Martin Prokop (CZ, Citroen) is the 2009 FIA Junior World Rally Champion after winning the category at Rally Finland with his Czech National Team Citroen C2 S1600.
Co-driven by Jan Tomanek, 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 Sebastien Loeb
in 2001 and includes the likes of Dani Sordo, Per-Gunnar Andersson and Sebastien Ogier – all of whom have gone on to drive factory World Rally Cars in the WRC.
Having made his series debut in 2005, the 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 contested the series in 2006 and '07, guest J-WRC entry Kalle Pinomaki (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 One, and no matter how hard the champion-elect pushed, Prokop could not shake off his Finnish shadow. With three fastest times to his name, Pinomaki 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 Pinomaki eased off on Day Three to secure a fantastic second 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 second 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 One, but by then he was 2min 15.3sec behind Prokop and the title looked all but lost.
The battle for third place was not what he was expecting to be embroiled in, and when Prokop survived the two runs over Myhinpaa – 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 One in third position, 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 Two 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 Two 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 Three, 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 Myhinpaa (SS21) he had to settle for fourth place. 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 one kilometre from the flying finish and service followed – although his real good fortune came on the following test when he survived a sixth-gear spin without even putting a scratch on his Clio.
He started Day Three in an excellent fifth 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 fifth.
Martin Prokop - Citroen C2 S1600 - 1st:
"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!"
Kalle Pinomaki - Renault Clio R3 - 2nd:
"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."
Michal Kosciuszko - Suzuki Swift S1600 - 3rd:
"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."