Northern Irish co-driver Aaron Johnston enjoyed a perfect return to rallying alongside Sweden’s Oliver Solberg with a podium position on Rally di Roma Capitale. The pair also topped the European Rally Championship’s Junior category, despite it being Solberg’s first summer tarmac rally.
The young Volkswagen Polo R5 crew finished behind Russian Alexey Lukyanuk and local legend Giandomenico Basso, both are European Rally champions. Their main rival for third position was reigning Irish Tarmac champion, Craig Breen, who finished 53 seconds behind the pair in his Hyundai i20 R5.
“We went into this event with no expectations,” admitted Johnston. “We said we’d just go around, get through the stages, and get to the finish to see where we were at.
“We never thought we would be on the podium so yeah it is definitely a good way to start up the season again.
“Oliver has been doing some stuff [during lockdown] but it was our first time in the car together in four months so it took a bit of time to get back into it and back into a flow.
“We had a really good weekend and we couldn’t really have asked for much better.”
Johnston’s four-month break since Rally Mexico is his longest time away from rallying in the past five years. The County Tyrone man went back to his roots by doing some table-top night navigations while at home.
Jumping straight back into competition with Europe’s fastest rally drivers is quite a task but Johnston and Solberg left no stones unturned in their preparation.
“We did some more recce practice in the days leading up to the recce.
“It got us back into the rhythm of writing pacenotes again before we started on the proper stages. So that was good and I think it helped us a lot.”
Onboard footage from Rally di Roma revealed the rapid delivery of pacenotes from the 25-year-old to Solberg.
“The pacenotes with Oliver always come thick and fast, you don’t really have much time to get a breath.
“It worked very well, we were both very happy with the recce and then carried that through to the rally.”
Solberg was clearly happy with the efforts of his navigator.
“Aaron is always doing a good job,” said the Swede. “He is a fantastic co-driver, the best in the world, so it was nice to have him back in the car.”
Solberg’s success over the past 18 months makes it easy to forget he is still only 18 years old and at an early stage in his development.
Solberg and Johnston focused their efforts on the Latvian Rally Championship last year which makes the ERC’s next round, Rally Liepaja, something of a homecoming.
Winning Rally Liepaja on their ERC debut last year was a remarkable achievement and Johnston ensured “having a target on their back” wouldn’t affect their performance.
Throughout their recent success, both Johnston and Solberg remain more focused on their own development and improvement. The calm belief in their capabilities is certainly paying off.
While a return to the Baltics could add some pressure, Solberg was instead looking at the positives.
“It is going to be nice to go back to the roads I know,” said Solberg. “We’ll start off flat out and see how it goes.
“It will be good fun to do some events that we know and have some experience on.
“We will just enjoy it and focus on our driving. We just try to go as fast as possible always.”
Rally di Roma marked a welcome return to top-tier rallying. The on-stage action didn’t disappoint and according to Johnston, the Covid-19 compliance was equally as impressive.
“I think everyone is into the routine of wearing face masks now but I have to say the organisers did a fantastic job.
“In service, everyone was respectful: keeping the social distancing and wearing face masks.
“Even the prizegiving at the end was all self-service, the trophies were sitting on tables.
“There was no interaction apart from your own bubble, or your own team.
“It is the only way we can do it for the next few months anyway if we want to drive.
“I think everybody is in the same frame of mind that you have to do it and it is just part of life now.”
Rome was only the start of what is set to be a busy second half of the year for Johnston and Solberg. They’ll continue their ERC1 Junior quest on Latvia’s fast gravel roads before swapping their Polo R5 for Skoda’s equivalent as the World Rally Championship returns to action on Rally Estonia.
Given their speed on gravel last year, Rally di Roma offered just a taste of what we can expect from them over the next few months.
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Photos courtesy of European Rally Championship