Suzuki revealed its brand new 2004 Junior World Rally Championship [JWRC] line-up last week in Tokyo.

Four drivers will enter the seven-round Junior series at the wheel of the latest-specification Suzuki Ignis Super 1600. The cars will be run by Monster Sport Europe.

Suzuki has been present on the JWRC for the past two years, and 2003 has been the company's most successful season yet, with two wins and eight podium finishes from seven rallies. Suzuki drivers were also in contention for the drivers' title, as the Ignis proved its pace on asphalt as well as gravel.

The latest chapter in Suzuki's rallying history comes with the arrival of four new drivers who represent an exciting blend of youth and experience, and four different European countries. The drivers are: Guy Wilks, Kosti Katajamaki, Mirco Baldacci, and Per Gunnar Andersson.

The all-new car is based on the five-door version of the Ignis road car, revealed at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September. The four JWRC cars will be run from Suzuki's Monster Sport Europe headquarters in Milton Keynes, England.

Wilks drove his first full season of the JWRC this year, in a Ford that was not as advanced as much of the opposition. Nonetheless, he managed to pull off some amazing results - such as third overall in Finland and Turkey. Wilks started rallying in 2000 in a one-make series in Britain, before working his way up to the prestigious British Rally Championship. From there he made the step up to the JWRC, and was instantly on the pace - underlining his reputation as Britain's most promising young driver.

"It's been a good year for me but I'm hoping that next season will be even better," said Wilks, "The competition is going to be very tough - both within the championship as a whole and within our team. But I know that the car will be very good and hopefully one of us will end up as Junior World Rally Champion. I was able to test the 2003-specification Ignis and I was impressed: the engine in particular was very strong. I reckon the new Suzuki Ignis will be the benchmark for the opposition, and I'm planning to make the most of it."

Katajamaki has already completed two years of the JWRC with Volkswagen, winning the Rally of Turkey this year. He is backed by two-time World Rally Champion Marcus Gronholm, who has earmarked him as a future champion. Katajamaki is a typical 'flying Finn', with a spectacular and committed driving style that should be well-suited to the new Suzuki Ignis.

"This is a fantastic opportunity for me," he said, "I already had the opportunity to test the 2003-spec Suzuki Ignis and I knew in the first few kilometres that the car was very special. It was better than anything else I have driven before. I'll be testing the new Ignis in early January and I feel very excited about it. My objective is simply to try and win as many rallies as possible. I've already been in the JWRC for two years, so now I have to really show what I can do. I feel more motivated than ever - I'm training six days a week and I'm determined to make the most of next season."

Baldacci is also approaching his third year of the JWRC, having won in Sanremo this year and finished second on the demanding Rally Great Britain. He has won the Italian two-wheel drive championship twice in the past, and has a fluid driving style that is equally at home on gravel or on asphalt. Surprisingly for an Italian, Baldacci says he has more experience on gravel - but he feels just as confident on sealed surfaces.

"The deal with Suzuki is something I've been working on for a very long time - since after the Rally of Turkey - and I'm delighted to be joining the team in 2004," commented Baldacci, "The first thing that struck me about Suzuki is what a professional outfit it is. Everything is geared up to make the car and the driver go as fast as possible. I'm sure that Suzuki has a fantastic future in rallying, and the decision to go there was the easiest choice I've made in my career so far! My goal is to win on both asphalt and gravel, and to challenge for the title. I hear that next year's car will have an even better engine and a more stable chassis - I can't wait to get my hands on it!"

Andersson has been driving since he was 15, having started in rallycross. When he was 19 he switched to stage rallying, and he had his first taste of the JWRC this year, when he drove a Super 1600 car on four events. He stunned the establishment by leading overall in Finland, and he also contested some asphalt rallies to gain experience. He won Super 1600 on the Swedish Championship this year, and he'll be back competing on selected rounds of the Swedish Championship again next year - in a 2003 specification Suzuki Ignis.

He said: "Rallying has been my passion from a very young age, so this opportunity with Suzuki is everything I could wish for. I'm friendly with Daniel Carlsson, who took two victories for Suzuki this year, and he mentioned my name to the team who decided to give me this amazing chance. Next year will be an important season. Although I'm going to lack experience compared to the others, I'll be aiming for the top. My favourite events are the gravel rallies, but I'm enjoying getting to grips with asphalt as well. Next year is going to be very busy for me, but I like it that way!"

Monster Sport Europe team manager Risto Laine concluded: "It's going to be a very exciting year for us, with new drivers, a new car and a new tyre supplier - Pirelli. These are big changes, so it's always difficult to imagine how everything will work out. But when you make changes, you obviously hope they are going to be for the better! Last season gave us a good base to start from, and on paper we have everything it takes to succeed.

"The driver line-up is incredibly strong - all of them apart from Andersson are proven frontrunners, and PG himself is a very exciting young talent for the future. The new car aims to capitalise on the strong points of the old car, and address the weaker points. I'm confident we've done a good job, but I'm equally confident that all our rivals have as well. The only way to find out is in competition!"

 

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