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Pajari begins championship battle on familiar Swedish snow

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Sami Pajari and Enni Mälkönen will kick off their chase for points at the 2024 World Rally Championship season at Rally Sweden, commencing this Thursday.

The traditional opener to the WRC season, the Monte Carlo Rally, provided added intrigue in January with the debut of Toyota’s new Rally2 cars. Pajari and Mälkönen were there to gain experience with the new machinery, resulting in a commendable fifth place finish among the Rally2 cars. As they head into the snowy terrain of Sweden, expectations are higher than fifth place, with promising results already achieved during testing and in terms of the car’s performance on snow.

“The car felt really good in the snowy conditions. We had good tests here, so I feel confident as we head into the first points-scoring race of the season. Overall, I think there have been more roads similar to Sweden in the car’s development phase than those in Monte, so I have a good feeling,” Pajari shared.

The competition, set in the surroundings of Umeå, will kick off Thursday evening and conclude Sunday afternoon. The reconnaissance period promises snowy weather, with some forecasts predicting over 50 centimeters of snowfall between Tuesday and the start of the first full day of competition on Friday. However, the latest forecasts are considerably more modest, at around 25 centimeters.

“If there’s a lot of snow, it could certainly have some impact. However, the WRC1 class will have cleared the way ahead somewhat, so conditions within our class should be fairly even. If the roads aren’t plowed properly, there will only be clear tire tracks where precise driving will be crucial. During the reconnaissance, thick snowfall naturally brings its own challenges; that’s when the value of utilizing old notes can rise. We always try to make the most of them, as it helps both the driver and co-driver during recce. When there are significant amounts of snow being plowed, there’s always a chance that the road is shaped slightly differently than in the notes done now or the previous year,” Pajari mused on the potential impact of weather conditions.

Thursday’s schedule will feature a short, just over 5-kilometer stage for the enjoyment of the spectators. However, Friday will see seven special stages totaling just under 108 kilometers. Saturday will also feature seven special stages, covering approximately 126 kilometers. Sunday’s three stages in turn will have a total distance of just over 61 kilometers. In total, the event will feature 18 special stages and cover 300 kilometers of competitive distance.

While there are some new elements added to the route for each long day of driving, the majority of the route remains familiar. The Finnish duo’s minimum target for the rally is to at least match their performance from last year.

“There’s a bit of new and quite a lot of old, but it’s nice to have some new sections in there too. We were third last year, so I guess that has to be the minimum target. If everything falls into place, why not aim for the win,” Pajari summarized their goals.