In this interview, WRC2 Drivers’ champion Emil Lindholm speaks about his family background, his connection to Škoda Motorsport and his goals for 2023.

Emil, you come from a family that is close to motorsport, how did that influence your relationship with racing cars?
That's right; I was born into a motorsport family. I think I was about two days old the first time I entered our family shop where my mom worked. It was actually my grandparents' business that built competition cars and sold parts for them. There was no escaping that environment. My dad was also active in the Finnish Rally Championship and participated in a few WRC events. In our country, everyone was just connected to rallying somehow. My mom was also a co-driver.

When did you first drive a car?
I was six years old. I remember it very well; I was driving on the ice track. I watched my older brother driving on the ice all day and I wanted to try it too. My dad let me, so I gave it a proper go.

Were you good at it right from the start?
I've always been attracted to driving, actually. But the moment I found out I was good at it was when I tried my father's rally car for the first time. It was a Ford Escort A-Class and I was immediately faster than my brother, who had already done a few rallies. I was 13 at the time and that was probably the first time I thought I should do something about it.

When did it become clear to you that you were going to take up motorsport?
At first it was mainly a hobby; intense, but still a hobby. When the results started coming in, the sponsors soon started coming in as well, and, then, especially important was the fact that my father was very supportive and pushed me to participate in as many rallies as possible. From 2017, when I won the young driver competition in Finland, it was clear that I would start to give rallying my full attention.

„For me, rally is definitely more challenging and more varied and even if you do the same event twice,"

But you started racing on circuits first, why there?
Yes, the circuits were really where I started racing. In 2012, I was racing first on circuits in Finland and then I got into the German Audi TT Cup series, which is a companion series to the DTM. Then I had the opportunity to race in GT Masters with GT3 cars. But as a Finn, it was hard for me to find sponsorship support to continue. In the meantime, I also did a few rallies in Finland and Germany in 2015 and 2016, when my results improved rapidly. But the reason I was mainly driving on circuits was also because it was easier to get a permit, for which I didn't need a driving licence. In addition, from a driver's perspective, it's easier to find a job in circuit racing than in rallying, as there are more paid drivers on circuits.

Did you enjoy the circuits more than the rally?
Not really. Maybe that was another reason why I've chosen rallying. For me, rally is definitely more challenging and more varied and even if you do the same event twice, it's never the same. You have to adapt and react. Rally is definitely more fun.

How did racing on circuits help you in your later rally career?
I think the benefit to the rally was pretty big; not only on tarmac, but also on gravel. On circuits, when you're doing the same section for 200th time, you concentrate on the smallest details. You have to drive to the limit every meter of the track. In a rally, you're more focused on the overall speed throughout the rally and you don't have as much time to focus on the driving. My experience on the circuit helped me just to get the most out of the car. On tarmac, the circuit experience helps with getting the line right, but even then the rally track is a bit different.

Gravel is a completely different event of motorsport. Did you have to do a lot of training on the gravel?
Of course, I had to practice a bit. But even when driving on the circuit, the car is not completely at ease in the corners. It's often in a little slide and you have to react quickly and correctly. On gravel, of course, the slide angle is much bigger, but again, the lower speeds give you much more time to work with the car. The habits from the fast circuit car inspection definitely came in handy for me.

„The speed was much higher, I could slide around a corner and overall the car felt like a real and proper rally car."

I first registered you in the Škoda Motorsport tent in 2019 in Finland or Spain, was that your first contact with Škoda?
The Škoda brand has always been close to our family. My father was one of the development drivers of the Fabia S2000. In 2018, I drove the Fabia R5/Rally2, then the VW Polo R5 and then I went back to the Fabia. In 2019, I tested with the Škoda Motorsport team for the first time, and that's when our collaboration began and it gradually deepened with the development of the new car.

Do you remember the first test of the Fabia R5/Rally2? What impression did it make on you?
I first drove the car in 2017 as part of a test for a Finnish team. Until then, I had driven front-wheel drive cars and this was a whole new world for me. You have to keep the front wheel very straight to avoid losing speed. With four-wheel drive it was suddenly a lot more fun. The speed was much higher, I could slide around a corner and overall the car felt like a real and proper rally car. Everything was so mechanical!

Your career then developed a lot back home in Finland. Were you still in contact with Škoda Motorsport at that time?
In 2020 I worked with Škoda Suomi as their driver in the Finnish championship. That was a great step for my career because they helped us a lot. It also brought me closer to the Škoda Motorsport team and our cooperation was able to develop further. Due to the corona virus, it was a special and unusual season, but I still remember it being very nice. In Finland we really fought for the championship for the first time. On Rally Sweden, we fought for the win until the last stage. In the end we missed it by 3.6 seconds, which I still regret until today. It was a great result for my third WRC rally event with Fabia Rally2 evo. I've learned a lot in 2020.

