Teemu Suninen on working his way back to Rally1

His is a path well trodden, but not often with such grace.

Standing on the sidelines after being kicked from Hyundai’s Rally1 program, Teemu Suninen could feel aggrieved. Angry even. Yet instead he prefers to view his glass half-full, because in a twist of bittersweet irony, there’s solace to be found in the trajectory of the man who ultimately replaced him in the Korean marque’s line-up.

RallySport Magazine caught up with Suninen, fresh for some work with major Finnish broadcaster MTV, to find out where his career heads from here.

Becoming a TV pundit

It’s a direction often chosen once a driver hangs up their helmet for good, but dabbling in some television work is proving useful for the affable Finn.

“I’ve been doing a few rallies per season, the ones I haven’t been [driving], so maybe two times, three times on TV because I think I can give quite a lot for TV,” Suninen tells RallySport Magazine.

“I have a bit of experience from driving and can really explain the drivers’ side of things for the people. I’ve been enjoying it.

“It’s not an easy job,” he adds, “but I believe the WRC drivers have a lot to give to the TV and to the people who follow rally because we have a lot of stories and experience, so it’s easy to be talking about rally.

“But I must say on Sunday I struggled a bit, or actually quite a lot, to keep people on-track about overall results and then Super Sunday and then powerstage points, and trying to explain ‘hey actually [Thierry] Neuville is doing a pretty good rally with good points from Sunday, even if he is 10 minutes behind he is still doing highest points of those driving the full championship’ so that was not an easy task.

“And for me, if you really check the stage-end interviews, even the drivers don’t have a full track of how the weekend is going from the points side. Kalle [Rovanpera], he was super happy for winning the rally, then Thierry seems to be a bit disappointed he had a tricky rally but still he was only one point away from Kalle and Elfyn [Evans] was also really disappointed but after all those unfortunate things he still got really good points, so he should be happy also.

“Taka [Katsuta] and [Adrien] Fourmaux, they were on the podium! It was tricky but I tried to do my job well.”

Suninen wonders whether the WRC's points system is suitable.

Suninen certainly isn’t the first to find difficulty in wrapping his head around the new-for-2024 points system, nor is he the first athlete to turn to punditry. But it’s not just the viewer, who benefits from the extra insight provided by an active driver, who wins.

Working on a WRC event in a broadcast role affords Suninen a better overview of what’s going on, which he says helps when he gets back behind the wheel.

“I would say yes, especially now when the points system changed quite dramatically,” he confirms.

“Kind of seeing that even if the weekend… I don’t know how to say it nicely… has gone badly,” he laughs, “still you can get really good points if you are just fast in the correct places and can get the good points from Sunday.”

What happened with Hyundai

No rally driver wants to be commentating on a rally when they could be competing on it instead, though. It must’ve hurt for Suninen: watching his peers tackle the stages with intruding thoughts of ‘that should be me in that car’ swirling around his head.

“Honestly it would have been nice to be there [in Kenya], because I believe I would have had a good chance to get the good points there,” he admits.

“[Last year] I have been driving around Taka’s pace, sometimes faster than him, sometimes slower, so I think there could have been a good opportunity to be good, but we don’t have a seat to show [that].”

Suninen finished fourth at his home Rally Finland last year.

Is that fair? Does Suninen deserve to still be in Rally1?

As with anything subjective, there’s a case to be made either way. But it’s hard not to feel for the Finn who, a retirement from second place on the final day of Rally Chile aside, did exactly what was asked of him in tricky circumstances – stepping up to a hybrid Rally1 machine with minimal testing in a seat that, by all accounts, should’ve been Craig Breen’s.

A fourth, fifth and sixth place finish may not scream anything special, but in the circumstances it was a decent return. And, at least in this writer’s opinion, Suninen paid a heavy price for his mistake in Chile.

Above all though, had Suninen known he was only going to get four rallies, he would’ve driven those events last year harder. Instead he bided his time, playing the rear-gunner role as that’s what Hyundai required.

“Yeah, it would have been a different approach [if I knew I was only getting those rallies],” Suninen says.

“I felt that I was following the instructions: build up the pace, learn the car, become faster all the time, stage by stage and I felt that OK I was able to do actually what the requests were, except Chile Sunday, but yeah it was a big disappointment to not get there.”

