Game over. The #80 Ford Fiesta R2T had made its way into a tree, damaging its front end severely enough to force retirement and return under Rally2 the following day. Second place on debut had slipped from the clutches of its all-Finnish crew.
Far from being finished, this is only the beginning of a journey into high-profile rallying for its pilot, Emil Lindholm. The soon-to-be 21 year old was making his first appearance in the Junior WRC in Rally Poland, but despite an excellent turn of pace, four points were his only reward.
“Looking back at that weekend, of course we’re disappointed because I could have finished third,” he lamented. “It would have been a nice finish for the first JWRC event and also you to get some points for the rest of the season. It’s good to see though that my pace is there, and when I was at my best I even managed a stage win.”
With drivers racing for themselves in Fiestas identically prepared by M-Sport, rather than for a team with a bigger goal, the competitors in JWRC have no pressure of racing for a bigger cause than their own. That lack of secondary objective doesn’t necessarily relieve the pressure on the drivers, as Lindholm explains.
“There is a system where a pair of two rallies determine if you win a prize drive for R5 [WRC2] next year. I think for my part now it’s almost impossible to win the prize, but if I’d have finished 3rd in Poland I would have totally been able to compete for it in Jyväskylä. It would have been a really great opportunity, as a free prize drive for two WRC events with an R5 car is worth an awful lot of money, so would have helped in respect to finding money for next year.”
Preparation for one’s home round is a methodical exercise for drivers aspiring to turn professional, taking advantage of any extra competitive running they can squeeze into their schedule. To this end, Lindholm is warming-up for the big event with a practise run at the non-championship Autoglym Ralli, based in the southwest of Finland. Two of his primary JWRC rivals, Nil Solans and Dennis Rådström, will also be in attendance, but he is alert to simply getting as much practice as possible, rather than be distracted by the allure of positional combat.
“Of course it would be good to have a mental upper hand on them,” he said. “However, Rally Poland was my first rally on gravel and I need the kilometres, so I think we’ll try to be conservative. Of course we’ll be driving at, let’s say a pace that should be competitive, but I’d definitely want to win, that’s for sure. I always want to win of course.”
[quote align=’right’]I’d definitely want to win, that’s for sure. I always want to win.[/quote]
There is an old adage in motorsport; ‘If you want to win, hire a Finn’, it goes. This has rung especially true in Rally Finland, with home advantage stronger here than anywhere else on the calendar. The white and blue flag on the rear passenger windows of the Fiesta might suggest home advantage, but Lindholm was quick to point out that his Southern European rivals held all the cards in this respect.
“This is my first time in Jyväskylä in the Finnish WRC round. Compared to Solans or Terry Folb, they’ve done the rally twice already, so they might have a head start on me. I feel the roads and the conditions are maybe more suitable for me. I wouldn’t say I have an advantage compared to the others, but I hope I’ll be in a better position than at Rally Poland.
“You have to bear in mind that Rally Poland was my first rally on gravel – at least my first rally with pace-notes on gravel – so I’m still kind of a rookie in that aspect. Despite the fact I’ve now done Rally Poland, Jyväskylä’s roads are quite unique.”
It has been a rather unusual journey to the international feeder category where many of the current WRC field once plied their trade. His countrymen will usually plug away at a full Ralli-SM schedule, working their way up the classes until breaking into the international level. By comparison, Lindolm’s career went south – in a literal sense – by heading for the paved roads of Germany to learn his craft.
His rally career started in earnest with the ADAC Opel Rallye Cup, but to this day he continues to split his time between Finland and Germany, piloting a Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in the ADAC GT Masters, paired with native driver Jonathan Judek. At present his schedule is split close to 50/50 between the two disciplines, a situation he was forced to admit may not be viable in the long term.
“I think at some point in the future I’ll have to choose one, and I wouldn’t want to say either way,” he said diplomatically. A long contemplative pause followed. “At this point I believe it will be rally. The reason I’ve kept on doing them both is that they support each other, especially as racing supports rallying. On the racetrack you learn to really drive the car at its limit, you learn the perfect racing line. These are small details that you cannot learn in the same accurate way on a rally course or a road, so I think speed-wise it always has been and always will be a good thing for me to continue racing.”
With Finns known for their gravel prowess, his CV presents an almost unthinkable scenario of a Scandinavian more adept on sealed surface events than on the fast flowing gravel stages considered their expert terrain. Lindholm was quick to point out that paved rally stages were a completely different beast to the smooth, high grip tarmac he experiences at circuits like the Nürburgring and Hockenheim.
