Title race. What title race? That would have been a reasonable question after Rally Liepāja. Ola Nore Jr had the European Rally Championship Junior title under his thumb after the first two rounds.
It’s all a bit different now. The chasers have fought back. With two rounds remaining, a three-way title battle has emerged as the crews head to Czech Rally Zlín.
Roberto Daprà’s home win in Rome has brought him back into the hunt as an outside contender. But it’s the man directly behind Nore in the points that the championship leader should probably be most worried about.
Norbert Maior has kept himself in the mix through sheer consistency: four rallies, four podiums. But this is the phase of the season it gets really interesting: Maior can loop back to past experience of these rallies and push for his first win of the season. A win that could very well have him at the top of the standings if all goes to plan for him.
Low-grip asphalt is the surface where Maior marked himself out as a future title contender. Three years ago, on his first ERC start, it was clear there was some potential to be exploited – as DirtFish highlighted at the time.
Nore comes in as title leader but the big story will be whether Maior can turn his potential into a result that sets up a winner-takes-all finale on Rally Hungary – the very same rally he started his European journey. It would make for a tantalizing finish to 2023. He’s the only one of the leading trio that’s ever finished the event before – giving him a big leg-up in terms of experience.
Daprà can’t be discounted, of course: there’s been one asphalt rally in ERC Junior so far this year and he won that. But he effectively has no experience of this weekend’s event: he only completed two stages last year before crashing out – and he didn’t come back the next day.
You can forgive Daprà his 2022 mistake despite a clear affinity for the black stuff: Rally Zlín is hardly your average asphalt rally. It has earned the right to call itself the most treacherous sealed-surface event in the world – especially when it rains. It’s one of those national rallies where the locals tend to be unstoppable.
Lucky for the ERC Junior drivers, there are no Czechs in their class this year. So outside the top three it’s about looking at the regulars who could mount a challenge to the title chasers.
Factory-backed Opel driver Timo Schulz had a breakthrough result in Rome with second place and will be hoping to keep the momentum going while still on the black stuff. At the opposite end of the scale in the same car, DirtFish’s very own Max McRae will be keen to jumpstart his season with a big result.
And what might Mark Škulj be able to do? The 19-year-old Slovenian Junior champion, who finished sixth in ERC Junior on his European debut in Rome, has driven plenty of stage miles on asphalt roads littered with gravel and caked in mud; a solid reference point for tackling the Czech Republic’s notoriously low-grip stages.
But when it comes to experience here, Maior has the edge on everyone in the field. The title race could be about to take a dramatic turn.