Egon Kaur, Miguel Baldoni and Fredrik Ahlin headed the eight classified finishers in first, second and third respectively as the rock-coated undulating passes conspired to wreck the hopes of several expected frontrunners including erstwhile leaders Craig Breen and Christian Riedemann.
Kaur, who was reunited with former co-driver Eric Lepikson for the event, actually left the road on the rally’s second stage but recovered to win for the second time running. Afterwards, the Estonian said: “After all the problems that everyone had, we knew we just had to play it safe if we wanted a good result.”
Argentine Baldoni, who moved into second place in the WRC Academy Cup drivers’ standings with the runner-up spot, also adopted a cautious approach at the wheel of one of the 18 identical, Pirelli-shod Ford Fiesta R2s used as standard in the young driver category.
“I was driving with a cool mind and understood the rhythm of the event,” said Baldoni. “I had a consistent strategy and I used my head more than the throttle.”
Ahlin, from Sweden, experienced his fair share of mechanical problems alongside stand-in navigator Bjorn Nilsson, whom he credited for keeping him in contention for a podium finish.
“It was a combination of the co-driver’s mechanical skills and a lot of luck,” said Ahlin. “The mechanics did a great job working to the limit to fix the problems we had. But if you have four wheels, an engine and a gearbox at the end of the rally, you’re on for a good result.”
Several drivers hit trouble running over a partly submerged rock on Friday’s fourth stage. Malcolm Wilson, whose M-Sport organisation builds and maintains the WRC Academy fleet, said he was disappointed for the drivers who failed to reach the finish in Olbia on Saturday evening.
“The last thing I want is the competitors retiring,” said Wilson. “We purposely made the cars the same to the point we went to a 10mm sump guard when normally the most we ever run is 8mm because we wanted to make the cars are reliable and give everyone an equal chance. There’s no question this rock was a problem but other cars, even Super 2000 cars, suffered.”
He continued: “If I was a young driver again I’d take the same lines as the World Rally Car drivers but the [Academy] drivers are using standard production cars and you have to watch the rocks. It’s part of the learning.”
The FIA WRC Academy resumes on Neste Oil Rally Finland from 28-30 July.