After Rally Liepaja in August, the European Rally Championship’s junior category for drivers in Rally2 machines looked a foregone conclusion.
Oliver Solberg had just swept to a commanding overall victory with a car that for a short while had been down to three cylinders. And that was after a podium finish on the asphalt of Rome a month before. With both those successes came ERC1 Junior wins, the sub-class for younger drivers aiming to progress to the World Rally Championship.
Rally Fafe Montelongo threw a spanner in the works. Solberg crashed on shakedown then suffered an exhaust issue on day one that left the Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 driver several minutes away from the top 10.
Rising from the ashes of Solberg’s Fafe flameout rose Grégoire Munster. One of Hyundai Customer Racing’s newest junior recruits scored a first career podium in a Rally2 car at continental level, and with it ERC1 Junior victory, turning Solberg’s dominance in the junior category into a seven-point championship lead. And he’d done it after spending most of the opening day languishing down in eighth place. When the going got tough on the last Saturday loop, Munster had got going.
Munster’s ERC form is quite a turnaround from 12 months ago. Back then he was with the factory Opel Junior team, which had dominated the ERC3 Junior series in its various guises with a four-in-a-row title run between 2015 and 2018. As its new top talent, the expectation was naturally on Munster’s shoulders to pick up the mantle and keep the ball rolling 2019.
He did win three rounds in the ADAC Opel Rallye Cup last year, narrowly missing out on said title. And he did win the Belgian Junior title for the second year in a row. But Munster’s run at the big prize was a disaster. No top-five finishes and three DNFs left him seventh in the championship.
“It was a strange year, as it was Opel’s last year in the ERC,” Munster explains to DirtFish.
“So for sure, I think the complete support for this last year was a bit less present than the previous years, rather than missing motivation. We had a lot of mechanical failures.
“Besides that, the thing is that it was the year of the new Fiesta Rally4, so that also made a huge difference that year. The Peugeot 208 and Opel Adam were cars from 2013-2014, and then you had this new car, so this was also making quite a big impact. If you look at wins in ERC3 last year, I think five from six were made with a Fiesta Rally4.”
There are no such problems this year. Though he started the year off in Monte Carlo with a Škoda Fabia Rally2, Munster is now one of Hyundai’s army of young drivers hoping to make it all the way to the WRC.
That switch seems to have suited him well. Gone are the tribulations of the tricky 2019 campaign, replaced with steady and noticeable improvement over the course of this year, which is his first full season in four-wheel-drive machinery after outings here-and-there with the Fabia.
His first ERC podium was preceded by fourth in Liepaja and seventh in Rome; plus there was a commanding win in the French Gravel series over Jean-Baptiste Franceschi (one of the drivers in those pesky Fiesta Rally4s the year before). Results are on the up again.
But an ERC1 title challenge? Maybe. Maybe not.
“For sure it’s our goal. It will be really difficult,” Munster says.
“We do not progress exactly in the same condition as Oliver but from a lot of experience, we can see that Oliver is one of the future WRC candidates. That’s also the guy to beat. It will be difficult but each rally is going a bit better and the pace is increasing so the gap between him and us is decreasing, so that’s good.”
Solberg and Munster are similar in many ways. They are the next generational of rallying dynasties; anyone with so much as a passing interest in rallying knows all about Oliver’s father Petter, but Grégoire’s father was also part of a 1990s golden generation of Belgian rallying.
Beyond Freddy Loix and Bruno Thiry’s escapades on the world stage, the likes of Patrick Snijers and Grégoire de Mevius were kings of the domestic scene in Belgium. Another member of that Belgian elite was Bernard Munster, winning the Belgian title in 1995 and reaping further success in Formula 2 Kit Cars as Snijers and de Mevius cleaned up in WRC-spec cars.
Munster Sr now runs a prep firm, BMA, for which Grégoire competes. And who else drives for their family team? Solberg…
There’s even dual nationality as a parallel between the ERC rivals; Solberg flies the Swedish flag while being half-Norwegian thanks to his famous dad, while Munster’s cars are always stickered up with the red, white and light blue of Luxembourg despite his dad being a Belgian rallying legend.
But the playing field is not a completely level one according to Munster. Somewhat echoing 2018 ERC champion Alexey Lukyanuk’s words to a lesser extent, he points out that Solberg’s level of support and testing regime is unparalleled at Rally2 level.
“He has all the engineering support, all the knowledge, and big support from Pirelli, doing big tests and everything,” Munster adds.
