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world rally championship

Pajari & Mälkönen Master The Sardinian Challenge

Sami Pajari and his co-driver Enni Mälkönen, driving for the Finnish team Printsport Racing in a Toyota GR Yaris Rally2, clinched victory in the WRC2 class at the WRC Rally Italia Sardinia, which concluded on Sunday. This triumph marks the duo's second career win at the WRC2 level, the previous one being last summer at their home event Rally Finland. Their success in Sardinia was a testament to their ability to combine their prior experience on the island with the characteristics of their relatively new car, resulting in a well-deserved victory.

The rally began unusually on Friday afternoon, as a new, shorter format was introduced, reducing the rally’s mileage and event week by about a day. This new schedule seemed to suit Pajari’s team well, as they set a commendable fastest time on the opening special stage, beating France’s Pierre-Louis Loubet, who hails from Sardinia’s northern neighbour, Corsica, by 7.5 seconds.

Loubet claimed the second special stage, taking a 1.2-second lead, but from then on, the Finnish duo took charge and never relinquished their lead. Many competitors faced problems with punctures and minor offs. By the end of Friday's four special stages, Pajari and Mälkönen led Loubet by 18.3 seconds, with Spain's Jan Solans, the winner of the previous round in Portugal, trailing in third place, 28.6 seconds behind Pajari.

"The support along the route has been great, and the times have been good. It's a good place to continue the rally from. Saturday is more than half of the rally, and without a service break, we'll try to keep a good rhythm without pushing too hard," said Pajari after Friday.

Saturday quickly became about Pajari’s team leading in the classification while France’s Yohan Rossel, who suffered a puncture and lost a couple of minutes on Friday, was setting the fastest times. Rossel began the day in 15th place but had climbed to third by the midday tyre change.

The afternoon followed the same pattern, with Rossel setting fastest times and Pajari’s team maintaining a sensible pace. By the end of Saturday, they had a 54.6-second lead over Rossel, with Solans trailing Rossel by 12 seconds.

"The long Saturday is now done, it was a challenging day, especially the second loop. We had a couple of punctures too, but we were lucky not to lose too much time. Sunday's stages are softer and less rocky, maybe even better for the car. We'll try to maintain a controlled pace; we've probably driven these stages faster before," Pajari previewed his plan for Sunday.

On Sunday, the Finnish duo showcased perfect control, easing off the pace slightly but still setting the times among the leaders. Solans awoke to challenge Rossel for second place, and by mid-Sunday, Pajari led Rossel by 48.6 seconds, with Solans just 5.1 seconds further behind.

"We'll try to drive the last two stages like the morning ones. Surprisingly, we’ve managed to keep a good feeling without pressure, maintaining some rhythm to avoid losing the flow," said Pajari before the final stages.

After the last special stage, Pajari-Mälkönen and Printsport Racing could celebrate a Finnish victory. Their winning margin over championship leader Yohan Rossel was 32.3 seconds, with Solans 7 seconds further back. The great weekend was capped off with additional points from finishing sixth overall in the rally.

"I had good expectations for the rally beforehand. Although we had to retire in Portugal, I knew the pace was there, and we were otherwise fast. We just needed everything to come together this time. The team has done excellent work with the car, and it's great to continue the season from here.

"Printsport Racing has previously achieved WRC2 victories with several familiar names."Twice with Karl Kruuda, once with Ole Christian Veiby, twice with Esapekka Lappi, and once with Teemu Suninen, if I recall quickly," team manager Eero Räikkönen reminisced.

Results - WRC2

1. Sami Pajari & Enni Mälkönen FIN 3:07:52.7 Toyota

2. Yohan Rossel FRA +43.2 Citroen

3. Jan Solans ESP +47.0 Toyota

4. Martin Prokop CZE +2:55.9 Skoda

5. Kajetan Kajetanowicz POL +3:00.6 Skoda

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