Defending the Junior World Rally Championship title has seldom been done. In fact, it’s only been done twice before – by Per-Gunnar Andersson in 2005 and Patrik Sandell in 2007.
So why would Sami Pajari – Finland’s first Junior World Rally champion and the youngest ever winner at a shave under 20 years old when he claimed it last year – decide to go again in 2022?
It’s fair to say it initially caught many by surprise – including this writer – when we all learned of Pajari’s plans. Normally when you win a title like Junior WRC the logical thing to do is move up to a different championship, not defend the same feeder series crown.
“That’s quite a good question because a lot of people are looking at only the name of the championship and thinking ‘OK it’s the same thing, why would he do that?'” Pajari tells DirtFish.
But there’s strong logic behind Pajari’s decision; method in the madness. In fact, when you give it some more thought, it would actually be madness for Pajari not to recommit to Junior WRC.
This isn’t a season like any other that’s gone before it as, for the first time, the championship has shifted from front to four-wheel-drive; from Ford Fiesta Rally4 to Fiesta Rally3.
“It’s quite a big change from last year to this year in the Junior championship as now we are having the four-wheel-drive cars,” adds Pajari.
“So for me, I think it’s quite a logical step forward still to jump from Rally4 to now the Rally3.
“I think for us this was the correct thing to do.”
Pajari had a choice after winning the title in Spain last October. He could’ve got his hands on a brand-new Fiesta Rally2 and competed in WRC2 or take the less powerful Rally3 for use in WRC3.
It’s naturally tempting to go for the more capable car, but in spending a season in the Rally3 – a class designed to better bridge the gap between Rally2 and Rally4 – Pajari can adapt to four-wheel-drive in a calmer environment.
And there’s nothing in the regulations preventing a driver from re-entering Junior WRC and therefore being eligible for the prizes once more, so Pajari could even snare a second free car in the Rally2 for 2023 too.
“Well it would sound nice if I can do that!” he says. “But for us, it was not an easy choice to make. For a long time we were looking at the Rally2 prize but then after we made some calculations and so on – and we were also asking some let’s say smarter people than us to be sure that we are doing the correct thing.
“I think it was the correct choice and so far I really think it was the correct thing. OK, someone could say it’s maybe a bit boring if you can choose the Rally2 and then you are only taking the Rally3, but at least for me, it’s still a really nice thing to drive in the Rally3.
“So I’m looking forward to the start of the Junior WRC.”
It’s not so easy to come for the first time there and beat these guys so I think in every aspect you should be so 100% ready to make the step into WRC2Sami Pajari
It’s a smart move. Perhaps if he was an older driver Pajari wouldn’t have had the same luxury of time on his side to enable him to spend another year at a lower level, but he’ll still be 20 years old by the time the WRC season ends.
And if we’re honest, Junior WRC champions have struggled to make their mark when they’ve jumped up into the lion’s den that is WRC2.
2018 champion Emil Bergkvist perhaps made the best account for himself by finishing second in class – and 10th overall – on Rally Portugal 2019, but his program was limited to just two appearances. Neither Nil Solans, Jan Solans nor Tom Kristensson really captured the attention they needed to when stepping up to R5 or Rally2.
Pajari should hopefully avoid that problem by giving himself that base learning of four-wheel-drive in the Rally3 car in 2022.
“Yeah exactly, that’s the way of thinking we have. I think in Rally2 or WRC2 category nowadays we have a lot of good drivers, a lot of ex-World Rally Championship event winners who are doing some rallies in WRC2 so the level of competition is really high.
“It’s not so easy to come for the first time there and beat these guys so I think in every aspect you should be so 100% ready to make the step into WRC2.
“I think now we have more time and I will do more rallies so I get more experience, and we try at the same time to make some rallies or maybe some testing with the Rally2 already this year. Maybe next year we will be more ready to make the step into WRC2.”
Pajari’s 2022 season won’t exclusively be in Junior WRC. That may currently be his focus as the competition kicks off on this week’s Rally Sweden, but he’s already done the Monte Carlo Rally this year – and won it – as he dovetails a WRC3 campaign too.
Learning a new car, a new event and a new co-driver in Enni Mälkönen, Pajari describes his Monte experience as “a good boost for me” as he was able to edge his competition but more importantly learn the rally’s famously unique conditions and the stages in general.
“To get the experience from Rally Monte Carlo for the future, for me it was a really important thing,” he says.
And that’s another part of Pajari’s well-thought-out plan. Junior WRC will take him to Croatia, Portugal, Estonia and Greece beyond Sweden but Pajari is “really having an eye on the rest of the European rounds in the championship”.
Winning the Junior WRC title remains a top priority and the WRC3 crown would be a handy bonus, but it’s all part of the wider objective to become World Rally champion one day. And to do that, he needs to get to know the rallies.
“Like we have seen also on the really top level, if someone is doing some rally for the first time and some of the drivers have done it many times it’s not so easy to fight with the ones who have the experience already, so that’s one thing for sure,” Pajari says.
“I think in terms of the plan it will be quite an exciting year for me and also for the people who follow me – I hope it will be a nice year again!
“But for sure we are doing everything we can to get more ready for the World Rally Championship.”
“So far already we did one rally in Finland, one round of the Finnish Rally Championship, with the Fiesta R5 so that was already one thing to get some experience of the R5 for the Rally2 car.
“I think there is also quite a bit of a challenge in the Junior WRC. We know that there will be many good drivers like there was also last year so for sure it will not be an easy year I think.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for Pajari to make when mapping out his 2022 program either, but sometimes a sideways move actually has bigger future potential than a big leap forwards.
There’s absolutely no way a year of vital learning and a potential second Junior World Rally Championship title can harm Pajari’s career, is there?
The future of Finnish rallying looks to be in very safe hands indeed.