The last minute deal keeping the ERC title race alive

Yet again Nil Solans has faced tribulation to make the start but he's made it to Poland - albeit in a different car

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We are only three rallies into the current European Rally Championship season. This weekend it becomes four as Rally Poland begins. It’s not even the halfway point.

And yet it seems the title fight is already a two-horse race. Efrén Llarena and Nil Solans have bolted away out front, leaving the rest of the field in their dust. Between them they’ve won every round this season.

That’s something of a miracle. Not because their pace is against the odds – they were our top two picks to win the title this year, after all – but because one of them even turning up has been a battle in itself.

This should be Llarena’s season. He proved his worth in the ERC3 category with both the overall and Junior crowns in 2019. He then spent two years learning the ropes – one as Alexey Lukyanuk’s understudy at Saintéloc, followed by another learning year with current team RaceSeven.

Efrén Llarena

The cards have fallen in his favor. He has a full program in place across both the ERC and Spanish championships, backed by his national federation and MRF Tyres’ franchise driver.

Now he faces the man who had his old job, the driver whose responsibility it had been to put results on the board for MRF in the latter half of 2021 – Solans.

Looking down the back of the sofa for loose change has been the theme of Solans’ season. He missed the second round of the season, Rally Azores, because he hadn’t yet found the money to pay the entry fee, never mind the car itself.

Solans won the season opener but entries had already shut by the time he crossed the finish line. He found some local backers to rock up for his ‘home’ round of the ERC, Rally Islas Canarias. He won again.

That might have been it. As soon as he stood atop the podium in Gran Canaria, his 2022 program was over for a second time.

Until a reprieve came at the 11th hour. From Poland, of all places.

Kowax 2B Racing, the same team that revived Jari Huttunen’s career and took him to the WRC3 and Polish titles in 2020, threw another promising youngster a lifeline.

The deal was confirmed this week. He drove the car, a Hyundai i20 N Rally2, for the first time on Wednesday.

It’s not ideal. But at this point, he doesn’t really care about ideal. He’s on the entry list. Based on how his season has gone so far, that’s been the hardest part.

Nil Solans

“I’m getting used to changing cars!” Solans tells DirtFish.

“It’s the only way to survive. I’m quite a simple guy and I have really easy driving to understand every car, every team, everything. It’s part of the game and I’m learning all the time.

“It’s nice to be changing sometimes but it’s better to stay in one manufacturer, one kind of car, one team and just be improving all the time.”

Until now he’d been in an AR Vidal-run Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, a proven winner at the top level of Rally2 competition. The Hyundai i20 Rally2 doesn’t really carry the same reputation.

That won’t matter one iota to Solans. He needed a car, he needed backing – he’s finally got some. And we, the audience, get a title fight.

Nil Solans

“I know if I don’t find support with the whole season at stake, I’m not able to continue because I’m not rich. I work as everybody [else] and I don’t have money,” said Solans.

“So in the end we found this support from Hyundai from this team. It’s the only way for me to do it so I’m very happy to be a part of Hyundai again and just trying to work together with Pirelli as well and continue with the same line.”

That backing arrives in a slightly roundabout way – it’s not an official Hyundai Motorsport car but they do have some backing from Alzenau. And for now the only rallies they have locked in are Poland and the following round, Liepāja.

Together, driver and team must still find the backing to do the rest of the season after that.

But if Solans can turn his five-point deficit to Llarena into a championship lead, that might just become a little bit easier.

Words:Alasdair Lindsay