“I think we are quite lucky ourselves as the Belgian-Luxembourg crew to have driven the most this year. They are able to do more testing, that’s the difference.”
Munster’s certainly no pauper. With backing from Hyundai Belgium and a place in Hyundai Motorsport’s junior set-up, which provides access to set-up data from other i20 R5s on similar events and the occasional supply of an engineer from Alzenau, he’s better placed than many of his rivals to succeed. But nothing can beat more time behind the wheel.
“If you look at the profile from each driver, maybe we drove a bit more rallies or [a] similar [amount]. But he is testing more, no?
“Now it’s always easy to say he’s doing this and he’s doing much more than all the rest, so it’s normal that he’s in front. That’s not my goal to say. He has his own structure, we have our own, and I think [we] both try to do the best within the possibilities of each and we are already really happy to do as much rally as we did this year.”
Munster’s father’s influence has been, unsurprisingly, useful. But curiously, it’s not his dad’s experience behind the wheel which has perhaps been the most valuable, but his experience as a team manager. Through BMA, he has more than the insight of one driver to hand; it’s lots of them. And plenty of good ones.
“Something particular with me is that not only is my father the team manager but he was also previously a driver himself, so he has quite a lot of advice to give on specific conditions and just knowledge about tracks and things like that,” Munster says. “So it’s always handy to have a father like that who has so many years of experience in rallying.
“He also has all the experience of being a team manager and all the different customers who’ve driven with the team. For example, Eric Camili in Corsica, Stephan Lefebvre in Germany, Craig Breen in Ypres, so he also has all this feedback he gets from these drivers. It’s nice to have all these different ideas and perspectives to get a better idea and advice in general for the sport.”
Before the title assault on ERC1 Junior resumes, more events in Belgium had been planned before they were canceled due to rising COVID-19 cases in the country. His outings were to dial him into the unique challenges of Ypres, which Munster will contest in WRC3.
In that sense, it’s not a surprise Munster’s breakthrough result in ERC came at Rally Fafe Montelongo. Portuguese asphalt and Belgian asphalt in theory aren’t supposed to be the same but, such were the conditions in Fafe, tire selection became a lottery and grip levels changed repeatedly and to an extreme degree during a single stage from plenty of adhesion to skating on an ice rink.
As Munster found out to his cost on the recent Aarova Rally, that’s fairly Belgian.
“It was already a couple of rallies that we did without any big mistakes so when you are pushing for sure it can happen that you do a mistake,” he admits. “It can be a really hard one or a stupid small one with big consequences like we had in Aarova.
“I think it’s also being back to Belgium with this really low grip Tarmac, I just got caught a bit stupidly, we were on braking in the first stage, 60 meters from the finish, that’s for sure not good but for me, it’s not the result so much that’s counting. It’s still our first year with the R5.
“It was more about the fact that with the Hyundai in Belgium we did not have so much mileage,” he adds. “For example, in the ERC we’re starting to have a car that’s really suiting my driving style. We have a lot of information about the car in different conditions, while in Belgium we only did one rally. It was also my first one so it was a complete discovery with the car for the first rally in Belgium, so not a lot of really good feeling that you can really trust.”
But when the feeling is there, Munster has been fast. Those changeable, lower-grip conditions in Portugal were at their most pronounced on the last two stages of Sunday as the rain increased.
Two drivers suddenly rocketed to the top end of the timesheets. Erik Cais, who as a Zlin native revels in the kind of horrendous conditions often seen on his home round, Barum Rally Zlin, was one.
The other was Munster, who took his first ERC stage win on SS9.
Luck? No. Good tire choice? Perhaps; he had gone with a dry-wet cross, which seemed to cope better than all-dry or all-wet choices made by several others. But he still beat everyone nonetheless.
At this point, Munster looks to be the only serious contender left to depose Solberg as ERC1 Junior champion-elect. His progress this year has been quite obvious to see, and the next step on the ladder after ERC1 Junior is WRC2. Might we see him in Hyundai’s factory team with the new i20 N Rally2?
“I think it’s the goal of every driver to get support officially in the WRC championship,” he says.
“We don’t have that much experience on the WRC2 rallies. We will do Ypres, we did Monte Carlo, Finland, and Estonia. So for sure, it will be a nice experience and if we get this one, that will be like a dream coming true. But we have to see.
“There are so many drivers aiming for this position so we will see. We first have to do some more results this year to be a proper candidate for this.”
Beating Solberg to the ERC1 Junior title would surely be a result that puts him firmly at the top of Hyundai’s candidate list.