Retirement in San Marino was a kick in the teeth but a crushing win on Rally di Roma, also an ERC round, set the tone for what was to come. Third on Rally 1000 Miglia was followed by a key victory on the Vali Rally that ensured Basso of a fourth Italian title with one round to spare.
Given this was claimed against such strong opposition like outgoing champion Andrea Crugnola and an impressive Stefano Albertini, and that Basso is performing these heroics at 48 years old, 2021 will be recorded as one of Basso’s finest ever. And that’s some going for a driver who’s won two Intercontinental Rally Challenge titles as well as the ERC.
8 Matt Edwards
Co-driver: Darren Garrod
Car: Volkswagen Polo GTI R5
Season highlight: British champion
It’s not just the fact Matt Edwads won this year’s British title in a final round shoot-out against Osian Pryce that makes his season impressive. It’s firstly the fact he even had the chance, and then the historical value of it. Nobody had ever won three British Rally Championships – a series once filled with current WRC drivers – on the bounce until Edwards did this season.
A penalized fourth at the unorthodox opening round at Oulton Park race circuit wasn’t a glittering beginning but victory on the gravel of the Nicky Grist Stages was far more like it. However, his momentum was interrupted with an engine wiring loom glitch on the next round in Scotland.
After Rally Yorkshire Edwards was a hot title favorite though, dominating that event with a commanding 17.3-second stage win in the night through Dalby that he protected over the second leg.
But an uncharacteristic mistake on Mull undid that hard work. Edwards did well to keep his car running and his pace to catch back positions was record-breaking, but that error, coupled to another brush with the scenery on the Cambrian, launched Pryce into play and gave him a slim theoretical advantage on the finale in Ulster. Edwards had to win, Pryce just had to stop Edwards from winning.
For the first time Edwards had his back against the wall but he still prevailed to protect his British rallying crown. But it was his perseverance to keep going and not give up on both Mull and the Cambrian with an ailing car that truly won him this title. Plenty of others would’ve just parked up and then never had the chance to win the championship at the finale.
That final round battle could’ve gone either way, but Edwards was a deserving victor. Some may be surprised to see him feature so high on this list, but the pace he was on – 2m30s clear of the Irish locals on the Ulster in a field even Craig Breen struggled to beat – was as hot as you’ll find anywhere in comparable machinery.
Currently assessing his options, it would be fascinating to see what Edwards could do on a more international stage. His blend of raw pace and measured approach suggest he could do rather well.
7 Teemu Suninen
Co-driver: Mikko Markkula
Car: Ford Fiesta Rally2, Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, Hyundai i20 N Rally2
Season highlight: WRC2 win Rally Finland, career rebuild
An odd choice? Maybe, given Teemu Suninen’s 2021 will hardly go down as the most swashbuckling of his still young career. But if you consider where he is now compared to where he was at the start of the year, it’s justifiable to consider Suninen’s season (in a Rally2 car at least) a success.
While still at M-Sport, he adapted impressively to the step down to Rally2 machinery from the World Rally Car and was in the thick of the lead-fight until a small mistake put him down a bank.
He eventually wound back up in second and repeated that result in Portugal. Ypres was a low point as Suninen messed up his braking and overheated his Fiesta’s engine while leading, but this was the beginning of the restart as in the wake of the event the shock announcement came that Suninen didn’t want to be there anymore.
Finland was a big response. Of course it helped to be in his local forests and driving a fiercely competitive car in the Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, but Suninen rediscovered himself on that event and didn’t wilt under the considerable pressure. Had he not won there, he’d have looked like a fool.
And then came the Hyundai chance. Second (in a car compatriot Huttunen has struggled to make sing) in Spain was a far better result than Suninen’s given credit for and of course inadvertently led to his Monza chance in a World Rally Car. Put simply, Suninen’s two non-M-Sport Rally2 drives in 2021 have likely saved his career from spiralling down the plug hole.
6 Kajetan Kajetanowicz
Co-driver: Maciej Szczepaniak
Car: Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo
Season highlight: WRC3 title fight
You do kind of have to feel for Kajetan Kajetanowicz. Ever since moving into the WRC following his three standout ERC successes, he’s become a bit of a nearly-man. This season was yet another title shot earned, but ultimately missed.
