Jon Armstrong and Phil Hall claimed their maiden FIA Junior WRC Championship event win on Croatia Rally after a thrilling 2021 curtain raiser.
Armstrong’s victory came following an eventful series of stages proving that the 2021 FIA Junior WRC Championship could be the most unpredictable yet. The 2018 Esports WRC Champion delivered consistent and mature stage times on Friday, eventually ending the day third.
Martin Koci let his experience do the talking throughout on the opening day of Croatia Rally, taking the lead and keeping it with minimal mistakes. Saturday proved eventful for the Slovakian who hit a rock, damaging his wheel, losing a costly 2 and a half minutes and with it, his Junior WRC lead.
At the end of Saturday Armstrong led the Junior field by 22.5 seconds over Lauri Joona, with Sesks third, Koci fourth and William Creighton Fifth. Joona would try to fight back on Sunday’s stages but wasn’t able to match Armstrong’s pace. A mistake on stage 18 saw the Finn slip to third as Martins Sesks slotted into second.
Stage 19 was ultimately cancelled for the Junior WRC crews which meant Armstrong had a 37.9 second lead going into the final stage of the rally, alleviating the pressure slightly in guiding his Fiesta Rally4 home to his debut FIA Junior WRC event victory. Armstrong only finished sixth on the final stage, but it was enough to seal his maiden FIA Junior WRC victory on Croatia Rally. Sesks put on a mature and measured drive in Croatia, keeping himself out of trouble to build a good rhythm and finish second but without any stage win points.
Joona couldn’t make any more ground up on Sesks on the final stage, instead settling for third with one stage win point on his first ever asphalt rally.
Following disappointment on Saturday, Martin Koci returned to action on Sunday morning with a stage win but that was as eventful as his Sunday got, keeping his remaining stages clean to claim fourth.
Sami Pajari seemed to be a cut above the rest in the initial stages of the rally but ultimately suffered a brutally eventful rally on the asphalt roads of Croatia. The Flying Finn took his first Wolf Stage Win Point on SS2, but disaster struck on the following speed test. He limped home back to service following a roll, dropping down the classification order. The Finn redeemed himself on the stages, taking a total of nine stage wins on his way to sixth.
Romanian Raul Badiu took the opening stage point of the championship, asserting his claim to being a bona fide title contender. His rally was not without mistakes, his Saturday ended prematurely after damaging a wheel, forcing him to restart the rally on Sunday. He returned to action by taking a stage win on the final stage of the rally and finished eighth.
Robert Virves struggled on the asphalt of Croatia Rally, there were flashes of podium running pace in places, but the Estonian did not deliver any stage wins. The young Estonian couldn’t get further than the first stage on Saturday, losing a wheel after sliding wide and into a rock. He restarted the rally on Sunday and in similar fashion to Badiu, focussed on getting to the finish to consolidate his seventh-place finish.
Junior WRC rookie, William Creighton, focussed on gaining precious WRC road mileage and experience on his junior debut. He kept his nose clean while setting consistent and competitive times, coming close to taking his maiden stage point on the final stage, ultimately finishing fifth.
Maciej Woda, FIA Junior WRC Championship Manager:
“Congratulations Jon and Phil on a very mature but competitive drive. Jon has been very impressive on this rally and exceeded my expectations against some very tough competition. He has speed, which was demonstrated by his stage wins but also is relying on his experience to get to the end of the rally which is very admirable. Martins Sesks did a great job to finish second without any issues at all, he may not have had any stage win points but he knows the value of overall classification points. Joona impressed me too, this is his first ever asphalt rally and he finished on the podium plus a stage win point! After this rally I really cannot wait for the rest of the season, it is going to be incredibly competitive.”
1. Jon Armstrong / Phil Hall 03:15:07.6
“Part of me wanting to come back this year was proving to myself I can still do it while proving to others who don’t think I’ve got it anymore. I mean it’s fantastic to do it, it’s been a really tough rally, but I’ve only done two- and a-bit rallies in that last four years so to come and win a Junior WRC event is amazing. Big, big thanks to everyone who got me here, I know it’s been really, really tricky and a big battle but a massive thanks to those that made it happen.”
2. Martins Sesks / Renars Francis +33.5s
“The rally has been an incredible rollercoaster, starting from the bottom and getting experience on these kinds of roads to start building the confidence up with no errors. Ending up in second is a wonderful result out here and we did our best to stay on the road and getting faster and faster.”
3. Lauri Joona / Ari Koponen +48.8s
“Of course, I am happy with the result, but I can’t expect a podium place because I genuinely thought I would be fourth or fifth so this has really surprised me. I am very happy.”
4. Martin Koci / Petr Tesinsky +02:46.1
“We were waiting for the others today to see what they would do. The first stage on Sunday morning was good as we targeted that for stage points which is good, there wasn’t much else to do apart from that. There were no dramas today in the standings so after the puncture we finished fourth.”
5. William Creighton / Liam Regan +03:35.5
“There were a few bits where I could have gone a bit faster on that last stage, I was just a bit cautious under the tress where it’s a bit slippery and muddy. Apart from that we pushed fairly hard, and it was quite controlled so we thought we may as well just go for it. I have learned so much this week, it’s probably the toughest rally I have ever done. The recce was really tricky with long nights looking at the onboards too.”
6. Sami Pajari / Marko Salminen +03:36.7
“I think it was quite bad to be honest, we made a mistake and after that we tried to catch as many stage win points as possible, so looking at it like that it was ok. After all it is my second asphalt rally, and I should be happy about my pace.”
7. Robert Virves / Sander Pruul +01:13:24.3
“I don’t know how to say it in a good way, but I think it wasn’t very good overall with performance, but I think I learned more than I ever have learned on one rally. I struggled with the feeling in the car but tarmac is new to me.”
8. Raul Badiu / Rares Fetean +01:22:32.6
“I think it was a great weekend for us, we won three stages out of the five or six we completed without any issues. This is the brightside, the less pleasant side is that there were 20 stages not six, but when we draw the line now we had really good pace and rally. We had our mistakes which isn’t the perfect way to start the championship when we look at the results. Now when we look at our mentality, I think we made a step forward.”