Ultimately, it was circumstances outwith Suninen’s control that really cost him.

Had Ott Tanak’s reunion with M-Sport Ford worked out as hoped, and had Esapekka Lappi found finer form more consistently (and not felt like he needed to spend more time at home with his family), the Hyundai Rally1 drive may still be Suninen’s.

But as it is, Tanak has returned to the team he fled as recently as 2022, and Lappi has regressed to a part-time programme – sharing a car with veteran Dani Sordo and reigning WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen.

Suninen with Mikkelsen in 2017 on the Finn's first top-class drive in the WRC.

Mikkelsen is the driver who effectively displaced Suninen, but in reality it’s Suninen’s similar traits to Lappi that counted against him.

“They were looking for a Tarmac specialist, and I kind of agree that I’m not on the strongest one on Tarmac,” Suninen says, candidly, “but I think in Central Europe I was not doing badly.

“I was sixth or something but having competition all the time and still Saturday, with a bit more experience, I was able to set good times. But I agree that on tricky conditions it wasn’t for sure podium pace, which they expect from the Tarmac specialist.

“Lappi had the better results last year so I kind of understand their point that they take EP. And then I was just too similar a driver [to him] from their point-of-view.”

A WRC2 renaissance

Hyundai’s decision has long since been made, and no grudges are beared. Few, even Suninen, could question the logic either after Lappi’s stunning win in Sweden.

But for Teemu, the Rally1 comeback trail starts now, and he (like many others) will be using WRC2 to plot his route back, starting with next month’s Rally Portugal. He and co-driver Mikko Markkula will remain with the Hyundai marque, competing in an i20 N Rally2, for what is currently a five-event programme.

That would make a title tilt almost impossible, with WRC2 offering competitors seven points scoring opportunities with the best six of those to count, but Suninen confirms that he’ll “find the way to do two extra events if the championship is going good”.

The decision to stick with Hyundai is an intriguing one however, as there’d be plenty who’d be tempted to turn their back on a manufacturer that turned its back on them. Particularly as Suninen doesn’t have a fully-fledged Hyundai contract anymore – although he says “we are trying to finalise the agreement” for some support from the factory.

“Maybe I’m still showing loyalty and maybe there is still a good chance to get a seat from Hyundai, because there is not so many options or free seats available,” Suninen shares.

“For me things have started well with Hyundai, so I’m happy to continue with them.

“I am quite happy how I progressed in the last years,” he adds. “I went really quickly to WRC2 and started to win immediately, then got the chance in WRC but yeah, on the top level it’s about such small details and I don’t know if I can call it unlucky a bit in places, because I believe last year I did quite well in Rally1, and kind of felt I would have been worth taking to the team because we did good things with the team, we were able to develop the car and I was showing good pace.

“But I believe if there will be any more seats, I will be one of the first ones in the queue from the teams’ perspective if they need a good driver.

“I think I’m a good performant driver [and] a good guy to develop the car also because I’ve been in many projects where we’ve been developing the cars and I’ve proved I can make the car faster.

“I don’t know what else WRC2 drivers can offer for the big team because for me, no-one can say ‘I’m going to win the championship’ because it’s just not going to happen in the first year.

Central European Rally was Suninen's last WRC event.

“But I have shown good progress that if I get a bit of seat time I can drive to the podiums and then who knows if I could have been able to win after some more rounds.”

It would be easy to feel downhearted, but Suninen’s mature enough to know where he stands.

He can’t change his past, but he can influence his future. And if Mikkelsen, the driver who’s usurped him, can doggedly fight back to the top like he has, so too can Suninen.

“The plan is to do as well as possible and try to improve the car, try to prove that I am worth taking to Rally1,” Suninen concludes.

“Then I think that’s all that I can do.”

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Luke Barry

Luke Barry is an award-winning rally journalist, with several years experience at leading outlets including DirtFish. Currently freelance, he is growing his portfolio across all areas of rallying. Email: luke.barry1997@gmail.com
Luke Barry is an award-winning rally journalist, with several years experience at leading outlets including DirtFish. Currently freelance, he is growing his portfolio across all areas of rallying. Email: luke.barry1997@gmail.com