If you wanted to be brutal you could argue that Kajetanowicz wilted and gave this one up. Jumping ahead of title rival Yohan Rossel on the season’s penultimate stage, all he had to do was stay there. But he didn’t.
Reality is a little different. Yes it’s galling to miss out on the last stage but Rossel was quicker than Kajetanowicz in Monza, he just had experienced a problem on the final day that had momentarily allowed Kajetanowicz to slip through.
And the rest of his season has been high quality. The mistakes that have punctuated previous campaigns were broadly erased (Sardinia aside) and he won close to half the rallies he entered. His major undoing in terms of the end goal was that he only beat title rival Rossel on the road twice – firstly in Croatia when he benefited from Rossel’s mistake and then in what was a very close finish in Portugal.
There can be no denying that 2021 was Kajetanowicz’s best in the WRC yet though, and although he would’ve been a slightly fortunate champion had he beaten Rossel, he deserves great credit for being the only driver to consistently stick with him this season.
5 Emil Lindholm
Co-driver: Mikael Korhonen, Reeta Hämäläinen
Car: Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo
Season highlight: Finnish title, cunning WRC3 Rally Spain victory
A coming of age season for Emil Lindholm who put together his first proper WRC campaign and finally scooped the Finnish title that had eluded him for so long.
Last year’s loss was particularly painful – the hood pins failing and launching the hood over Lindholm’s windshield which then led to him rolling out the rally when in prime position to grab it.
There were crashes again in 2021 – but they were reserved for the WRC on Arctic Rally Finland and Rally Estonia – but all in all this was a season where Lindholm hit the headlines for his pace rather than his misfortune.
His form in the second half of the season was particularly eye-catching. A run of two victories and a second place assured him of the Finnish title and was then backed up by two stellar WRC3 victories – one on the big one, Rally Finland, and the other on Rally Spain.
But actually, should we be crediting Reeta Hämäläinen instead, given she’s the one scooped 25 championship points for that success…?
Lindholm’s clever manipulation of the rules to enter Hämäläinen as the driver for Spain but indeed still do the driving himself was impressive (and justified given it highlighted an oversight in the WRC3 regulations) and naturally reaped rewards as it earned him even more PR than the victory alone would’ve given him.
If he can continue the form he has shown in 2021 into 2022, Lindholm could be a real danger-man next season – whatever his program may be.
4 Mads Østberg
Co-driver: Torstein Eriksen
Car: Citroën C3 Rally2
Season highlight: Fastest driver in WRC2
It would be incredibly remiss to label Mads Østberg’s WRC2 title defense as a failure, but can it be called a success given he didn’t manage to protect his crown? It’s highly improbable that Østberg would call his season a success, put it that way. But that wasn’t really down to him.
Østberg’s 2021 was dogged by far too many recurring mechanical problems which ultimately proved far too costly against such quality opposition. The strength of the WRC2 field went up a notch this year and in such company any mistake, mishap or problem certainly doesn’t go unpunished.
Things started swimmingly as Østberg opened up his campaign with victory in Croatia but from there it all got a bit frustrating. Particularly so on Rally Italy where he was pushed out of the lead with a brake problem, almost regained it after an impressive repair but then lost it again with a puncture – prompting a rather fiery tirade in a live TV interview.
The Acropolis was another galling one as he lost front-wheel-drive on the very first gravel stage and could only muster up eighth in class at the end of the event. Spain was cruel too as Østberg led – as he needed to do to deny Mikkelsen sealing the title that weekend – only to puncture and be restricted to fourth.
Of course looking at stage wins and using the figures to decisively conclude who the fastest driver was is misleading because often drivers don’t push flat out when they have a sizeable lead, but the fact Østberg’s name tops the chart in WRC2 this year is telling.
He didn’t drive badly, not one bit. Arguably he drove just as well if not better than last year, he was just let down by circumstances that were out of his control. The Hungarian title might’ve been some consolation but Østberg lost out on this too, despite victory on Rally Hungary that was also part of the ERC.
3 Esapekka Lappi
Co-driver: Janne Ferm
Car: Volkswagen Polo GTI R5
Season highlight: 100% WRC2 winning record, secured WRC future
Two starts, two wins. As copybooks go, you’ll be hard pushed to find a cleaner one. Esapekka Lappi’s 2021 WRC2 season was highly effective.
