Getting Mr Hollywood out of Hollywood wasn’t going to be easy. In the end, a trip to DirtFish did the trick. But this was not ordinary trip to the ’Fish. This was about a world champion and a world cup.
World champion Petter and the Solberg World Cup.
Rewind two and a bit years and planet earth was a very different place. Traveling, you’ll remember, was very much off the agenda as the global pandemic took hold and COVID controlled almost every aspect of our lives.
Not long after the World Rally Championship had scrambled its way out of a shortened Rally México, the telephone rang. It was Oliver Solberg. He’d had an idea. Unwilling to accept the idea of no cars and no competition until told otherwise, there was a way around the rules. Virtually.
Six events on DiRT Rally 2.0 were selected, sponsorship had been sought and secured, but what about DirtFish? Were we interested?
A quick Zoom call with the team had senior instructor Jack Harrison more than interested. With the rally school temporarily closed courtesy of coronavirus, Jack had been left without his routine fix of online rig racing against his fellow instructors.
“I’ll do it,” he said, not bothering to wait for details. “I’ll do it. I’ll join.”
Jack was followed by almost 17,000 fellow gamers as the Solberg World Cup in association with DirtFish grew into the cyberspace’s biggest online rally competition ever.
And those 17,000 all fell in-line behind one man, the then 20-year-old Solberg World Cup winner, Swede Robin Jonsson. Winning four of the six rallies, Robin was the class of the field. He hadn’t exactly been born for this moment, but he had been recceing since he was four…
In the next two years, calls abound between Seattle and Sweden as dates were tried, tested and thrown in the bin as COVID refused to relinquish its grip on global travel.
Earlier this year, the date was set. And this one stuck.
That date was last Saturday.
Robin arrived at DirtFish early on Friday, had a quick look around the shop, glanced at some of the gorgeous machinery on display, tuned into our facilities and operations manager Eugene Thompson’s history lesson (Eugene’s been here from the get-go) and then headed for the door labeled ‘Sim Lounge.’
For all we know, he might still be in there, rearranging the names at the top of the leaderboard on stage after stage after stage. Rarely have so many DiRT records been broken at DirtFish HQ. And when I say rarely, I mean, never.
And then came the Solbergs.
Oliver had flown directly to California after a Rally Japan recce and was joined in Los Angeles by parents Pernilla and Petter early last week. After some sunshine and shopping – not to mention a day spent catching up with their buddies at Monster Energy – they were on the plane north.
Hollywood done, DirtFish was calling.
Oliver was dragged outside for a photoshoot with his latest merchandise (all very cool – you can find the range here) while Petter busied himself and DirtFish top techs Ryan Skinner and Tim Barnett with questions about the center diff strategy on the school STIs.
Even on his birthday, he’s a man of detail.
Saturday starts with another man of detail, as lead instructor Mitch Williams leads the classroom session for Oliver and Robin.
Pernilla and Petter take a coffee, but they’re soon heading for the McRae Room as well.
“Is it OK?” asked Pernilla. “We would like to listen and hear what Mitch is telling them.”
Every day, quite literally, is a school day.
The only moment of disquiet comes when Mitch advises against the over-use of the Scandinavian flick.
Petter can’t help himself. He looks genuinely offended and raises his hand.
“But,” he said, “we are Scandinavian…”
Emerging from 30 minutes’ intensive schooling on weight transfer and the art of oversteer, Petter’s impressed.
That was good. He was on the power early, he is listening to MitchPetter Solberg watching Robin Jonsson
“That was so professional,” he said, “and so much detail in such a short time. I liked this lesson.”
By now, the car was calling. First up the skid pad, turning that weight transfer theory into practice. Then the slalom. Focus on the next corner. Don’t stare at the end of the hood.
Then the link. The first real stage. The first real test.
Off the start, there’s just time to take second gear before a square left. If you’re feeling confident. Robin’s feeling confident.
The car starts to slide at the entry to the corner. He keeps it pinned and four-wheel drive hauls the DirtFish Subaru through.
Mitch is taking the first run on every section. He’s impressed inside the car. Outside Petter, Oliver and I are talking about the weather, life in LA and next season.
All that stops.
“That was good,” said Petter. “He was on the power early, he is listening to Mitch.”
Oliver’s smiling. Laughing.
“I think he’s loving it,” he added. Sensing my slight concern, Oliver laughs a bit more.
“Don’t worry, David. Mitch is a very cool guy, he’s like the Top Gun guy in a rally car. He has it under control.”
And that’s how the day progressed. With Robin getting quicker and quicker and quicker.
Mitch sensed my unease.
“The red mist’s not there yet,” he said. “Don’t worry, I know what to look out for. We see it reasonably regularly, we know what to look out for. He’s listening. And learning.”
And loving it.
Swede’s aren’t always the most expressive. Think Stig. Blomqvist’s not known for using two words when one will do. Robin’s cut from the same cloth. But as the day rolls by, the nerves fade and the smile grows ever, ever wider.
He’s really getting it and leaves fellow Solberg World Cupper, our own Jack Harrison, to explain the process.
“I remember a couple of years ago, the transition back to the rally car was strange,” said Jack. “Being so long in the sim during COVID, you learned to drive visually. So you were trying to adjust the attitude of the car, just by using your vision.
“When you got back in the car again, you can feel the weight transfer and movement of the car, it’s almost like having super powers and can be a little overwhelming at first. The sim and the Solberg World Cup taught me a lot.”
That’s where Robin is now. In sim terms he’s Kalle Rovanperä. But today he’s repackaging those skills and that knowledge.
Having taught Oliver another DiRT lesson over lunch, the tutorial’s coming the other way now as Solberg starts to really enjoy himself. The WRX is coming through the ‘The Ws’ at angles we’ve simply never seen before. It’s all power, controlled aggression and a lot of laughing.
“We were sliding so much I was expecting the branches of the tree to come to my lap,” laughed Robin, smile now a mile wide.
“I can’t believe this day. I don’t know what to say to say thank you to DirtFish and to Oliver. I can’t believe what we’ve been doing in this car and with these guys. I never forget this day.”
And just when the day couldn’t get any more unbelievable, it did just that.
Just when the intensity and fun were at the absolute max, DirtFish and the Solbergs did what DirtFish and the Solbergs do.
You’re going to have to wait a week or two for that one. We’ve got 300GB of film to filter the great from the good and the golden from the great.
It’ll be worth the wait.