The Junior WRC is where the world champions of tomorrow get their chance to shine on the global rally stage. Its status as the Formula 3 of rallying becomes even truer in 2022 as it adopts the new Rally3 regulations and upgrades from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive machinery, providing young drivers with more relevant experience for the future.
For the first time in 15 years, the reigning champion returns to Junior WRC to defend their title. Sami Pajari was always going to step up to four-wheel drive this year, but had the choice of prize drives in a Rally2 car for use in WRC2 or a Rally3 car for WRC3 and Junior WRC. He believes the latter is the logical next step in his development, even though he has already shown plenty of talent in his brief career so far.
The same is true for many of his rivals: Eight drivers aged between 20 and 27 will line up on the opening round on Rally Sweden, all driving Ford Fiesta Rally3 cars prepared by M-Sport and fitted with Pirelli tyres.
Pajari is rated as one of the next big things out of Finland, the spiritual home of rallying: In 2019 he was picked out by AKK, the national motorsport federation, firstly to make his debut on his home round, then to compete in the full Junior WRC in 2020. He finished third that season before becoming the youngest ever Junior WRC champion last year aged 19. He’s already a winner in Rally3 machinery too, taking the WRC3 honours on Rallye Monte-Carlo last month.
Armstrong is as well-known for his exploits in virtual rallying as he is for his success in the real world. He was already a winner at this level of the WRC in 2016 but lacked the funding to continue further. However, winning the 2018 eSports WRC title combined with his work designing rally games helped set up a return in Junior WRC last year, when he took wins in Croatia and Belgium and ran Pajari close for the crown.
Joona is another who dreams of one day joining the long list of Finnish drivers to have won the overall WRC crown. He succeeded Pajari as the winner of AKK’s Future Star competition and quickly impressed in Junior WRC last year, ending up fourth in the points. He also claimed a fine WRC3 podium on Rally Finland.
Any young rally driver from Estonia wants to follow in the footsteps of the country’s sporting icon, Ott Tänak – who earned his initial break on the WRC stages with the Pirelli Star Driver scheme before becoming world champion in 2019. Virves made a strong start towards that ambition when he finished on the Junior WRC podium on debut on his home event in 2020. He took three further podiums on his way to fifth overall last year.
Creighton is another top prospect from the island of Ireland where the huge passion for rallying is best exemplified by Craig Breen, who won the Junior WRC (then known as WRC Academy) with Pirelli in 2011 on his way to competing at the highest level. Creighton has been winning in the British junior championship since 2016 and finally clinched the title last year, when he also finished every Junior WRC round in the top six.
As a quick young Frenchman, Franceschi will be aiming to repeat the feat of countryman Sébastien Ogier, who was Junior WRC champion with Pirelli in 2008 and last year wrapped up his eighth world title. The French junior champion in 2017, Franceschi competed in Junior WRC in 2018 and claimed a win in Corsica. Since then he’s continued to win titles, most recently in the European Rally Championship’s ERC3 Junior class last year on Pirelli tyres.
Rallying is in Kimathi’s blood: he’s named after 1995 world champion Colin McRae and his father Phineas is a former driver and now the president of the Kenyan motorsport federation and CEO of the Safari Rally. It was on the legendary Safari where McRae made his WRC debut in 2021 before going on to become African junior champion driving the Fiesta Rally3.
Greece’s Acropolis Rally joined the Safari in making a welcome return to the WRC in 2021 and Panagiotis marked himself out as one of the country’s rising stars by finishing fifth in WRC3 on that event. He also won his domestic Group N title in 2020 and therefore has more four-wheel drive experience than some of his new Junior WRC rivals, even though this will be his first time competing outside of Greece.
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