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Fifteen years ago, the Rally Argentina was the sixth round of the 2002 FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) season and was the first event of the year which saw teams heading outside Europe. Finnish driver Toni Gardemeister was one of the ŠKODA works drivers back then and – along with his co-driver Paavo Lukander – he was driving a ŠKODA OCTAVIA WRC Evo2 car in the main WRC category.

It was a hugely competitive period and going into the Argentinian event, Gardemeister’s highest finish of the year had been a tenth place at the Rallye Monte Carlo. So, it is fair to say that expectations of challenging the leaders were not huge going into the rally. But the Rally Argentina has always been a dramatic and unpredictable event and 2002 was no exception, both on and off the roads.

Toni Gardemeister, ŠKODA OCTAVIA WRC, ŠKODA Motorsport. Rally Argentina 2002

The opening special stage of the rally had to be cancelled because of overcrowding, so the action began on stage 2 and for most of the first leg, Gardemeister performed in line with expectation. But on the final stage of the day (SS9; 28.83 km), he stepped it up a gear, finishing in fourth position and ahead of such WRC luminaries as Carlos Sainz, Petter Solberg and Richard Burns.

That result saw Gardemeister’s ŠKODA OCTAVIA WRC Evo2 sit in eighth place at the end of the first leg and after the opening stage of the second leg, things looked even brighter when Toni climbed to sixth in the overall standings. Unfortunately, Gardemeister lost a little time on the next stage (SS11) and slipped down to eight, but for the rest of the second day, he drove a consistent and professional rally to keep his overall position and maintain the gap to fellow ŠKODA Motorsport crew Kenneth Eriksson / Tina Thörner who sat one place behind.

Kenneth Eriksson / Christina Thörner, ŠKODA OCTAVIA WRC, ŠKODA Motorsport. Rally Argentina 2002

The third and final leg consisted of four stages and once more Gardemeister drove with pace and poise, finishing inside the top ten on three of them. The retirement of Tommi Mäkinen on the penultimate stage saw Gardemeister rise to seventh in the overall standings and at the finish, both he and the team were satisfied with a job well done. With Kenneth Eriksson finishing in eighth place, it looked to have been a good rally for ŠKODA Motorsport.

But the drama wasn’t finished yet. Overall victory in the rally was initially awarded to Marcus Grönholm, but he was then excluded from the rally after it was revealed that his mechanics had worked on the car illegally after it had left parc fermé on the morning of the final day. That decision promoted his teammate Richard Burns to first place, but his joy too was to be short-lived as a technical issue with a flywheel weight in his engine meant that he too was thrown out of the rally results.

In the end, overall victory went to Carlos Sainz, but the two late disqualifications meant that Toni Gardemeister’s ŠKODA OCTAVIA WRC Evo2 ended up finishing in fifth place in the overall standings, with teammate Kenneth Eriksson one place further back in sixth and local hero Gabriel Pozzo, driving a ŠKODA OCTAVIA WRC too, was promoted to ninth position.

Gabriel Pozzo / Daniel Stillo, ŠKODA OCTAVIA WRC, ŠKODA Motorsport. Rally Argentina 2002

It was to be Gardemeister’s best result of the season, although he did also finish in sixth place at the Rally Australia and eighth at the Rally New Zealand. And 15 years on, it remains ŠKODA Motorsport’s best ever overall result at the Rally Argentina, when it was part of the full FIA World Rally Championship.  

This year, the ŠKODA FABIA R5 will be competing in the WRC2 Championship in Argentina. As an R5 car, it has less power than its WRC rivals, but it has set records aplenty in its two years in the World Championship. And it will definitely fight for more success in its category in South America again…