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Lauri Joona and Mikael Korhonen became the latest crew to win an FIA Junior WRC Championship Rally and the 52nd different crew to do so in the history of the championship.

The victory came in dramatic circumstances with the crew leading two stages of the rally which saw four different leaders and five different stage winners.

Joona took the opening Wolf Stage Win Point of the rally, but he was soon phased out of contention as Jon Armstrong soared to the lead with two stage wins in the opening loop to go almost 30 seconds clear.

Friday morning’s loop didn’t go according to plan for William Creighton as the Irishman only completed one stage before damaging his suspension and retiring for the day. Creighton restarted the rally on Saturday and had a mostly quiet rally from that moment onwards. His biggest highlight came on Sunday by way of a stage win on the penultimate stage before claiming fifth in Junior WRC.

Disaster struck for Armstrong on Friday afternoon with a string of punctures and an accident that ended his day in the afternoon with one stage remaining. The Northern Irishman bounced back on Saturday morning to take a conclusive stage win; however, he was forced to retire on the road section due to a fuel leak. Sunday was a much more rewarding day for Armstrong, seeing him take an additional two Wolf Stage Win Points on his way to fourth.

McRae Kimathi was looking set to claim another hard-earned fourth position thanks to well measured and mistake-free drives on Friday and Saturday. His hard work came quickly undone on Sunday after going off the road on stage 19. Although he finished the stage, the damage he sustained meant he had to retire on the following road section.

Jean-Baptiste Franceschi made a huge impression on his return to Junior WRC, claiming a podium position in third place after a mistake-free rally. The Frenchman delivered consistent pace throughout Croatia Rally, occasionally challenging for stage wins but came away empty handed in terms of Wolf Stage Win Points.

Robert Virves assumed the lead and engaged in a tight and exciting battle with Sami Pajari after Armstrong’s puncture-laden setback on Friday afternoon. Pajari chipped away at Virves’ lead to deliver a clean sweep of stage wins on Friday afternoon to end the day a tantalisingly close 0.7 seconds behind Virves.

Saturday saw battle resume between the Finnish and Estonian drivers with Pajari putting himself ahead after Saturday morning’s loop. It was during the same loop that Sami Pajari made Junior WRC history setting the eighth fastest stage time overall in WRC on stage 11, going faster than any other Rally2 car. Virves responded on stage 13 to trail Pajari by just half a second as the exciting Junior WRC battle continued. Pajari was able to stretch the gap by just a couple of seconds until the final stage of the day where Virves looked good to take the lead. The Estonian hit trouble on Saturday evening with a puncture, losing him 45 seconds and seemingly all hope of winning the event.
Virves sent a clear message on Sunday morning with a stage time that was 15 seconds faster as he set upon reeling Pajari in. Under pressure, Pajari went into the second stage of the morning unable to afford a mistake with Virves on a mission to reclaim his lead. Virves’ pace forced a mistake from Pajari who went skating off the road and into a drainage ditch in tricky conditions, forcing the 2021 champion to retire from the rally and score no classification points.

Virves had two stages between himself and a maiden Junior WRC victory that he so bitterly missed out on during his debut on Rally Estonia in 2020. It wasn’t to be though, as the Estonian crew checked in to Time Control 19A four minutes early and received a four-minute penalty for the infraction which was added after stage 19. It saw Virves drop to second with no realistic chance of winning as Lauri was promoted to first place with one stage remaining which he held onto to take his maiden FIA Junior WRC victory.

Maciek Woda, FIA Junior WRC Championship Manager: “This must have been one of the craziest rallies we have had in Junior WRC history in terms of the unexpected twists and turns on Croatia Rally. It has been exciting and dramatic none the less and the crews have had to face some very difficult and testing conditions so a huge congratulations to Lauri Joona for winning this rally without having any issues. I am absolutely gutted for Robert and Aleks, losing a rally the way they did hurts and it’s very difficult to deal with, but it is part of the game. They will come back stronger from this and develop as a crew, that is for sure. This rally really has highlighted the speed and skill of the drivers in Junior WRC with a lot of our crews consistently setting stage times good enough for the top 20 overall. A huge highlight must be Sami Pajari’s eight fastest overall on stage 11, to beat all WRC2 cars and math the pace of Rally1 cars in a Fiesta Rally3 is very special and highlights what the car really is capable of.”

Lauri Joona, FIA Junior WRC Rally Winner, said: “I am speechless. It was a really nice weekend for us. Unfortunately there were some problems for the other guys, but we drove sensibly all weekend and we are here with our first win, so I am really happy.”