„Confidence behind the wheel of a rally car is all about training."

But in 2021, you started driving a lot. Was it another career step and a driving progress?
Definitely, I've more than doubled my mileage behind the wheel of the Rally2 car in the last two years. Confidence behind the wheel of a rally car is all about training. You just have to sit in the car. You learn to read all the stages, you understand where to push and where not to. It's also important to be fast on all surfaces. I used to have a bit of trouble on rough gravel, but now after a lot of test experience I've improved greatly on this surface.

So can it be said that the new car test program over the last year has been great rally training?
Definitely the best.

You started working with the TOKSPORT WRT team in 2021, was it due to your close relationship with the Škoda brand?
Yes, we were recommended this cooperation. With TOKSPORT, I came up with a good program for the season with lots of rallies. I liked the fact that it's a really professional team with good experience and close links to the factory team. They work very well and efficiently. It's a top level team.

„Until then, I don't think I knew how much I'd learnt in testing."

What was your goal for 2022?
The realistic goal was to win the WRC2 Junior title. It didn't start well in Sweden, but after that we were on the right track.

Did you have any really good and less good moments in the season?
There are always such moments. In Sweden, we got stuck in a snow bank in the second stage. Even though we got the points from Power stage, it just wasn't a good start to the season. But the problems of 2021 taught me to put those things behind me and bounce back. But we knew we had the speed, plus you can scrape a good result off one rally, so there wasn't much going on. The good moment was in Greece. To be honest I was a bit surprised that we were fighting for the win there, because I've never been very comfortable with that surface. Until then, I don't think I knew how much I'd learnt in testing. When I saw our times on Friday, it kind of blew my mind. We were leading by a good margin and nobody expected that. In retrospect, I think we could have been faster in Finland, where we won thanks to Suninnen's disqualification.

When did it become clear that you could win the overall title?
It started to take shape after Greece. We were in a similar position with Andreas and Kajto. But Spain didn't start well for us with the puncture, we lost a full minute. But then we really took charge and pushed hard. It wasn't easy though, it only took one mistake and it was over. It was stressful. But somewhere in the back I still believed it could work out. I also have to thank Reeta for that; she was always positive and believed as much as I did.

„It was literally a fight for survival."

And then the last rally of the season in Japan. Were you calm or did you feel the pressure of the title?
I was surprisingly calm. I thought that if we had the speed we had had in Spain and stayed out of trouble, we had a good chance of winning the title. But it was wild. Friday was a strange one, Sordo's car burned up, a test was cancelled, then another, and I was worried that if they cancelled any more, they would only announce half the points and we wouldn't have enough because we would have to win. That would be too risky. Plus it started to rain and everyone said that when it rains in Japan it is extremely difficult because the track is slippery.

The last two stages were very nerve-wracking, weren't they?
We had a good lead. We had information that it was going to rain before the last stage, so we took four hard tyres and two wet tyres. But it started raining early, so we did 22 kilometres of the penultimate test on hard dry tyres. That's not ideal and on the slippery Japanese tarmac it's the worst choice of tyres. Only Sami and I had those tyres. It was literally a fight for survival. We lost a lot of time and crashed on P3.

You had a spin there. Was there a moment when you were afraid it was over?
No, no. It wasn't that dramatic. We lost 5 seconds at most. That was not the reason for our loss. The biggest thing we lost was the tyres. We were going so slowly that I was completely relaxed because of the spin. It was the worst stage of my career.

„As I've said before, I learned a lot during the tests and it was the best training. I'm really grateful for this opportunity."

What happened when you crossed the finish line?
Maybe it still hasn't quite sunk in now that we won the title. It's still hard to believe. Those last two trials made me feel a huge sense of relief. I'm also relieved because I got that feeling of making one mistake and the whole thing being over out of my head. Like, I could finally breathe properly after a few days.

Do you think the fact that you did a lot of testing during the year also played a part in winning the title?
That's for sure. As I've said before, I learned a lot during the tests and it was the best training. I'm really grateful for this opportunity.

Are you looking forward to the 2023 season? Will it be easier entering it with the WRC2 world championship title?
Yes and no. This year nobody really counted with us as title contenders, but next season the expectations will naturally be higher. Next year I would like to keep improving which means at least confirming the title. It's just not easy to enter a season with a title in your pocket, but this year we showed speed and resilience. Plus, we have definitely become a better crew after this experience, so it could go better.

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