Prokop becomes FIA Junior World Rally Champion* with victory on Neste Oil Rally Finland
Martin Prokop (CZ, Citroën) is the 2009 FIA Junior World Rally Champion, after winning the category on the Nestle Oil Rally Finland in his Czech National Team Citroën C2 S1600. Co-driven by Jan Tománek, Prokop led from start to finish (as he did earlier this year in Cyprus) and joins an elite list of J-WRC champions which dates back to Sébastien Loeb in 2001 and includes the likes of Dani Sordo, Per-Gunnar Andersson and Sébastien Ogier – all of whom have gone on to drive factory World Rally Cars in the WRC.

Having made his J-WRC debut in 2005, J-WRC victory in Finland this year was Prokop’s 10th of his career. The 26-year old driver from Jihlava had previously finished 3rd in the last two J-WRC seasons and describes winning the title at his fifth attempt as “the biggest sporting moment of my life”.

Starting Rally Finland for the fifth time, Prokop pushed hard throughout the event; knowing that with Rally de España to go, a high points-scoring finish would be a huge step towards him taking the title. Save for a heart-stopping moment on SS15, when ruts in a braking area after a high speed section almost bounced his C2 off the road, Prokop drove with great maturity and without risk to win the J-WRC award by 55.5 seconds and claim a well deserved title.

Having contest the series in 2006 and ’07, guest J-WRC entry Kalle Pinomäki (FIN, Renault) was aiming for victory in his Clio R3. The 29-year old driver from Turku in southern Finland had been Finnish Junior Champion in 2005, and he was Prokop’s nearest challenger as the top two pulled away from the rest of the field. Despite a brake problem on SS3, less than 10 seconds separated them for most of Day 1, and no matter how hard the champion-elect pushed, Prokop could not shake off his Finnish shadow. With three fastest times to his name, Pinomäki was just 14.6sec behind Prokop when a front right brake pipe broke and he was left with only the handbrake to slow him down for the last few kilometres of SS13. He dropped 19.4secs and from then on the gap remained around the 30 second mark, until Pinomäki eased off on Day 3 to secure a fantastic 2nd position, happy in the knowledge that he’d shown the J-WRC regulars his true capability.

Michal Kosciuszko (POL, Suzuki) arrived in Finland as joint J-WRC leader, but unlike Prokop, who had nominated the final Rally de España as a points-scoring event, this was to be his last appearance in this year’s series. Kosciuszko needed to win in Finland to keep his title hopes afloat, after crashing out of a secure 2nd place (and losing eight points) just two stages from the end of his home event, Rally Poland. A long brake pedal on SS2 wasn’t the confidence-boosting start he was hoping for, and he immediately dropped 15.6 seconds to his great adversary. Worse was soon to follow, as Kosciuszko hit a rock and punctured a front right tyre on SS7, losing almost a minute and dropping him from 3rd to 5th.

He still doesn’t know why he picked up a rear puncture on SS8, but he lost another 43 seconds and dropped to 6th. He battled back up to 5th by the end of Day 1, but by then he was 2min 15.3sec behind Prokop and the title looked all-but lost. The battle for 3rd place was not what he was expecting to be embroiled in, and when Prokop survived the two runs over Myhinpää – a stage Kosciuszko considered to be the most difficult of the entire J-WRC, and one he was particularly pleased to end Rally Finland on with fastest time – he had to settle for a podium finish and congratulated the new champion with the sporting grace that has given Kosciuszko many admirers in the J-WRC paddock.

Aaron Burkart (D, Suzuki) completed Day 1 in 3rd, but he was 1min 16.7sec behind the leader and with hindsight felt he had been a little too cautious. He’d spun on SS3 and lost his rhythm, but apart from that he was at a loss as to why the gap to Prokop was so big. Day 2 was going well until a right rear puncture on SS15 cost Burkart 50 seconds and allowed Kosciuszko to close the gap to 7.4 seconds. Driving on the puncture damaged a rear damper, but despite this a great drive through SS16 saw Burkart increase the gap once more to 10.3 seconds. The final three stages of Day 2 were shaping up to be a great battle between the two Suzuki drivers, but the new damper which had been fitted to Burkart’s Swift made it understeer and oversteer wildly, and by the end of the day he had dropped to 4th, 36 seconds behind the Pole. Both rear dampers were replaced at final service and the car was perfect again for Day 3, but by then the damage had been done. With Prokop leading, Burkart needed to finish 2nd to keep his J-WRC title hopes alive, and despite setting the fastest time first time through Myhinpää (SS21) he had to settle for 4th. With the title in Prokop’s hands, Burkart aims to attack in Spain to secure 2nd place in the series.

In order to gain more international rally experience in preparation for a full J-WRC programme in 2010, Mark Wallenwein (D, Renault) made his first J-WRC start of the season in Finland, taking over the TRT team entry of Alessandro Bettega. The 22-year old from Stuttgart overshot a junction and ran up an escape road on SS4 and then hit a rock and picked up a puncture on the last corner of SS9 – but he was happy that his pace was getting closer to the J-WRC leaders after each stage. The rear right brake calliper seized on SS13, but once again he was fortunate that it happened just 1km from the flying finish and service followed – although his real good fortunate came on the following test when he survived a sixth gear spin without even putting a scratch on his Clio. He started Day 3 in an excellent 5th position, and had to drive carefully over the final four stages as a bracket on the cylinder head had broken, and he was worried that a heavy landing would mean instant retirement. He survived to finish an excellent 5th.

