The 2020 FIA Junior WRC Championship gets underway at this weekend’s Rally Sweden – with 16 of the sport’s most promising young talents going head-to-head for one of the biggest prizes in motorsport. Since the junior series as we know it first started, only the 2011 FIA WRC Academy can boast more entries and it goes without saying that this year’s championship is expected to be extremely close-fought.
Taking to the wheel of identical EcoBoost-powered Ford Fiesta R2T19s equipped with Pirelli’s Sottozero ICE tyres, it all gets underway this weekend with the youngsters keen to showcase their skills on the FIA World Rally Championship’s only true winter rally.
Due to unseasonably mild weather impacting the rally route, a reduced schedule will see the crews tackle 180 competitive kilometres across 11 stages in Sweden and neighbouring Norway – and it has never been more important to be quick out of the box!
And with the potential for a relatively thin layer of ice, the crews will also have to pay close attention to their strategy, set-up and tyre management – especially when it comes to ensuring they retain as many studs as possible over the entire loop.
Rally Sweden has formed a part of the Junior WRC three times, and all three times there has been a Swedish winner – Per-Gunnar Andersson in 2006, Dennis Rådström in 2018 and Tom Kristensson in 2019.
So it goes without saying that all eyes will be on the Swedes once again this year – Kristensson looking to do the double against strong competition from last year’s Swedish Junior Rally Champion, Pontus Lönnström.
Fellow Scandinavians include Sami Pajari who was pushed all the way to last year’s Finnish SM3 Championship by compatriot Lauri Joona, as well as the latest in a long line of Norwegian Solbergs – son of Henning and nephew of Petter, Oscar Solberg.
Estonian’s Ken Torn and Latvia’s Mārtiņš Sesks are also no strangers when it comes to winter rallying and should not be discounted when it comes to challenging for the win.
Others may not be as used to snow and ice, but last year’s graduates – Raul Badiu, Fabrizio Zaldivar and Enrico Oldrati – will be able to draw on the experience they gained 12 months previously, and Ruairi Bell is no novice when it comes to the white stuff having rallied in Latvia since starting his career in 2016.
Fellow Brit Catie Munnings also got some recent experience of ice and snow when she took to the wheel of a specially modified Bentley Continental GT3 at Austria’s GP Ice Race earlier this month.
Returning to the rally car after being crowned the 2018 eSports Champion, Jon Armstrong will contest Rally Sweden for the first time in reality and it’s a similar story for Fabio Andolfi as the Italian looks to use his four-wheel-drive experience to his advantage.
Fellow Italians Tommasco Ciuffi and Marco Pollara will be making their world stage debut outside Rally Italia Sardegna, and all crews are keen to make a strong start to their 2020 seasons.
FIA Junior WRC Team Director, Maciej Woda, said:
“Firstly, on behalf of the entire FIA Junior WRC Championship, I would like to extend our gratitude and thanks to Glenn Olsson [Rally Sweden CEO] and his team who have been working around the clock to ensure this event goes ahead. Rally Sweden is such an iconic round of the FIA World Rally Championship, and always provides fantastically close-fought competition – especially in the Junior WRC and I’m looking forward to more of that this year.
“It’s always great to start the season here in Sweden, and this year we have 16 highly talented and motivated youngsters all keen to show what they can do on the snow, gravel and asphalt of the FIA World Rally Championship. The Swedish stages offer a unique challenge and it will be interesting to see if anyone can topple the two locals this year. This will be a rally of strategy, and those who are quick out of the box and on the ball when it comes to tyre strategy could well come out on top.”
42 Tom Kristensson / Joakim Sjoberg
“So happy and proud to be back in the championship again and Rally Sweden! Great job from the organiser to make this happen. It is a pleasure to be back in the car and with the M-Sport Poland team. We are looking forward to getting in the car and going for a new amazing season!”
43 Martins Sesks / Renars Francis
“I’m back with my co-driver Renars, with who we achieved the ERC U27 title in 2018 and hopefully we are back even stronger and faster to fight for FIA Junior WRC victory. I already had good speed in Sweden last year and these unpredictable roads suit us, because we have been driving something similar back in Latvia. Overall we are feeling very hungry for the rally and a good result!”
