How a trailblazing 2022 world champion defied the ultimate hurdle

Winning a championship in motorsport is hard enough, but doing so after beating cancer is a truly special accomplishment. That’s what Finnish co-driver Reeta Hamalainen achieved in 2022. She reflects on her remarkable journey prior to beginning her WRC2 title defence alongside Emil Lindholm this weekend

How a trailblazing 2022 world champion defied the ultimate hurdle

Starting the defence of a World Rally Championship title, let alone winning the 2022 WRC2 co-drivers crown, are days that Reeta Hamalainen thought may never arrive. That’s not through a lack of skill or opportunity, but something far more sobering. She has overcome one of the biggest hurdles one can face in life to become the first woman to win a WRC2 title – cancer.

Diagnosis during the 2018-2019 off-season was both a life-changing and life-affirming episode in Hamalainen’s career, which begins its next successful chapter this weekend as she enters Rally Sweden alongside fellow Finn and WRC2 drivers’ champion Emil Lindholm in their Toksport Skoda Fabia.

It goes without saying that it’s been an emotional and arduous journey for Hamalainen to reach this point, headlined by her courageous battle to beat the illness. Her WRC2 victory speech at Rally Japan last November left in no uncertain terms that hers has not been the average voyage to becoming a world champion.

“This is just amazing,” said Hamalainen after pipping former WRC duo Andreas Mikkelsen and Torstein Eriksen to the WRC2 crown last year. “To be honest, I did not expect to be here because in 2019 when I was really, really sick. I thought that was it, I cannot do rally anymore because my health won’t take it. But luckily I was wrong.”

Three months on from that history-making feat, the smile remains on the 34-year-old’s face when reminded by Autosport in Sweden that she is the reigning WRC2 co-drivers’ world champion. If winning the 2022 title was a challenge then defending it is likely to be an even tougher prospect with WRC2’s recent influx of talent from the top division, including former Hyundai driver Oliver Solberg and M-Sport duo Adrien Fourmaux and Gus Greensmith added to the mix. But as Hamalainen has proven through her own personal battle, she is up for a fight.

“Somehow it is still a little bit difficult to believe that we have achieved that and it feels great," she tells Autosport. “There could be some pressure now that we have won the title, but my feeling is that we can do this.

Hamalainen co-drove Lindholm to WRC2 title glory in 2022 after beating cancer

Hamalainen co-drove Lindholm to WRC2 title glory in 2022 after beating cancer

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

“I’m so thrilled to be in a rally car again. It was such a long break after Japan, it’s just great to be in car. I’m pretty confident that we are doing good. I trust myself and I trust Emil, and the car, and the team. We are going to have a good rally [in Sweden].

“It’s really good that we have such a tight competition there [in WRC2] and it ups the value of the series also. I take it as a challenge.”

Reaching the WRC2 summit last year has incredibly been achieved in only the second season with former GT racer Lindholm - a driver she has known since 2012. But their partnership soon bore fruit and, thanks to Hamalainen’s distinctive melodic style of pacenote delivery in crisp Finnish, it has become an internet sensation. Fully aware of her style, even she acknowledges it's “intense”.

“I don’t think about how I read the pacenotes, but of course I think about reading them in the way that Emil understands,” she says. “Well, it works for us. It doesn’t need to work for somebody else. Of course I have talked about it with Emil, but this is the best way for us. If I am with a different driver maybe I will change the style a bit. Of course, I know it is pretty intense.”

"Being sick, losing your health is a personal thing and it is different for everybody, but of course I have learned from it. It was bad, but it wasn’t all bad. You somehow appreciate more the time you have here, and you can do what you love" Reeta Hamalainen

This craft has been honed over 13 years – as rally co-driving isn’t a skill that can be mastered in an instant.

PLUS: Autosport gets to grips as a WRC co-driver

Hamalainen’s journey started back in 2009, sat alongside rally loving father Tuevo in a restored Alfa Romeo Giulietta at the Historic Vltava Rallye in the Czech Republic. A brief dalliance behind the wheel followed, before Hamalainen decided that navigating was her preferred route into rallying.