Having rolled out of Rally Finland on the opening stage of Day 2 last year, not only had Simone Bertolotti (I, Suzuki) got further this time, but he was enjoying a fantastic run. He had a flirt with disaster on SS8, when an off-line approach to a big jump saw him land at an angle and spin into a ditch in fifth gear. Spectators pushed him back onto the road and he continued with the loss of 90 seconds. He was in 5th when a driveshaft broke on the final stage of Day 2 (SS19) and he lost over six minutes limping to the end of the test. He continued to push hard, and a minor off into a ditch on SS21 didn’t prevent him finishing 6th and moving up one place to 5th in the J-WRC standings.

The start of Rally Finland didn’t go to plan for Hans Weijs Jnr (NL, Citroën), as the 22-year old from Elst in The Netherlands dropped 30 seconds on the first forest stage, SS2, when the brakes failed. He bled the system before SS3, but on SS4 a bracket on the front bumper came loose, bent in and pierced the radiator. With another stage between him and service, there was no option but to radio his team for rescue. Having collected penalties for missing the day’s remaining stages, Weijs restarted on Day 2 and was delighted to find his C2 was working to his liking and he enjoyed one of his best days of the season. Another good final day saw Weijs finish 7th and record his third championship points-finish in a row.

Kevin Abbring (NL, Renault), who last time out in Poland became the youngest ever winner of a J-WRC event, arrived in Finland for only the second time. The talented 20-year old Dutchman found his pace notes were too slow for the wider roads of SS2 and 3, but moved up to 5th after the next two stages. His picked up a front left puncture on SS6 and, having decided to drive on, was forced to stop when the tyre began to fall apart and it was damaging the suspension. As he replaced the wheel he noticed a bolt had come out of the track control arm, and with a loose wheel and the steering a little out, Abbring lost a total of five and a half minutes before reaching the end of the stage. Eager to learn the technically difficult Finnish roads, he pressed on and made adjustments to his Clio R3 – and one adjustment to the rear suspension was to contribute to more problems. He’d been a little too cautious over a jump on SS11, so when the Leustu stage was repeated as SS14, he took it a little faster. However, the adjustment to the suspension and the increased speed saw the rear of his Clio kick high into the air and the car land on its nose, breaking the radiator. Abbring tried to complete the stage, but as the water drained out the engine temperature rose, and he stopped four kilometres later, retiring from 8th place. He restarted on Day 3 for the experience and to score a point that would have given the KNAF Talent First Team Holland the ASN title. However, a front brake calliper seized on the road section to SS20 and he was forced to return to Jyväskylä without seeing a forest road.

Luca Griotti (I, Renault) was hoping that his favourite rally would turn the tide on what has been a very unlucky season for the London-based Italian. Rally Finland started well, although he had to drive carefully for two stages on Day 1, having used his only spare to replace a puncture at the end of SS6. He was driving well, his Clio R3 was running faultlessly and despite Griotti feeling a little disappointed that his times weren’t as good as he thought they should be, he was in a fine 5th place when he crashed SS14, sliding off the road and breaking the car’s rear sub-frame.

Yoann Bonato (F, Suzuki) had a new engine fitted to his Swift and was holding a strong 4th position, despite hitting a rock in the middle of SS9 and losing 35 seconds with a front left puncture. His second attempt at Rally Finland was going well until the opening stage of Day 2, when he rolled on a slow corner mid-way through SS11. Unfortunately there were no spectators nearby and he was stranded, and elected not to restart the following day.

* Subject to the official publication of the results by the FIA.

1st – Martin Prokop, Citroën C2 S1600:
“This is the biggest moment in my sporting career. I have been doing the Junior World Rally Championship for five years, and we have been very close to winning it in the past – in fact, last year we were ready to win the title, but didn’t because of some mistakes and some problems with the car. This year we have had absolutely no problems, I had good experience of all the rallies, I had confidence with the car and everything just went right. Of course this year hasn’t finished yet and we want to do well in Spain, but I am very happy to be champion!”

2nd – Kalle Pinomäki, Renault Clio R3:
“I'm happy; second on Rally Finland is a good result. It's a shame that I couldn't fight for victory, but anyway I'm satisfied with my performance. I made no mistakes and the car has been very good during the whole weekend.”

3rd – Michal Kosciuszko, Suzuki Swift S1600:
“Battling for third place in Finland was not my dream, but winning the J-WRC was not to be. I have made some good rallies and score a lot of points and I believe I have made a good impression this year. My mistake in Poland has cost me a lot, but that is rallying and you cannot dwell on the past. This has been my final rally of 2009, but I have been thinking about next year day and night and I hope that with a good support I can continue to compete at the top level. I would like to congratulate Martin on winning the J-WRC title. I have enjoyed a great fight with him this year and I think it has been a good season for both of us.”

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