The last few days have not brought good news for those chasing down a championship leader in rallying.
Right now, Kalle Rovanperä looks virtually unbeatable in the World Rally Championship. Thierry Neuville, sitting second in the points standings, has conceded as much.
Now it’s the European Rally Championship where the title battle has taken a decisive swing. But this time it’s not on, but off the stages where the tide has turned.
Nil Solans had been trying to piece together a title run against ERC points leader Efrén Llarena with a series of last-minute deals. Two wins in the first three rounds – he missed the other one due to, unsurprisingly, budget issues – meant he’d suddenly thrust himself into contention.
It’s all gone a bit wrong since then. A broken damper sent him skating off into the trees in Poland, then a broken rim triggered a tire deflation that put him out of the running for a podium in Latvia.
Then came the hammer blow. The team he’d switched to mid-season, Czech outfit Kowax Racing, couldn’t bring its Hyundai i20 N Rally2 to Italy for Rally di Roma Capitale. Logistical headaches.
There was further pain. But that pain was felt most keenly by his co-driver Marc Martí – he injured his back while sat alongside Bruno Bulacia on last week’s Rally Estonia.
He was already 46 points behind Llarena – 39 after dropped scores kick in – with only three rallies remaining. Perhaps even two, if ERC fails to announce a replacement for the Rally Hungary round it lost from a blue card issued by the FIA in December last year.
Llarena’s main competition for the title has ebbed away. Like with Rovanperä in WRC, it seems only a matter of time until the new champion is crowned.
“With the small budget I had, I tried to find another option but I didn’t,” Solans told DirtFish of his last-minute efforts to make it to Rome.
“I have no team, no budget and no co-driver, so there was no way to come to Rome.”
His unexpected title run had come together somewhat by chance. With a ‘win it or bin it’ mentality at the season opener, Rally Serras do Fafe e Felgueiras, he dominated and scored a comfortable win.
When he found money to come back two rounds later in the Canary Islands, he won again. It looked but for a moment that Solans, cap in hand, hoping to scrape together money ahead of every rally, was somehow putting together a serious challenge to the well-prepared Llarena.
“It’s not the goal to go for the championship this year, even with the situation,” said Solans. “OK, we are not so unhappy, let’s say, to not be in Rome because in the end, the budget is a very important part and we didn’t have the budget, it’s impossible to do it. It’s not a cheap sport.
“It’s not the way to prepare a season, doing it like that.”
Solans hasn’t ruled out turning up at the next round of the championship, Barum Rally Zlín. It’s somewhat helpful that his most recent team is based in the rally’s home country.
If I have budget, it will be nice to make some last runs in the championship just to prepare the next seasonNil Solans on the rest of his 2022 season
But he’s already focused on what’s more important. Next year. A chance to start from zero and to try again – this time with something resembling a full season locked and loaded.
“We need to try and prepare everything now for the next season,” adds Solans. “Now I have more time to prepare everything, talk with the teams, talk with the sponsors, everything. So, we will try to arrange a good budget to do 100% all the season and don’t be like this.
“We saved [our season] many times, like in Canarias we found support, we found it everywhere. But OK, to do a whole season it’s quite impossible. We need to work for the next season right now.
“If I have budget, it will be nice to make some last runs in the championship just to prepare the next season. But OK, it’s not the case, so we need to sit on the desk, not on the rally car, as we say in Spanish.”
Llarena will still have his hands full in Rome. Between two-time ERC champion Giandomenico Basso, Andrea Crugnola, Fabio Andolfi and his own MRF team-mate Simone Campedelli, he has a big chasing pack of locals hunting him down.
But with Solans gone, he can afford to let the locals have their day in the European sun.