44 Ken Torn / Kauri Pannas
“What makes Rally Sweden so special? While racing through the winter forests of Sweden, you could not miss the cool crowds next to the stages – grilling, relaxing and cheering for their favourite drivers. Oh, and when comes to the extra speed, one could not miss studded tires!”
46 Sami Pajari / Marko Salminen
“My second WRC event, and first for this year. For myself it’s really nice to be able to compete on Rally Sweden as it’s one of those legendary rallies from my childhood. It’s sad that we’re not able to drive all the nice stages that should have been in the rally, but still really looking forward to putting a smile on my face.”
47 Raul Badiu / Gabriel Lazar
“I am really happy and excited to be back in FIA Junior WRC for 2020. We had a good test in Norway in proper winter conditions, the Fiesta R2T in combination with the Pirelli tyres feel great, add to this the experience from last year and we are prepared for what will be a very challenging rally where there is no room for mistakes. We will focus on doing our best rhythm and have as good a start of the season as possible.”
48 Pontus Lonnstrom / Stefan Gustavsson
“I’m looking forward to start the season on my home event. It’s going to be a tough rally with really tricky conditions. We have done a test with the new car and it feels good.”
49 Jon Armstrong / Noel O’Sullivan
“I am very excited to get my Junior WRC campaign underway on Rally Sweden, it is a bit unknown what the conditions are going to be like for everyone competing in the rally. I wish we could have a full winter rally and perfect conditions but it is great that the event is running even if it is a shortened route. I will need to wake myself up before I go into stage one with some familiarity runs over shakedown with the new M-Sport Ford Fiesta R2T. I am going to give it my best effort and see where we end up at the finish.”
50 Lauri Joona / Ari Koponen
“Rally Sweden has a lot of high-speed sections and small challenging sections. We look forward to this competition since I have been here many times watching but now compete for the first time. Rally Sweden will definitely be more challenging due to the weather conditions.”
51 Fabrizio Zaldivar / Fernando Mussano
“Rally Sweden is one of the most amazing rallies I’ve driven, last year was my first experience on snow and it was quite okay for the first time but this year we would like to push more and be fighting for the podium. It’s quite easy to make a mistake in this rally so we need to be careful, brave and don’t go just flat out.”
53 Ruairi Bell / Darren Garrod
“Rally Sweden is an event I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, not only because it marks the start of the season, but also because of the unique nature of the big snow banks and very high speeds on ice! Although, with the changes in temperatures and the lack of snow, it’s hard to gauge what this year’s rally will be like. Either way, I can’t wait!”
54 Enrico Oldrati / Elia de Guio
“Elia and I are really looking forward to driving on white roads again. For me this will be the third time in Sweden and it is also my favourite event as it is a huge challenge to make pace notes and have commitment on such high-speed undulating icy-roads. It’s also a tremendous challenge for us in R2 cars for the critical conditions of this year. We need to carry on improving and learning to be better against the fierce competition in Junior WRC this year.”
55 Tommaso Ciuffi / Nicolo Gonella
“This is a new rally for us; it is the first time on snow and in Italy we don’t have these fast roads. I think that Rally Sweden will be difficult for the weather conditions but we are really excited for this event. Good luck to everybody.”
56 Marco Pollara / Maurizio Messina
“We are very excited for this new season in FIA Junior WRC. For every driver it is the dream of a lifetime to participate in a WRC event. We are preparing ourselves the best we can and we hope to do well. I wanted to thank our ACI Sport federation for this opportunity and congratulate M-Sport Poland for the organisation of the championship, we really appreciate it.”
57 Catie Munnings / Ida Lidebjer-Granberg
“I’m incredibly excited and grateful for this opportunity to start my first WRC event in Sweden. I know it will be a big step up for me, and the competition this year is incredibly high, but it is definitely the right way to progress to the next level and gain some invaluable experience. Rally Sweden will be a challenge for me, everything is new – I’ve never driven a rally car on snow or with studs, it’s a new car for me, new team and new co-driver – but I feel more motivated than ever to make the most of this opportunity. The FIA Junior WRC is one step further to achieving my dream, and I can’t wait to begin!”