After 5 stages of non-stop drama, Joona Pankkonen was crowned the DWS Rally champion for the second year in a row.
Not long after the end of the RX finals, the rally finalists were thrown straight into free practice. The drivers would visit five different locations from around the globe and would experience five different surfaces; Germany (Tarmac), Sweden (Snow), Argentina (Heavy Gravel), Monte Carlo (Ice), and finally Australia (Gravel). The car of choice would be the Volkswagen Polo GTi R5. Six different nationalities were represented; Finland, Sweden, Costa Rica, France, UK, and Czech Republic. Free practice was the first time that the drivers knew what stages they would be driving, but the weather conditions would not be known until the start of the real stage. Free practice showed Pankkonen to be in control, with Dave Marshall looking comfortable around Monte Carlo in particular.
Your six finalists were; Joona Pankkonen (SDL_JoonaP), Robin Jonsson (xVZombieSlayaaVx), Jose Mario Araya Rodríguez (SDL_JoseCR), Lukáš Matěja (ERT_CRsedmicky), Dave Marshall (D M Racing 66), and Paul Beghin (PauloFRFG).
Before the finals got underway, I spoke briefly with Jose: “To be honest, the rig is very different to my home setup. I’m finding it a bit tricky to adjust to the smoothness of the Thrustmaster wheel, but it feels amazing to be here and I can’t wait to get driving“.
The format of the finals was then revealed. The first four stages were all about cumulative time. The top three drivers in cumulative would advance to the grand final for a one-stage shootout to decide who would be crowned champion. The drivers would do the stage one-by-one, adding to the pressure but also adding to the spectacle for a packed out arena at Autosport.
Stage one was around the Oberstein stage in Germany. The drivers were incredibly evenly matched but it would be Pankkonen to take first blood ahead of Marshall, who pulled off an incredible save to keep him in contention, and Jonsson. Paul Beghin was given a ten-second penalty for corner cutting, dropping him down the order.
Stage two saw a total change of scenery for the drivers. It was the Algsjon stage in Sweden. Totally different conditions for the drivers. This stage was incredibly hard fought with Pankkonen, Marshall, and Jonsson seperated by just half a second throughout the stage. At the end, it was Pankkonen who just held on to take a second stage win ahead of Jonnson who managed to pip Marshall by just 0.020 of a second across the line. Marshall spoke to Andrew Coley afterwards: “I’m so happy to get Sweden done. If you make a mistake in one corner, it totally ruins your chances, but i’m happy to only be half a second off!“
Stage three brought the drivers to Argentina, arguably the location with the toughest stages in the game. The drivers were facing the formidable “Las Juntas” stage in sunset conditions. It was not a good stage for overall leader Pankkonen who suffered a small accident mid way through the stage which cost him a chunk of time. Robin Jonsson held on to take his first stage win by a comfortable four second margin over Matěja, with Pankkonen managing to recover to third but trailed by five seconds on the stage.
The provisional standings at the end of stage three but Jonsson at the top with Pankkonen three seconds adrift in second, and Marshall and Matěja separated by just 0.8 of a second for third place. It was time for stage four.
Stage four brought the drivers back to Monte Carlo and the Pra d’Alert stage, a mix of tarmac and ice where tyre choice was crucial. Marshall carried his form from free practice through to take a popular stage by a second over Pankkonen with Matěja coming home in third. Marshall’s stage win meant he qualified for the grand final alongside Pankkonen and Jonsson, the previous champion and runner-up!
It all came down to the final stage in Australia. Whoever set the fastest time would be crowned the champion. It would be Marshall to go first, followed by Pankkonen and Jonsson.
Marshall took the stage and looked to be flying, until disaster struck as the Brit’s car was pitched into a roll and into the fence. Luckily he managed to keep the car going and brought it to the end of the stage, but it was all said and done for Marshall.
Next up was the reigning world champion, Joona Pankkonen. He was incredibly fired up as he launched into the stage. The Finn was flying and was on for a blistering time, until a tiny mistake saw him run wide into the fence, clearly costing him time. He crossed the line to set a 3:14.619. An incredibly emotional Pankkonen spoke to Andrew Coley afterwards;
It all came down to Robin Jonsson. All Jonsson had to do was drive a clean stage and he would become the DWS Rally champion. The tension in the room was palpable as Jonsson went for it. Pankkonen could be seen standing with his head in his hands, barely able to watch.
The Swede did his job, but the time was still not enough to eclipse Joona Pankkonen, who was crowned the world champion! The Finn was overcome with emotion as he claimed his second world title:
I managed to grab Joona afterwards: “Argentina was not good for me. I’m not sure if it was mentioned on the broadcast, but my handbrake was actually stuck on by about 10% which meant the car was almost undriveable. I was lucky that it didn’t end my chances completely. But i cannot believe that i’m world champion again. I have an amazing team behind me and it’s awesome that SDL have won Rally and RX. Can’t believe it!“
Of course, this brings an end to the DiRT Esports for another year. With another Esports set to be announced soon, keep an eye here for when the official announcement comes out!