Irish Rallying World Rally Championship

Johnston: Rally Monte-Carlo ending was heartbreaking

Oliver Solberg and Aaron Johnston were left wondering what if when their Rally Monte-Carlo came to an end with less than 10 stage kilometres remaining. Their Hyundai i20 stuck in a snowbank five and a half kilometres into the final stage of the World Rally Championship’s season-opener.

The car slid a metre wide on one of Briançonnet – Entrevaux’s icy right-handers while Solberg and Johnston were pushing to finish the iconic event as the third-fastest Rally2 entry.

“Sunday was tough,” explained Johnston. “It hurt quite a lot but as they say, that’s rallying and there is not too much we can do about it.

“We were only 1.4 seconds ahead of Eric Camilli going into the last stage so it was all to play for. We rolled the dice but unfortunately this time we got bite hard.

“It’s just how it goes, you want to do the best you can. We had a chance to be in the top ten overall and on the R5 podium in Monaco so of course, we had to try but it just wasn’t meant to be this time.

“We have to look at the positives and there are a lot of them to take this weekend. But it was heartbreaking yesterday when we were sitting at the side of the road.”

Getting to grips with Hyundai

There were indeed plenty of positives for Johnston and Solberg on just their second-ever Rally Monte-Carlo and second time competing in a Hyundai.

In fact, their initial plan was to gain experience as they didn’t register to score WRC 2 points this time around. Minus the nine kilometres they missed on the final stage, they practically gained as much seat-time as they could.

And as ever, Solberg showed glimpses of his breathtaking pace. A fourth-fastest time overall on a slippery Sunday opener was the highlight.

“The speed was getting faster with every passing stage,” said Johnston. “Oliver hasn’t done so much on tarmac still, I think it was our seventh tarmac rally and the first in the Hyundai with a very limited test beforehand.

“We only had a day and a half before the rally because we had to go back to the Arctic and then no shakedown this year because of Covid. So we went straight back into tarmac from the snow and it took a couple of stages to get the feeling back and get at one with the car again.

“He definitely is more comfortable [with the car] now than he was at the start of the rally.

“At every service and even on the road sections between stages we were constantly making changes to improve the car and to make his feeling more comfortable and more acclimatised to it.

“In my opinion I believe every single R5 car currently on the market is very similar in performance but the drivability of the cars is different with every driver. You have to set it up for your own personal preference and that just takes time and experience.”

Ice crews

Johnston described Monte-Carlo as the most difficult rally on the WRC calendar for a co-driver. The Northern Irishman was constantly updating his pacenotes as he received updates from his ice note crew.

It’s a unique part of Monte-Carlo and an essential one to stay on top of the constantly evolving road conditions. As crews found out on Sunday, even updated ice notes don’t guarantee a predictable stage ahead.

“I have to keep an eye on everything: the timing, the roadbook, when the pacenotes are on your lap and the phone is in your hand looking through Whatsapp pictures that the ice note crew has sent. There is a lot to manage in that respect but it is just another part of the challenge and it is one that I actually quite enjoy.

“You have two options whenever you have an ice crew: you either send them in early, two or three hours before you’re there so they can do the full loop to help with the tyre choice, or you send them in ten minutes before the road closes.

“This year we decided on the latter option because we wanted the most up-to-date information about the weather for the pacenotes.

“Unfortunately on the last day, the conditions changed dramatically with sunrise.

“When the ice crews went through, okay yes there were places of ice, but there was nothing to what there was on Sunday morning. It was just complete black ice from start to finish.

“Again that is part of this sport, you have to adapt to the conditions and drive accordingly. It is just another element that you have to manage on Monte.”

Arctic Rally Finland

Next up for Hyundai’s young WRC 2 pairing is Arctic Rally Finland. They had a taster of the event a week before Monte-Carlo, finishing as the second fastest Rally2 car on the Arctic Lapland Rally. Both events are based in the Finnish town of Rovaniemi.

“Lapland was a superb rally. It was really enjoyable, but it was unbelievably cold.

“When you are standing about at minus 34 degrees Celsius in a racesuit with plimsoll racing boots on your feet it is a cold place to be.

“It is a magical place to go rallying because the conditions are superb. You have ultra-fast roads with inches of thick ice as a base and then you have the snowbanks on either side as your insurance policy.

“With the studded tyres it’s a fantastic place to go rallying and the grip is phenomenal. It was an event we really enjoyed.

“It’s unfortunate that Sweden is cancelled as it is only an hour from Oliver’s home. It would be like Rally Ireland for me.

“It is his favourite surface, it’s what he grew up with in the forests of Sweden.

“He really enjoys it and the conditions in Finland should be superb. It’s an event we’re looking forward to and hopefully we can achieve a good result there.”

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Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport

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