Stints alongside a series of Finnish national drivers including Laura Suvanto followed, but it was navigating for Jonna Olkoniemi that led to Hamalainen’s big break; calling notes for Olkoniemi’s godfather, former Ford and Skoda factory driver Janne Tuohino. Coincidently, the first rally the pair contested was Rally Sweden in 2018, but it was at the end of this season where the brakes were put on her career following the cancer diagnosis.

Hamalainen managed to contest a rally in Finland while undergoing treatment in 2019, such was her determination to succeed, before the light at the end of the tunnel emerged through a successful breast cancer surgery. A reunion with Tuohino for a proper comeback after the COVID-19 interrupted 2020 season arrived in a top-level Ford Fiesta WRC car at Arctic Rally Finland. Sadly, this ended all too soon as Tuohino was forced to retire from the final day of the snow rally through injury. He’d hurt his shoulder by slipping on ice after stepping out of a sauna.

Hamalainen earned her big break alongside Tuohino before forging successful partnership with Lindholm

Hamalainen earned her big break alongside Tuohino before forging successful partnership with Lindholm

Photo by: Jaanus Ree - Red Bull Content Pool

Ultimately this led to a link up with 26-year-old Lindholm for an ultimately successful WRC-3 campaign in 2021 that yielded victories in Finland and Spain – in the latter, Hamalainen was listed as the driver to negate a rule loophole - as Lindholm finished third in the points. They stepped up together to WRC2 for 2022 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Not wishing to dwell on her past struggles, Hamalainen is all about the present – and that looks far rosier after her career-high success alongside Lindholm in 2022, headlined by wins in Finland and Greece, supported by a further three podiums. But there is an overwhelming sense of gratitude and achievement to have overcome many hurdles to now enter 2023 as defending champion.

“Being sick, losing your health is a personal thing and it is different for everybody, but of course I have learned from it,” she adds. “It was bad, but it wasn’t all bad. You somehow appreciate more the time you have here, and you can do what you love.

“I’m really grateful for everybody that has been involved during more than 10 years of rallying. It is not like I can get to this point in a split second. I needed all those years and all that practice and do all the work to be here now.

“It is really rewarding to be here now, because it has been a long, long journey.”

To many, Hamalainen is an inspirational figure not only as a cancer survivor but as the first woman to win a WRC2 title. Hamalainen played a role in perhaps the most successful season for women in world rallying since Michele Mouton finished runner-up in 1982. Finnish co-driver Enni Malkonen lifted the WRC3 co-drivers’ title, while Isabelle Galmiche became the first female co-driver to win a WRC rally since Fabrizia Pons on the 1997 Monte Carlo Rally after calling notes for legend Sebastien Loeb at last year’s alpine classic.

Asked for her thoughts, Hamalainen modestly replies: “I don’t know about that as you don’t think about those things in your normal everyday life. But of course it is really nice if I can inspire somebody to do something. Like if a girl starts rallying, that is amazing if I can do that.

Hamalainen is credited with a WRC3 win as a driver in Spain 2019 - cleverly exploiting a loophole which didn't stipulate that those roles were abided by

Hamalainen is credited with a WRC3 win as a driver in Spain 2019 - cleverly exploiting a loophole which didn't stipulate that those roles were abided by

Photo by: Jaanus Ree - Red Bull Content Pool

“The best moment for me is when a little girl comes and says she wants to be like you, or her parents come and say you are her idol. Now they realise they can also do rally. This is the nicest point for me – if I can inspire girls to come into this sport. This is not for males only.”

Hamalainen’s story is far from being over and while a WRC2 title defence is her goal for 2022, her ultimate ambition is to conquer rallying’s top tier. It is a goal that seems increasingly likely, should an opportunity to graduate become viable.

“Of course [competing in the WRC] is the dream and the goal,” she adds. “If you don’t have any goals or dreams, then you won’t achieve anything, so you really need to have those. It is the ultimate goal.

“I think we can do it. Of course, there is lots to do and somehow even now we have to develop to be at that level as that is the top level. But I think we are going to be ready for it in time. Maybe not yet, but next year maybe.”

Hamalainen is fired up to begin her title defence on the Swedish snow this weekend

Hamalainen is fired up to begin her title defence on the Swedish snow this weekend

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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