It was a baptism of fire for 17-year-old Finn Sami Pajari, who took part in his very first Neste Rally Finland earlier this month after being elected AKK Flying Finn Future Star.
This is a special prize that gives the opportunity for a young Finnish driver to take part in his home World Rally Championship event with the backing of Finland’s famous motorsport federation. Pajari, co-driven by Antti Haapala, was entered into the highly-competitive Junior WRC category for up-and-coming stars of the sport.
Pajari, who is a member of the AKK's Flying Finn Academy Rally Coaching Group, certainly lived up to expectations, making a rapid start to go straight into the top six. By Saturday, he was fighting for the podium, but then disaster struck: his Ford Fiesta R2T inexplicably went off the road on SS16, sending him into a series of rolls. Unfortunately the car could not be repaired and he was forced into retirement for the remainder of the rally. However, Pajari certainly made a strong impression while he was running, setting two fastest stage times in the class – including one where he was fastest by more than 10 seconds.
Now that he’s had time to reflect on the experience, Pajari looks back at Rally Finland, what stood out for him, what he learned – and what it means now for the future.
What’s your conclusion from Rally Finland this year?
SP: “At the time I was obviously really disappointed to retire and I still feel disappointed about that now, but looking back on it all, there were many more positive things than negative things. I was able to show my speed, which was really important, and we were competitive with the other crews who have been doing the championship all year. But of course I wish we had finished all the stages, so I’m not happy about that. I’m happy about the rest though, definitely: it was an amazing experience.”
Did you find out anything more about what exactly caused your accident?
SP: “No, not yet, it was certainly a very strange thing. All of a sudden, the car just got away from me under braking. There was no warning or nothing strange about the place. The team confirmed to me afterwards that it looked like some sort of technical problem, and the people watching also said that the car suddenly went off for no obvious reason. I don’t think I did anything wrong, but we still don’t know for sure what happened. And not knowing is quite hard to take: I’d feel better if I knew I had definitely made a mistake.”
How comfortable did you feel in the car on your first experience of the Junior WRC?
SP: “I felt really comfortable straight away and I was able to push without taking any big risks. So I knew straight away that we could go well, but it was actually a real surprise to me that we could set the times that we did. I was very pleased and it’s also good news for the other drivers that I am competing against normally on the Finnish Rally Championship, because it shows that we are all at a high level in Finland and we can be fast compared to the top guys in the Junior WRC. So many thanks to everyone for the opportunity.”
Have you been doing much rallying since Rally Finland?
SP: “Actually no. I was meant to be doing a rally the weekend after Finland, but in the end the accident was a bit heavier than we thought, so my doctor said it was best if I rested a bit afterwards instead. Now I feel completely better, so my next rally is in two weeks: the next round of the Finnish Rally Championship.”
You’re second in your class on the Finnish Rally Championship at the moment, just one point behind the leader, as we approach the end of the season. Have you had any thoughts about next year yet?
SP: “My goal for next year is to do the Junior WRC full-time, and I hope the experience I have had just now thanks to the AKK Flying Finn Future Star programme can help me with this. I don’t know if I can achieve this goal, because it’s a big one and it’s quite expensive, but I am working towards this. Hopefully we can make it.”
Finally, what will be your highlight of this year’s Neste Rally Finland?
SP: “There are so many good memories that it’s hard to choose just one! But OK, if I have to pick one, it would be the first run through the Harju super special stage on Thursday night. It was such an exciting time: we had the whole rally ahead of us, and I was announced as the AKK Flying Finn Future Star to all the crowds as we started the stage before the World Rally Cars. I felt so proud and it was great to share that moment with so many people watching: I think I was shaking by the end of the stage!”
Photo: Aaro Nygård/AKK