The 2021 FIA Junior World Rally Championship kicks off on this week’s WRC Rally Croatia with 8 crews battling head to head to be crowned champion in the category’s twentieth year.
This anniversary year also looks set to be one of the most competitive with all drivers having already proved themselves victorious in the Rally4 spec Ford Fiesta around the world on a range of surfaces.
Each crew will compete in M-Sport Poland built Fiesta Rally4s, making sure that the emphasis is on driver talent rather than solely on set-up ability alone. For every stage that crews complete, they will earn an extra championship point to added to their end of rally score. This could prove to be vital come the end of the season, with only four out of five rounds counting towards each driver’s championship total. If three or more rounds have been entered by a crew prior to the final event of the season, double points will be available on the final rally.
Tyre selection will also keep crews on their toes throughout the season, with a maximum allowance of 22 Pirelli tyres permitted per rally, including shakedown. Crews can choose these 22 tyres from an allocation of 18 Pirelli RA5 (hard), 10 Pirelli RA7+ (soft) and 8 Pirelli RWB (wet).
Speaking ahead of the opening event of the season, championship manager Maciej Woda was excited for what he expects to be a hugely unpredictable season.
“We are starting a very special year for the FIA Junior WRC Championship with a hotly contested lineup, there really is no clear favourite for Croatia Rally or even the championship overall. Six out of eight of our starting lineup have previously scored points in Junior WRC with five of those drivers also having stage wins to their names too.
“Those that haven’t scored points in Junior WRC shouldn’t be ruled out by any means either. All the drivers coming into the championship this year have proved themselves successful in various international and national Rally4 championships. Looking more specifically at Croatia Rally, I actually wish I was behind the wheel for some of these stages.
“They look properly challenging and I think we’re going to see some really tight battles and close moments on more than one of them with our highly motivated and competitive drivers! I’d like to give a final mention and appreciation to WRC Promoter, FIA and Croatia Rally organisers for putting the event on, I know a lot of hard work has gone on and is going on to make sure Croatia Rally happens.”
The drivers were also asked their thoughts as they embark on what is looking like a hugely entertaining year. These can be found below.
Martins Sesks & Renars Francis (Car no. 45)
The entry list is headed by 2020 runner up Martin Sesks, who will be competing in his third FIA Junior World Rally Championship season. The Latvian scored his first win in Estonia last year and finish on the podium on three of the four events in 2020. This year marks the final year of a three year plan for the youngster, with the main aim to take home the title.
“The main aim is to enjoy every single second in the car because these kinds of moments are very difficult to find for young drivers. Even if we are able to compete in the rally, we should enjoy every moment. We want to show we are some of the fastest guys in Juniors and a big goal is to be able to progress to WRC2 and WRC in the future. I think a new rally like Croatia equalises the competition so it will be interesting to see what happens.”
Sami Pajari & Marko Salminen (Car no. 46)
Making his JWRC debut at just 17 on the 2019 Rally Finland, Sami finished third in last years championship and took home the Rookie Award. A strong start to 2021 in his homeland of Finland wining two events sees the youngster full of confidence ahead of the new season.
“I think we did a really good job in the pre-event test, we found a really good setup for the car and I felt very comfortable. Our pace notes were working very well, and I am really looking forward to the season. We did well in some places last year, so we need to look forward and try to improve this year. I am aiming to push myself to the limits and we will see what happens.”
Raul Badiu & Rares Fetean – (Car no. 47)
The Romanian enters his final season in the JWRC, looking to put together a more consistent season after a 2020 entry that was, like for many, interrupted by the global pandemic.
“If you look back at the calendar, I am in my third year but when you look at the events I have only done seven WRC rounds. It’s my last my year to be eligible for Junior WRC so I think it’s the right time to put my experience into the stages and start collecting results, not only experience. It’s very tough competition, the calendar isn’t looking so bad for us this year though. We are fighting a lot of Scandinavian and Baltic drivers who are very fast on their own territory and have previously had more rounds that they were favourites on. This year we have three asphalt rallies and I think I am more experienced on asphalt than gravel.”
Martin Koci & Petr Tesisnky – (Car no. 48)
With the most experience of anyone in the JWRC, Koci returns having been competing in the championship dating back to 2012 ad has started 19 events. Finishing third in 2014 and second in 2016, he will be looking to go that one step higher in 2021.
“To be in the WRC is the dream and the target, I’m not the youngest, but Junior WRC is the best way to get into the WRC and start the ladder. I am super happy to be here, I know my mission, the competition is high but I’m happy about that and coming in with a lot of respect for everybody. Normally I don’t like saying I am coming to win, but of course, we want to do as well as possible while enjoying and learning from mistakes in previous years.”
Jon Armstrong / Phil Hall – (Car no. 49)
One of the most experienced JWRC drivers returns after a huge crash in Sweden last year ended his season early. The 2018 WRC eSports champion will be looking to show the pace that earned him a top 10 finish in WRC in Spain 2017.
“It’s great to be back here, it feels like yesterday that we were in Sweden in 2020 having the same training day. I’m really looking forward to getting into recce, they look like great stages here in Croatia and I think recce is going to be crucial to having a good result in the rally. I can’t wait to get back in a rally car either as I haven’t had too much testing with the Fiesta Rally4 which is something I will need to get used to.”
William Creighton & Liam Regan – (Car no. 50)
In complete contrast, William Creighton has no JWRC starts to his name and will make his full international debut. This will be his first full campaign outside of national championships in the UK and his native Ireland.
“It’s been a really good experience so far, I’m trying to take in as much as I can. This year is going to be about learning so soaking up as much as I can about what it’s like to be in a WRC Rally. I haven’t set myself any expectations in terms of specific events because I think as soon as you do that, and you don’t reach them you’ve got a problem.”
Lauri Joona & Ari Koponen – (Car no. 51)
Having a similar debut tale to Virves, Lauri Joona returns after making his JWRC debut in Sweden last year. Lying third overall until a puncture on the final stage ended his podium dream. Having won the junior title in Finland, he returns with the Flying Finn Future Star Award under his belt.
“I expect a good season and my experience of Rally Sweden is not enough to give me an idea on how the rest of the year will go. I think it’s good for that there are three asphalt rallies which is very difficult, but it helps with my learning. Nobody has experience of this rally, which is good for all, for asphalt need to make sure I’m sensible though. I know how the team works which helps, I need to get more details for sure which will help me be more competitive on asphalt.”
Robert Virves & Sander Pruul – (Car no. 52)
Estonia’s Robert Virves returns after a one off entry last year on his home event thanks to a crowd-funding campaign. Leading the event until a puncture on the final day denied him victory, Virves could be a wildcard for this year’s championship.
“It’s nice to be here and nobody is here this year to get second place, I am here looking to win. The experience on asphalt for me isn’t high, we did two asphalt rallies in Italy as preparation which is all of my asphalt experience. Croatia doesn’t look like an easy rally and it will be a challenging, really fast and demanding rally.”