The European Rally Championship was once again left in awe of Oliver Solberg and Aaron Johnston after their commanding Rally Liepāja victory on Sunday. An imposing entry list which included an in-form Alexey Lukyanuk, Mads Ostberg, and Craig Breen wasn’t enough to ever threaten the young pair’s defence of Latvia’s high-speed ERC round.
Even a misfiring engine on Sunday afternoon couldn’t come in their way, although it did give them a scare.
“The car was going perfect all weekend,” explained Johnston, “and on Sunday’s first loop there were no problems. We went into service, it was routine, we didn’t change anything on the car.
“We went back out for the 40-kilometre road section, there were no problems. We stopped around three kilometres before the start to do tyre pressures and get the helmets on.
“When we turned the car on again and started driving to the start of the stage it began misfiring. There was nothing we could do because we had to clock in.
“Luckily she cleared herself but it took seven or eight kilometres of that stage to come good again.
“It was quite nerve-wracking, to be honest.”
Somehow, thanks to Solberg’s speed, the pair only lost five seconds to their nearest challenger Ostberg on the 16.5 km stage. The engine fault didn’t return and they bounced back with two fastest times on the remaining two stages.
With six stage-wins from ten and a 20-second winning margin over Citroen Racing’s Ostberg, the Volkswagen Polo R5 crew have taken the recent ERC competition in their stride.
The satisfaction of beating an array of experienced rivals left Johnston on cloud nine as he reflected on the weekend.
“Last year we had no expectations, we just went out and did our own thing.
“Okay, we were fast and happened to beat Lukyanuk but this year with Craig, Mads, all the top boys plus Lukyanuk again it was unchartered competition.
“I think this year was even more satisfying because we really did have to fight for it on every stage, especially when we had the little engine problem on the last loop.
“It just made things even more interesting.
“It’s a fantastic feeling and we’re very very happy to win it again.”
Hyundai’s Nikolay Gryazin was an early threat for Solberg and Johnston but the Russian’s promising start came to an abrupt end on the fourth stage. The pace was too hot with Solberg spinning on the same stage.
Gryazin’s exit allowed for a more controlled approach and Johnston’s description of Solberg’s risk-free but rapid driving style leaves one to imagine the future potential of the 18-year-old.
“Yes, we were going fast, of course, but we weren’t taking any risks.
“We were driving safe and taking no chances so it feels very comfortable in the car, the pace that we are on and everything is working well.”
The Irish-Scandanavian partnership will have a two-week break before showcasing their talent on the world stage at Rally Estonia. The World Rally Championship is set to return after a six-month break and their Latvian win was the perfect preparation for Solberg and Johnston’s renewed WRC3 campaign.
“The Estonian roads are slightly softer and more sandy but of course, they are still ultra-fast.
“Every time we go out we try to do our best, do our own thing, and not worry about anyone else.
“We’ll do that again in Estonia and hopefully we will be there or thereabouts.”
Irish rallying was in desperate need of something to smile about come Sunday afternoon. Callum Devine’s final day came to an all too sudden end, Cathan McCourt’s promising run also ended early, and set-up troubles tormented Craig Breen throughout Saturday.
Johnston’s professionalism and flawless co-driving leaves him with a bright future alongside the latest Solberg superstar.
As their immediate focus switches to the WRC, a continued push in the European Championship depends on any potential date clashes which are yet unconfirmed.
Johnston though was keen to share the benefits of doing ERC events and if things fall into place then a trip to Rally Azores is very much still on the cards.
Subscribe to Rally Insight to receive the latest Irish, UK and International rallying news and features.
Photos courtesy of the European Rally Championship