Against all odds, Jon Armstrong came home from Rally Germany having left a massive impression on the World Rally Championship after a string of impressive stage times in its second tier, WRC2.
On his R5 debut, Armstrong set the fastest WRC2 time in his DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 on the asphalt rally’s penultimate stage. Behind him on the time sheets included experienced WRC2 drivers: Eric Camilli, Jan Kopecky and Teemu Suninen. Suninen fresh from his fourth place finish at Rally Finland in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC.
The 22-year-old’s pace should be taken as no surprise, given his results in rallying’s R2 category, but it was the Ulsterman’s lack of rallies this year and his simulator-based preparation that made his speed so impressive.
After a successful spell in rallying’s R2 category, winning two rounds of the 2016 Drive DMACK Cup, Armstrong has been unable to find a budget to step up into the R5 category. Before travelling to Germany he had only competed on two rallies in 2017 and has relied on games such as Richard Burns Rally and Dirt 4 to keep his skills refreshed.
His German adventure began on Monday with a raffle-funded pre-event test. This was the only R5 experience Armstrong was able to get before the rally’s opening stage three days later.
“We had a good test and made some adjustments to the set-up,” said Armstrong.
“We got used to the driving style of the car and tried both tyre compounds as well. It put us in a good frame of mind for the rally.”
The rally started for the young pair with a tricky Super Special Stage on Thursday night.
“It was rather tight,” commented Armstrong.
Describing it like an autotest, he admitted survival was his goal through the town stage lined with concrete barriers.
Armstrong struggled to find the right approach to the many hairpins on Friday’s super specials and vineyard stages. Perhaps a reality check for Armstrong on his first full day in an R5.
“We were struggling a bit with the car bogging down in the hairpins,” said Armstrong.
“It was not spinning up but getting too much grip instead. We made some changes to the car and it got slightly better.”
Armstrong managed a fifth fastest WRC2 time on Stage 5 but his Friday running ended prematurely because of a brake failure on the following stage.
Saturday and Sunday were much more positive for Armstrong and O’Sullivan, culminating in their fastest time on Sunday afternoon’s second pass of Losheim Am See.
“We restarted on Saturday and went about our way to learn a bit more and up our pace,” said Armstrong.
“We started punching in top five times on Saturday so that was a very good sign of what was to come.”
“We just felt very comfortable in the car and we were able to push on.”
“Then on Sunday we just upped the pace a bit more, we were third fastest on the first stage and then managed to get a fastest time on the second loop so we were very pleased with that.”
“It’s very good to be on that pace on our first time in an R5 car.”
“Suninen, Camilli, Kopecky, Tidemand, [Gus] Greensmith and [Pierre-Louis] Loubet. All them boys are right fast.”
“There are no slow coaches!”
Armstrong was adamant that it was thanks to his simulator training he was able to arrive in Germany with so little seat-time and put together a strong set of stage times through the rally.
“The simulator work really helped as I had so little seat-time this year,” said Armstrong.
“There is no other explanation for how I could be that quick with such little seat-time.”
“The simulator work that I did was pretty similar to what the car was like to drive so I just took to it naturally, it was like I had been driving it for a year.”
The home-built nature of his simulator enabled Armstrong to customise sequential gearshift and hydraulic handbrake positions for realistic R5 preparation.
“We did all of the custom simulator features to keep it as close as possible to the actual rally car,” said Armstrong.
“Everything is set up to be in a similar position and have a similar feel so it was pretty close to the real thing.”
“Virtual Reality is very good for getting a sense of sitting in the car and peripheral vision. It gives you the ability to look around especially to the apexes.”
“It all relates to real life especially with the VR.”
The only aspects Armstrong felt the simulator didn’t replicate was the braking power of the R5 Fiesta and the difficulty of some of the rally’s tight sections.
“The braking in the simulator wouldn’t simulate how late you can brake in the real car,” explained Armstrong.
“I mean it’s not far away but the wheels tend to lock up quite easily on the simulator.”
“One thing in real life was just how deep you could actually go and the car would just stand up on its nose, they really anchor down.”
“The tighter stuff was probably a bit more awkward than what you would experience on the simulator.”
“I was probably trying to drive the hairpins like an R2 car rather than actually trying to float it through the corner and get on the power with just a wee slip of the clutch to get it to spin up.”
Armstrong now has his second WRC2 prize drive to look forward to in October, WRC’s mixed-surface event, Rally Spain. Even with a strong R5 debut under his belt, Armstrong understands that the Catalonian stages will provide their own challenges. None more so than the fact the rally’s first day is on gravel stages, before switching to the region’s smooth asphalt roads.
But Armstrong is hopeful that a focus on gravel training on his simulator back at home will once again prepare him for the event.
“Hopefully what we have learned in Germany we can bring across to the tarmac in Spain,” said Armstrong.
“Obviously we’ll have gravel on the first day so we’ll have to learn as much about that as we can.”
“I don’t know if we’ll get a test before the event this time so I just need to leave myself as best prepared for it as I can.”
The young Kesh driver has made finishing in the top five his aim for Rally Spain but understands it all depends on the calibre of the rally’s WRC2 entrants.
“Hopefully we’ll get a good result but it is so hard to know because of the competition’s pace,” said Armstrong.
“It’s hard to be flat-out from the first stage without taking risks. You are only really getting used to it by the end of the weekend.”
It’s back to reality now for Armstrong as he goes back to work and trains at home for Rally Spain. He will get some real life gravel experience as he tackles Northern Ireland’s Bushwhacker Rally in a Mitsubishi Evo X, with Armstrong’s Rally Germany raffle winner sitting beside him in the co-driver seat.
Written by Adam Hall
Images by ni:media