Jon Armstrong will return to the Junior World Rally Championship four years after finishing third in the WRC’s Drive DMACK Trophy. Armstrong is confident he has the pace to challenge for the Junior World title however initially only has enough funding to complete the first two rounds – Rally Sweden and Rally Italy.
“A podium should be possible in Sweden,” said Armstrong. “Then there is a big gap before Rally Italy to work on finding some backing.
“I thought I was going to have a budget to cover the full season.
“Then in the New Year things changed and it’s more uncertain than what we were expecting. I thought we were in a good place but that’s not to say that we can’t get back there.”
Armstrong’s JWRC campaign will get off to a tough start as he starts only his second ever snow rally. With almost half of the 16 Junior drivers coming from northern Europe Armstrong will need all his natural ability to beat the competitors more at home on snowy stages.
“I still need to decide whether we’ll get a test in Sweden or not. I need to be realistic and just pick up my pace during the event.
“There are a lot of Scandinavians there that are used to those conditions. You just never know, stranger things have happened.
“If you put in the effort, have a good recce, find a good set-up, and have a good feeling it’s not all that different to driving on gravel.
“I know Sardinia [Rally Italy] will be really rough but I know that I can put in a good pace there – a rally-winning pace.”
JWRC competitors are able to pay the championship fees in installments, allowing drivers like Armstrong to collect championship points even if they’re unsure of completing the full season. Armstrong is extremely determined to complete the full season as he knows his strongest events are the final two on the calendar – Rally Germany and Rally GB.
“For Germany if you look at the drivers in the championship, none of them are tarmac drivers so that should be an easy win in my eyes.
“Then GB is my home rally and will be points and a half. Even though I haven’t done those stages too much I know my way around them from spectating and being at rallies like the Cambrian which use some of the same stages. If I can get to that point I’ll be very happy.”
Since doing the Drive DMACK Trophy in 2016 the financial requirements to put a sustained season of rallying together has resulted in the Northern Irishman doing one-off events. The most recent of which was last summer when he took his maiden rally victory on the Down Rally in a Mini WRC. In true Armstrong style he fought back from a puncture early on with a string of fastest stage times to take the rally win. But why has he decided to go back to front-wheel-drive competition?
“It’s partly progression and partly budget. For what this season will cost, I could do three WRC3 events.
“The progression there is quite difficult to get any further. You’re not going to win the championship and it’s very hard to get a drive off the back of just three WRC R5 events.
“With JWRC I can aim to win a championship and make progress. The JWRC champion will get an R5 car, 200 tyres, championship registration.
“If you win that, I’m not sure many people picked up on this, but you get two WRC events in a World Rally Car with M-Sport. There is no ladder of progression like that anywhere else in terms of getting into the WRC with a factory team.
“That’s a realistic goal to achieve that ladder of progression. To win JWRC this year is achievable, to win WRC3 is probably achievable too because it’s not a factory championship. You will be racing against other privateers rather than the likes of Skoda who have much bigger budgets.
“You have to believe in yourself to get there and if you don’t believe it no-one else will.
“I’m sitting here, I don’t what way Sweden will go but I’m prepared to go and be off the pace but I know by the end of the rally I won’t be too far away.”
A reduced rallying programme over the past few seasons may mean Armstrong lacks some recent front-wheel-drive experience but he is sure that he’ll go into 2020 with a better overall package than in 2016.
“I’ve had time over the past few years to work on other areas as an individual. I’m more open-minded, I’ve got better people skills.
“Potentially not doing real rallying allowed me to go and develop in those areas. I’m in a stronger position than I ever was.
“Rallying is a mentality sport so the more mature you are the more you can hold your composure, the more you’ll work around difficult situations and the better you’ll do.
“This year I want to try and work more on strategy of tyres and be a bit smarter about my approach. In 2016 I shouldn’t have crashed in Finland, if I didn’t I probably would have won the championship.
“When you’re not on the pace it is easy to go over the limit, trying to find the seconds. When you take a bit more time to analyse what the reason is it could be the set-up or something simple that unlocks the pace.”
While Armstrong’s future is by no means secure he is focused on making the most of the opportunity to once again prove himself on the world stage. Come Stage 1 on Rally Sweden Armstrong and co-driver Noel O’Sullivan will be back where they belong.
“I wouldn’t be doing the championship if I didn’t think I could win it.
“I don’t want to be looking back in ten years regretting that I didn’t at least go to the first two rounds or not trying. You have to bet on yourself.”
Photo: At World