It Was Always Clear Since I Was a Small Girl – FIA Rally Star Drivers’ Series Vol.1 Suvi Jyrkiäinen
In 2021, the FIA launched Rally Star, a global talent detection program aiming to find the next Rally champions. The program starts with local selections, then six Continental Finals will each contribute one driver to join the FIA Rally Star team. Besides the winning driver from each continent, the six best female drivers will compete in an additional Women’s Final for one to come out on top and join the FIA Rally Star team. The FIA Rally Star team will conduct a training program in 2023, with the opportunity to compete in Junior WRC in 2024 season.
Maja Hallén Fellenius is 19 years old from Sweden. Before participating in Rally Star in 2021 and 2022, Maja was one of the winners in FIA Girls on Track – Karting Challenge back in 2019. In the FIA Rally Star European Continental Final in January 2022, she became the joint winner with Katie Milner to go into the Women’s Final in North America later this year. We had the opportunity to have a Q&A with Maja after her excellent performance in the European Continental Final, let’s see what she has to say about her career so far.
© All photos provided by Maja Hallén Fellenius
Paddock Sorority (PS): What was your first exposure to motorsport? What made you decide you wanted to be a driver?
Maja Hallén Fellenius (MHF): My dad has always been into motorsports so I grew up watching F1 and similar stuff, but the first time I actually got exposed to racing was when I was about 10 years old. I had just been declared cancer free after three years of tough treatments, and with that came a very weak immune system. This meant that a while after finishing treatment, my immune system was so bad that I couldn’t play with other kids, like any other 11 year old would. So, to have something to do, my dad took me to a rental kart arena in Stockholm. We thought that a helmet and gloves would minimize the exposure of bacteria, which it did, and I started driving a lot and I fell in love with it. And as they say, the rest is history!
PS: You have raced in karting before, what made you want to try rallying? Would you still be pursuing karting/single-seater now?
MHF: I have always loved all motorsports. I just happened to get stuck into the karting- and racing world. Since I spent so many years in that part of motorsport it just never hit me that rallying would be something I would move on to. But at the same time, it’s also nothing that I would be against at all. More like the opposite, I’ve always been fascinated by rallying and have always thought it would be fun to try it and now, that I got the chance, I’m so happy!
PS: What has been your best memory in your career so far?
MHF: That’s a really tough question! There is a lot to chose from, but one of my core memories will always be from a race in Formula Nordic in 2020. It was at Mantorp Park in Sweden, and I started P2 during a reverse grid. I had a bad start and went far down to 6th place. But during the race I got really confident in my speed, and I managed to finish in third place, and that became my second podium during my rookie season – something I was very happy with. I think that’s a memory I go back to if I ever doubt myself, because it reminds me that I can do anything I set my mind to.
PS: Has there been a very difficult time in your career? How did you get through it?
MHF: After getting through my illness and the time at the hospital I didn’t really have any particularly difficult times, but of course money has always been a part of it. Money became especially tight during COVID, since sponsorships were harder to find and maintain. Because of this I actually had to take a year off from driving during 2021 – which is another reason to why I’m very thankful for the opportunity with FIA Rally Star.
PS: How did you find out about Rally Star? What made you decide you wanted to participate?
MHF: I heard about Rally Star through one of the guys at the Swedish ASN. He asked me if I would be interested in participating and I was thrilled to learn about it, so I did a digital challenge to qualify.
PS: What were the first things you needed to learn/adapt to switching from karting/single-seater to crosskart/rally?
MHF: A lot! I mean, it’s two completely different things. I had no previous experiences of rallying or driving crosskarts, but I had been practicing a bit on the simulator. Luckily we got a day to drive a crosskart out on a frozen lake in Sweden before the selection. But there’s still a huge difference between driving on tarmac and on gravel. During my whole career I have learned how not to drift, which is pretty much all I got to do now. So I’d say that’s the biggest and first thing I had to adapt to.
PS: Tell us a little bit about your journey to Estering and how your weekend went? What are the memorable things along the way?
MHF: The first day driving was extremely fun, but also very nervy. It felt good to proceed from stage one to stage two, and that definitely gave me a confidence boost. When I found out that I made it to stage three I was so happy. When I came there I had no expectations to do that, and I was very proud just to make it to stage two in this ”new” sport. My last drive in stage three was amazing, I had finally found the right feeling in the car and I was confident with my driving. At that point, I had the quickest time of the women and I think that my progress from day one, to that point had been very impressive, and something I was proud of. My interview with the jury also went well and I was so tense when they were about to name the winners. I didn’t believe I would make it, but of course I was really hoping for it. Then they said my name! Simply amazing!
PS: What did you think were your strengths and weaknesses against other competitors in the program?
MHF: I am very new in the rallying-part of the sport and that was of course my biggest weakness, since I was one of the drivers with the least experience. That was also the thing that made me feel like I had less expectations to prove, especially since people knew that I came from circuit-racing. One of my biggest strengths during the weekend was definitely my steep learning-curve. I was inexperienced and still showed that I from day one to day three, had improved a lot. I think that was the thing the jury was the most impressed over. That’s the thing with shoot-outs, some participants race these kinds of cars every day, and some come from other parts of the sport. So when the jury decide on winners, they can not simply look at the best time, but they also have to look at the progress and motivation.
PS: You said participating in FIA Girls on Track – Karting Challenge helped you in the shoot-out, can you tell us a little bit about the similarities and differences between the two shoot-outs you participated in?
MHF: The shoot-outs weren’t very similar at all, but when I say that the Girls on Track helped me prepare, I mean that I have been to a similar venue and can feel more at home. In practicality this was a whole different thing, but I’m still glad I had done Girls on Track just to know a bit more about what was expected from me.
PS: How are you preparing for the Women’s Final now? Are there any lessons learned from Estering that you think you can help you prepare for Women’s Final as well as benefit in the future?
MHF: Right now I’m practicing in the simulator, and training a lot in the gym. Hopefully I will get to sit in a similar car before the Women’s Final just to get some practice in a real crosskart. I will spend the following year ahead of the final to practice and prepare as well as I can. When I get there I want to feel like I have done everything to be as prepared as I possibly can be.
PS: What are your plans for this year besides Women’s Final?
MHF: This year I actually don’t have any other plans than preparing and training for the Final. It feels good to be able to focus on this all the way.
Last weekend, the Middle East & North African Final took place at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. In May, the African Final will take place at Zwartkops Raceway in Pretoria, South Africa. Stay tuned for further installments in our Rally Star Drivers’ Series.
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