County Fermanagh’s Jon Armstrong is just hours away from the biggest opportunity rallying has offered him to-date. Rally Germany is Armstrong’s first of two DMACK prize drives and will mark his first World Rally Championship event in an R5 car.
Armstrong won two rounds of last year’s Drive DMACK Cup but 2017 has been a much quieter season with the 22-year-old only competing in two Irish events earlier this year.
After a successful spell in rallying’s R2 category, showing pace that only few could match, Armstrong has been unable to find a budget to step up into the R5 category.
“It’s just a different sort of budget,” said Armstrong.
“I’ve been trying to secure some sponsorship for the past six months but nothing came up.”
Six stages in a Mitsubishi Evo X was the only four-wheel-drive experience Armstrong managed to get ahead of his R5 debut.
The 22-year-old was set on Friday morning’s shakedown being his pre-event test but thanks to a raffle he managed to raise enough funds for a 100-kilometre test on the tricky German asphalt roads. Monday’s pre-event test ran smoothly and gave Armstrong some much-needed seat-time in the DMACK Ford Fiesta R5.
Understanding his challenging position, Armstrong has been practising on his home-built simulator. Doing 15-20 hours on the simulator a week which has inadvertently made him one of the fastest online rally drivers in the world. He has won global events such as Dirt 4’s Founder Invitational which was completed in an R5 car on a Rally Spain stage and he has generally finished in the top 5 of any online event he has entered.
Armstrong’s home-built simulator was upgraded at the start of the year to enhance his gaming rig which includes two sequential gearsticks, one replicating a hydraulic handbrake, as well as a hydraulic cylinder which is mounted to the back of his brake pedal to give real brake resistance and feedback.
The random stage generator in Codemasters’ latest rally game, Dirt 4, has aided Armstrong in his WRC preparation.
“I can now do championships with completely new stages every time,” said Armstrong.
“It forces me to listen and focus on the co-drivers pacenotes.”
“Stages can be rebuilt with different sections, a bit like Scalextric, adjusting the complexity and length as well as the technical level.”
Another way that Armstrong optimised the realism of his simulator was buying a VR headset. With VR he could feel as if he was sitting in his rally car and also forced him to use his peripheral vision when power-sliding through corners.
Armstrong started gaming from a young age, getting his first steering wheel when he was 10 years old and he believes it gave him a head-start when he made his rally-sprint debut a few years later.
“It gave me a good idea of driving techniques, things like counter-steer,” said Armstrong.
“I remember the first time my rally car went up onto two wheels, I was naturally able to correct it and avoid a roll because I had already experienced the same situation when playing Richard Burns Rally.”
This year Armstrong has focused on his R5 development, even going as far as testing different set-up changes in his rally games to see what effect they have on the car and his subsequent stage times.
“On the simulator, small differences in the set-up can make big differences,” explained Armstrong.
“Damper clicks, camber and anti-roll bar settings as well as brake bias and diff settings are all things you can change to get more performance.”
“It helps to give an understanding of the set-up options and the difference each component makes.”
Having the ability to test different driving styles and techniques on these random stage layouts could even give the Northern Irishman an advantage when it comes to tackling the asphalt stages in WRC2.
Although gaming still does not replace experience on the real thing, Armstrong is sure that there is some correlation in being fast in the virtual world and in the real world.
One thing is for sure, that with limited opportunities available to him this year, Armstrong has invested his time and money at home to ensure he is still prepared for the challenge of Rally Germany this weekend.
Written by Adam Hall