Some drivers heading to the European Rally Championship season opener this weekend are lucky. After months of talks, phone calls and contract negotiations, their 2022 programs for the year are sorted. Partners in place, technical team sorted, ready to rally.
Unlike factory teams in the World Rally Championship, where the drivers usually know upfront what their schedule is likely to be like, it’s often a bit different in the ERC.
Among the potential title contenders in the ERC this year is Nil Solans. He’s got a few of the rallies that feature in the championship under his belt now from his part-time campaign in 2021, so he’s no rookie. And as a past Spanish Gravel champion and 2017 Junior WRC champion, he knows how to hustle behind the wheel too.
Solans is at the opposite end of the scale to his compatriot Efrén Llarena. The new Team MRF recruit has a healthy budget thanks to his newfound factory status, and it shows.
Llarena completed two days of testing in Fafe a couple of weeks ago and will have an asphalt development test after the second round of the year, Azores.
“For us this year will be a bit easier because we will have a lot of test kilometers thanks to MRF because they are supporting us, along with Rallye Team Spain,” Llarena told DirtFish. “It will be a challenging season with 16 rallies – so I hope to do a really good season.”
And he has made a good start to said season. He won the Spanish Superchampionship season opener and leads the points at home – so he’s a good bet to do the same in ERC.
For Solans, the scene is a bit different. While his compatriots like Llarena, José Antonio Suárez and Pepe López were battling to be the best rally driver in Spain, Solans was over in Mexico conducting driver training. Rallying is an expensive sport and he had to follow the money – and for him, that wasn’t in Europe. In fact, when it comes to money, he’s only got enough to pay for one rally: Fafe. That’s it.
He’s in a situation that many drivers in rallying face – where’s the budget coming from? In feeder series that’s quite normal. It’s just in this case, one of the ERC’s prime title contenders faces the possibility of his season being derailed right at the first round.
The objective is clear: win Fafe, or he’s in trouble.
“We don’t know if we will continue in the championship or not but the idea is to start in Fafe,” Solans told DirtFish.
“If Fafe goes well… imagine that we win Fafe – we know that we can fight for the win, it’s not some crazy dream – once you are doing the first rally you can be leading the championship.
“And when you need to find support, it’s not the same situation as the start of the championship. For the sponsors, it’s a bit easier to convince them.”
There’s an additional problem too: his Rallye Team Spain funding has gone. He might be registered under Rallye Team Spain’s entrants’ license for Fafe but as things stand, there’s no backing coming from his federation this year.
He’s in a tough spot that will feel familiar for a lot of drivers. But Solans is lucky to have a secret weapon in his corner: Marc Martí.
Martí has co-driven for three of the greatest rallying Spaniards to have reached the WRC: Carlos Sainz, Jesús Puras and Dani Sordo. These days he’s a hired gun extraordinaire, bestowing his years of experience at the top level upon privateer drivers like Alberto Heller, Ricardo Triviño and, starting from Rally Sweden this year, Bruno Bulacia.
When it comes to his partnership with Solans, Martí does more than simply call notes. He was integral to getting Solans’ in the driver’s seat of a 2C Competition-prepared Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC when Pierre-Louis Loubet picked up his injury and left the seat vacant. How did he swing it? He called on his old mates Carlos and Dani, who subsequently lobbied Hyundai Spain and Rallye Team Spain to give Nil the seat. And it worked.
“Yeah, for sure,” responds Solans when asked if Martí is helping him get his 2022 program together. “Marc is a very good and important person in my life right now because he’s trying to push or help me as much as he can.
“When he went with me the first time he saw some interesting things on me and he was trying to help me because he knows if we get the opportunity, we can do really well and maybe one day be part of the WRC crews. That’s why he’s helping me a lot.
“I’m really happy and I have to say many thanks to him. He’s a very good guy and he’s trying to help me as fast as he can.”
Solans will need to be very fast indeed. Rally Azores is only two weeks after Serras de Fafe. Needing to bag a win to appease potential sponsors is, somehow, only half the challenge. And it had better work – there’s no backup plan.
“No, I don’t have a Plan B. Well, we have many plans, but all the plans need money!”
Llarena has a whole season ahead of him. He can be clever, play the long game, think about the championship. Solans? His back is against a wall. And for a driver in that scenario, all bets are off.
He might win, he might fall short, he might crash trying. Whatever happens, it’s always worth keeping an eye out for the guy who has nothing to lose and everything to gain.