There are so many facets of rallying – speed, adventure, risk, and restraint. But as thrilling as the heat-of-the-moment split-second battles are, sometimes it’s the preceding trials that define a truly special story.
On the face of it, Jon Armstrong and Phil Hall’s Junior WRC victory on Croatia Rally was a mark of raw speed, clever rally management, and professional teamwork. However, it is the backstory that makes it a remarkable achievement.
Armstrong left for Croatia two weeks ago with a score to settle. His Junior WRC debut in 2020 came to a frightening end on Rally Sweden. His 95 mph accident might not have left physical scars but the Northern Irishman travelled home with a lot on his mind.
They always say the best thing to do after such an experience is “jump back on the horse”. As it turned out, Armstrong had to wait 12 months to sit in a rally car again, and even then it was only two laps in M-Sport Poland’s Rally3 Fiesta.
What Armstrong pursued in those 12 months built the foundations for his winning World Rally Championship weekend.
His drive to make it happen? Well, it’s quite simple: Armstrong couldn’t face leaving his rallying career on the bad note that was Rally Sweden 2020.
To fully understand the story, you have to go back to 2016. The then 21-year-old had just picked up his second Drive Dmack rally win. His reward – two world rallies in a Ford Fiesta R5 the following year.
Unfortunately, though, Armstrong’s big breakthrough opportunity also proved to be the start of the toughest period he’d face in rallying.
With the dregs of his rallying budget gone, it was WRC 2 or bust.
The realities of world rallying’s second tier hit home. Having no chance to start either Rally Germany or Rally Spain with a dialled-in set-up, Armstrong was unable to show his true potential.
However, he did manage to score a stage win in Germany against seasoned WRC drivers: Jan Kopecky, Eric Camilli, Teemu Suninen, and Pierre-Louis Loubet; on just his third day inside an R5 rally car.
From battling professional drivers in the WRC one week to facing his longest layoff from rallying the next; Armstrong had to look for unconventional options.
It was the only way he could continue his WRC ambitions without a rally car to compete in. Indeed, 2018 was the year Armstrong became a World Rally Champion without entering a real-life rally.
Just like his real-life rallying, it was a year of work – rally – sleep – repeat, as he claimed the Esports world title.
Armstrong’s lateral thinking worked. 16 months after his final WRC 2 appearance he was back in a Fiesta R5, this time with DiRT Rally on the Galway Rally.
While DiRT enabled his return to rally, which included his maiden overall win on the Down Rally, Armstrong still craved a WRC return.
And he got it.
But his Junior WRC debut on Rally Sweden last year proved to be another false dawn for Armstrong.
A giant crash, a backer who took cold feet, and the impending coronavirus pandemic; it all quickly became a nightmare he couldn’t wake up from.
It really was back to square one.
“After Sweden last year, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get back into a rally car again,” explained Armstrong after his Croatia Rally win.
“Seriously, those thoughts were in my head. It took courage to come back and with the support of people around me we were able to put together a package to come back this year.
“Without Codemasters and the other partners as well we wouldn’t be here.”
So how did he do it? How did Armstrong go from 22 stages in three and a half years to picking up the Junior WRC winners’ trophy on the 20-stage Croatia Rally?
Armstrong had three issues to overcome when he left Sweden last year: funding, pacenotes, and rally preparation.
The first is the biggest bane of most up-and-coming drivers. Rather than wishing his life away, Armstrong’s focus throughout was building a business case around his plans to go rallying.
Investment plans, business-to-business opportunities… They were all ticked off through 2020. Of course, with the economic market turned on its head things were not easy. There were many dead ends but finally Armstrong’s persistence paid off and he got the backing required from Codemasters.
And believe me when I tell you that Armstrong has thought of every possible avenue to make Codemasters’ investment worthwhile.
This was a deal brokered over six months of hard work and determination. He simply had to make it happen, or else it was lights out on his rally career.
In the midst of all this uncertainty, Armstrong was busy figuring out where it went wrong on Rally Sweden. It didn’t take him long to pinpoint his weakness of understanding pacenotes on fast, wide Scandanavian roads. But redefining his pacenotes to avoid it happening again – well that took some time and effort.