Lappi’s career is another one of those of great mysteries, as early promise seemed to evaporate after a particularly bruising 2019 that he struggled to ever recover from. But just like so many have done before him, Lappi dropped off the radar and regrouped in WRC2 to remind the rallying world just what he can do.
His Arctic Rally Finland victory was crushing to say the least. He won all but two of the stages to blow rival Andreas Mikkelsen – who don’t forget had dominated the previous round in Monaco – well and truly into the weeds. With Mikkelsen a tangible yardstick as a fellow WRC refugee, that was hugely important.
The Portuguese victory showed a different side to Lappi’s craft. His strong pace from the snow and ice remained, but it was more of a controlled drive where he used his head. Lappi in fact shared the lead after the first day with old team-mate Suninen but simply disappeared thereafter as the rest ran into strife.
A chance in a hired Toyota Yaris WRC for Rally Finland was just reward for his efforts, and Lappi didn’t waste that chance as he claimed fourth overall. He duly would be announced as a Toyota driver for next season in the following days.
Despite the brevity of it with just four rally starts, 2021 has to be considered one of Lappi’s best seasons. It’s just a shame we didn’t see more of him in WRC2 to see if he could’ve kept making occasional fools of his ex-WRC colleagues.
2 Andreas Mikkelsen
Co-driver: Ola Fløene, Jonas Andersson, Elliott Edmondson, Phil Hall
Car: Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo
Season highlight: WRC2 champion, ERC champion
It’s realistically impossible to achieve more in a Rally2 car than Andreas Mikkelsen did in 2021, but on the flip side nothing short of the WRC2 and ERC titles would’ve done for the three-time WRC winner who is determined to return to rallying’s top table.
As it stands, it looks as if Mikkelsen’s routes there are closed off which is a great shame as he can’t do much more to prove himself – even if he didn’t achieve his now famous and uneducated aim of “dominating” every single rally he entered in 2021.
There were some wobbles across the season – a mistake in Croatia and crash in Sardinia waylaid his WRC2 title assault (as did an unavoidable positive COVID-19 test which formed him to miss Portugal) while on some ERC rounds he was left wanting in terms of pace, particularly on Rally di Roma.
But from mid-season onwards Mikkelsen was in a groove and won three rallies (one WRC2, two ERC) on the bounce to set up the epic scenario of eventually claiming two titles in two weekends.
Which championship success was more impressive? Mikkelsen reckons it was the ERC as he didn’t have the same knowledge of the roads as plenty of his rivals, and it’s hard to construct a strong counter argument against that thesis. But given the ferocity and calibre of the WRC2 competition this year, that title has to rank just that little bit higher.
Mikkelsen had plenty to lose this year but emerged as a winner. The only reason he misses top spot here is outside expectation demanded he produced a season of this magnitude.
1 Yohan Rossel
Co-driver: Benoît Fulcrand, Alexandre Coria, Jacques-Julien Renucci, Valentin Sarreaud
Car: Citroën C3 Rally2
Season highlight: WRC3 champion
For the second year running, the WRC3 champion has come out on top of DirtFish’s ranking. But looking at Yohan Rossel’s form in 2020, not many were tipping him to be a star of the 2021 season.
And yet that’s exactly what he was, owning the WRC3 class and taking the championship win on the final stage of the final rally of the season. It’s impossible to not be deeply impressed by what Rossel has achieved this year – his position at the top of this list will doubtless come as little surprise to many.
Winner of Monte Carlo, Italy, Ypres and theoretically Acropolis (he was first before being disqualified for an overweight subframe that’s unlikely to have given him any sporting advantage) and on the podium on all of his starts despite the competitiveness of the series, Rossel has used his learning year of 2020 to put the hammer down in 2021.
But it’s not just what he’s won, it’s how he’s managed to do it. Things have just looked effortless for Rossel. Even when he made a mistake and rolled in Croatia he was composed and recovered to take
And particularly when he was overhauled by Kajetanowicz on the penultimate stage at Monza and needed to beat him to secure a title he could’ve had before the rally had he won his disqualification appeal, deep down you just knew Rossel was coming out on top of that battle.
Victory on Spa Rally in the ultra-competitive Belgian championship capped off what has been a truly remarkable season that vaulted Rossel’s name well and truly onto the rallying map. What else can we say other than Rossel’s expected WRC2 campaign in 2022 will surely be scintillating to watch.