“I’ve already done one complete season in Germany on tarmac [in the ADAC Opel Rallye Cup] , so already back then I could see that there are similarities, but the car and especially the rally tarmac tyres are so immensely different from racing slicks. Some things are similar but the driving is much more aggressive, much more like driving on gravel than on tarmac. I wouldn’t say that it’s a huge advantage but there’s some small things.”
While his path to the international rallying scene has been far from conventional, those in the hot-seat alongside him have been a valuable influence. Rather than relying on a single co-driver from year-to-year, he has been lucky enough to be partnered with several of Finland’s most experienced co-drivers both in the past and presently, including several who sat beside Emil’s father Sebastian Lindholm, who was once a factory Peugeot driver in Finland’s national championship.
“Last year I was rallying with Timo Hantunen, who is maybe the most experienced co-driver in Finland. He maybe the most experienced co-driver in the world! Rumour has it he’s close to 70 years old,” he joked enthusiastically. “He’s really one of the best co-drivers, and he also knows a lot about driving, so that’s why last year when I did my first Ralli-SM events, I did them with him, because of the help he could offer.”
His current co-driver is Tomi Tuominen, who has top level WRC experience with Juho Hänninen and Toni Gardemeister, and he was quick to compliment the skill he brought to the recently formed partnership, specifically in relation to his JWRC debut in Poland a fortnight ago.
“Now as I’ve gotten more experienced, we chose the co-driver that my father also rallied with in his last active years, because he’s a really good guy and he really knows how to read pace-notes. Unfortunately Tomi is also commentating on Formula 1, and Silverstone is this weekend so he unfortunately has to do some real work!”
[quote cite=’Lindholm accepts his co-driver Tomi Tuominen can’t do everything for him.’ align=’left’]He’s a real asset, but of course I have to do the driving myself![/quote]
“He has experience from before in Rally Poland. He knew well ahead that the roads would be in really bad shape, and we spoke about it and how to manage these conditions. He can offer me a lot of experience, so I don’t need to learn everything by myself, so it saves me time, it saves years for me!
“I think the most valuable thing from Tomi is that he’s absolutely fantastic in reading pace-notes. He’s really good at understanding what the driver wants and when the driver wants it. He’s a real asset, but of course I have to do the driving myself!”
The surname is a talking point of its own. Many drivers in all forms of racing point to mixed feelings about the baggage a famous surname can bring, and given his father’s rallying success at a national level, it has been a continued talking point. The younger Lindholm has clearly fielded similar questions in the past, but was keen to stress the positives his family ties bring to his rallying career.
“I find it funny that it always comes up. I mean it’s natural, but it always comes up when there’s a discussion about me. I think because he’s got 30 years of experience within motorsport and he’s got contacts – he knows how things are run in motorsport – it’s a huge advantage for me. He helps me out a lot with financing and all arrangements so there’s definitely nothing largely negative with it.”
Given that when away from the international scene he pilots a Peugeot 208, it would be easy to assume this choice was no coincidence, but Lindholm was keen to stress his father’s past career choices had no bearing on his own choices in the present day.
“I think it’s more or less a coincidence without a doubt,” he said when asked if there was more to it than meets the eye. “Last year we also were with the Peugeot, and that was basically because a familiar team to us had a Peugeot R2 available. I really like that car and as a matter of fact we’ve also got some contacts with Peugeot, so it’s been easy to co-operate with them and get help with the car and such things, but it’s not the only reason we drive a Peugeot.”
While the present day is focused around the R2 category, the future is aimed squarely at the highest echelons of rallying. The initial signs are good, having scooped the Future Star of Finland award this year, whose very first recipient Teemu Suninen made his WRC debut in Poland, at the same time as Lindholm make his first JWRC appearance. The first step to get there is the R5 class, the same cars used in the WRC2 support championship.
“The long term objective is to be a works WRC driver. I feel for next year we will try to probably rally in the Finnish Championship with an R5, so stepping up the game and get some experience of four wheel drive cars. Besides that I would hope to do one or two rallies with an R5 at some international level – so for instance Rally Finland – but it’s too early to know or be definite about anything.”
This year’s Rally Finland will be at the wheel of the same Fiesta R2T he piloted in Poland, a prize drive from AKK Sports earned from his Future Star award.
“My target in Poland was to finish the rally without issues and that didn’t happen, so we will again keep that as the first target. I think as it is my home event, I would also hope to be competitive. It’s difficult to say where I’ll end up in the classification, but I think Rally Poland showed I can finish on the podium.
“I hope to finish on the podium and also take some stage wins, and get some points on the board.”
While Poland didn’t go to plan for Lindholm, the board has been reset for Finland. Game on.