Armstrong opted for a fresh start with Phil Hall maneuvered in as his new navigator. Without having the luxury of warm-up rallies, the pair persisted with online practice in the unusual world of England’s lockdown.
The deep cuts and ever-changing asphalt roads of Croatia made it a proper dive into the deep-end. As Armstrong explains there were areas they had to develop mid-rally. But again this is a sign of their commitment to self-evaluate and self-improve, all with a desire to be the best.
“Throughout the rally Phil and I were having mini debriefs on the road sections just trying to work out how to improve things like pacenote delivery.
“There were certain things I was picking up on how I wanted them read.
“We were working together to make it better and it was really nice to do that.”
While some slight hesitations in Armstrong’s driving cost him seconds on the rally’s opening day, it became clear through Saturday and Sunday the pair were getting to grips with each other.
Armstrong had found the confidence and in the lead of Junior WRC, he was able to extend his advantage through to the finish.
Speaking to Junior WRC after his second stage win on Saturday, rally-leader Armstrong hinted at the efforts he was putting in to punch in competitive stage times.
“Last night I was up to half three doing my pacenotes. It probably won’t be as late tonight but adrenaline is a great thing.”
Reflecting on his rally win, I asked Armstrong if he had ever prepared as much before an event.
“I think so, I don’t recall putting that much effort in before. I knew the more work I put in then the more I would get back.
“Our pace was pretty consistent throughout the rally and I was never really taking any big risks the whole way.”
There is no question Armstrong’s determination to bounce back from rock bottom has pushed him to prepare for rallies like never before.
I’ve focused on pacenotes but his understanding and analysis of the car’s set-up is at an all-new level.
Ever since his R2 days in Northern Ireland, Armstrong’s raw speed was clear to see. But now armed with a professional, well-rounded approach he put himself in a position to pick up a 33-second Junior WRC victory – despite having significantly less experience of M-Sport’s Rally4 Fiesta than all his rivals.
This mature version of Fermanagh’s speedy rally driver played himself into Croatia Rally perfectly. His lack of seat-time was looking ominous when he trailed every one of his JWRC rivals on Friday’s opener. Perhaps, like 14 months before, he had bitten off more than he could chew.
As it turned out Armstrong only needed a seven kilometre stage to bed himself in. He went third-fastest on the next 24 km test and finished the first day third in Junior WRC.
By Saturday afternoon all three of JWRC’s early pacesetters had hit problems. Meanwhile, Armstrong “found his mojo” and had the package to blitz the Rally4 class by 14 seconds on Stage 14.
“The stage just seemed to suit me,” explained Armstrong. “It was quite technical and I put in a really big push on the second pass whenever I saw [Martin] Koci parked up changing his puncture.
“I knew I was fighting for a victory at that point because I was pretty much level with [Lauri] Joona.”
The British crew managed their 13-second lead perfectly over the last six stages, extending it a further 20 seconds.
Even a slow puncture on the final stage couldn’t stop them from securing a perfect start to their partnership and 2021 Junior WRC campaign.
The fact that they won’t lie idle and enjoy their first JWRC success speaks volumes for the intentions they have this year. Next up is the demanding gravel stages of Rally Portugal but one thing is for sure, Armstrong will have every i dotted and t crossed before he steps on the plane to Porto in two weeks’ time.
He may have settled his score from Sweden but now that he has tasted the winners’ champagne, Armstrong is here to build a future in world rallying.
“It was a very stressful week, but it paid off and it was fantastic to win the rally.
“I wouldn’t have said that was possible beforehand, but we were smart and we tried to stay out of trouble.
“Once the confidence was there, I felt like I could push and the times were good. And, in the end, we did a good enough performance to win.
“There are some very fast drivers in this category and I know I need to keep improving.
“If I’m going to win the championship I need to figure out how I can go faster because I know it’s going to be a big challenge.
“We’ve made a good start but I also need to be faster and smarter, find the performance and stay out of trouble.”
Photos courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool, M-Sport, and Junior WRC