Josh McErlean was Ireland’s star man in the World Rally Championship’s first gravel round of the season last weekend. The young man from Kilrea scored an impressive top-five WRC 3 finish on Rally Portugal and now fancies a full WRC 3 campaign next year.
The Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver is hoping to continue building a platform of results across different surfaces throughout the rest of this year.
Rally Portugal was McErlean’s best WRC result to date, beating last year’s seventh on Rally Monza by two places. With WRC 3’s top four finishers featuring experienced Rally2 competitors like Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Chris Ingram, it was an indication of McErlean’s future potential.
“We had a target at the start of the event and we stuck by it,” explained McErlean. “Yes, there are a lot of changing factors in a WRC event so you have to adapt over the weekend.
“Our pace in terms of seconds per kilometre was brought down after every stage and I think that was the priority at the start of the event.”
Talking to McErlean one can sense how the 21-year-old values the importance of sticking to his development plan rather than getting caught up in final classifications. This year’s programme of events is just one step in his overall rally intentions.
“My driving has stepped up a lot since last year but there is still a lot more that has to come.
“I’m not scratching my head wondering where I can get the time but I’m part of a team now and I have to go with what the target is at the start of the event
“We did that and it shows we can stick to what people say and can go about it the right way. I think that was more important than the actual result itself.
“You always have to look to the future to see what the possibilities are and I think the Rally Portugal result is good for us going forward.
“The Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy is the main thing behind this and it obviously goes through Hyundai as well.
“It’s a case of lining up what everyone’s expectations are going forward but I think the WRC is where we want to be and for next year definitely we want to get a full WRC campaign under our belt.
“We have to use this year as a platform to get a baseline on different types of surfaces going forward but also up your pace at the same time.”
The Hyundai Junior driver sampled several rallies on the continent last year but Rally Portugal took that experience to the next level. 338 kilometres of rough gravel roads is not for the faint-hearted and two punctures on Friday gave McErlean an Iberian baptism of fire.
“I think road position was our biggest issue on Friday and the second pass was heavily rutted. You had to pick your way through it.
“They were both rear punctures so it was hard to see where we got them. It showed then on Saturday when we moved up the starting order, we didn’t have these problems.
“I think the whole thing is just that bit more intense in the WRC than the European Rally Championship.
“The events are longer and it is drawn out over a week. The road conditions are quite different on a world rally as well.
“In Portugal there were ten World Rally Cars at the front and we started with 30 R5s in front of us. So the road conditions are destroyed between recce and the timed stages.
“You don’t realise how big an effect road position has on stage times so I was happy to see how much we improved from our road position on Friday to Sunday.”
McErlean swapped top ten stage-times on Friday with top-five times on Saturday and Sunday. He went third-fastest on Sunday’s opening test, Felgueiras, just four seconds off the stage-winning pace of 2019 European Rally Champion Ingram.
After a rally filled with such trepidation, McErlean returns home knowing he hit every target set before the event. The cherry on top for McErlean can be the social media recognition given to him by Hyundai’s maverick team principal – Andrea Adamo.
Photos by Twenty Two Media