Josh McErlean and James Fulton embark on their first proper World Rally Championship campaign on this week’s Rally Sweden.
Ahead of their season opener, McErlean and Fulton travelled to Sweden at the start of February to complete a two-day test and a national winter rally in their PCRS-prepared Hyundai i20 Rally2.
Fellow Motorsport Ireland driver William Creighton was also there to get to grips with his new Ford Fiesta Rally2 before the start of his second season in Junior WRC.
It was both drivers’ first taste of snow rallying and certainly left an impression on the Ulstermen. As McErlean describes, there is much more to winter events than meets the eye.
“Before going I probably thought a snow rally was a snow rally,” admitted the 22-year-old. “But it depends so much on the weather leading up to when you drive on it.
“It depends on how thick the ice is below, how much snow there is on the road, how well it has been ploughed, and how big the snow banks are.”
A glancing visit to one of Sweden’s iconic snow banks stopped McErlean’s LBC-Ruschen Rally challenge in its tracks. With his first trip to Sweden nearing an end, it perhaps did no harm to test the limits.
“You probably think you try to use the snow banks all the time but actually it’s more a case of trying to get as close as possible to them and only lean on them if you really need to.
“As we found out, the snow banks can suck you in. It was an experience to see what actually happens and how simply it can happen.”
LBC-Ruschen’s rutted surface covered in snow was completely different to the perfectly compacted ice base McErlean and Creighton tested in a few days prior.
McErlean tested in Ostersund, inland from Rally Sweden’s Umea base, before travelling five hours south to his maiden snow rally in Lima.
“We tried different set-ups with differentials and springs to see what works best. There is a base snow set-up for the Hyundai so that was good to start from.
“Then it was a case of understanding how the tyres work, how long they last, how to treat them, how to get the best out of them, and how to make them last as well.
“I think this will be a big thing on Rally Sweden; tyre wear and stud retention will be massive because as soon as you go onto a gravel surface it is hard to keep them alive.
“We found out when the tyres went off and how to drive when they were off. There were a lot of small things that you never think of until you get there.”
Rally Sweden looks set to have perfect snow rally conditions this year. That is one positive consequence of the event’s move north from Varmland to Vasterbotten. However, Rally Sweden’s 20-kilometre Ortrask test, which runs twice on Saturday, has already been cancelled due to reindeer movements in the region.
Reindeer will barely cross McErlean’s mind though. The first round in his maiden WRC 2 campaign will be testing enough.
The Rally2 Hyundai driver has seven WRC rounds planned this year as he bids for success in WRC 2 Junior.
Photos by Conor Edwards