If Jon Armstrong wasn’t already considered one of the most prodigious rally drivers in the world, his incredible underdog performance in the European Rally Championship last weekend hammered the point home.
He certainly made a splash on Rally Azores. Unfortunately for him, he did so literally – setting the timing sheets alight but grounding to a halt through a water crossing.
A swashbuckling top 10 result that had looked on the cards, therefore, went begging. But the fact Armstrong was even in the running for such a finish, against the best of the ERC in a less powerful Ford Fiesta Rally3, was simply extraordinary.
It wasn’t like he was competing against amateurs either. Esteemed nation champions like Armindo Araújo and Norbert Herczig were left in his wake quite frequently despite their more potent Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo machinery.
“We had the aim to see how close we could get to the Rally2 cars but I think we actually got closer than we were expecting,” Armstrong told DirtFish.
“It’s obviously really good for us but it’s probably even better for the car, because not to disrespect any of the other drivers in the Rally3 cars but we were probably the only crew that had a really high pace.
“Who knows what it could’ve been like if there were maybe four or five Rally3 cars on the limit, there could’ve been quite a few of them in the top 15. But yeah, I think the car did really well.
“Some stages suited the car better than others. In general, you don’t want too many uphill sections, downhill is very good, and obviously the more twisty the better because the car is quite a bit more narrow in terms of the track, so it’s probably a little bit more nimble in the narrow sections. It was quite surprising.”
Wasn’t it just. Armstrong’s stall was set on the very first stage of the rally when he went ninth fastest, 22.9 seconds down on stage winner Ricardo Moura. And it was no flash in the pan – Armstrong was in the top 10 times on 75% of the stages he completed, and one of those was with a broken front-left brake disc.
The 13.6 miles of Tronqueira was poised to be the best of the lot. Through the final split, Armstrong was just 5.5s down on the pacesetter, on course for a sixth-fastest time before it all went wrong.
“That stage two stage time was going to be something else,” he said. “It’s a big shame we didn’t get to the finish of that one as that would’ve been one of those stage times you’d probably talk about in five years’ time still.
“It’s a bit disappointing about that but I think overall the stage times were really good, we were inside the top 10 stage times for the majority of the weekend. I think there was maybe one stage where we were under 10 seconds [to the fastest time] so we were quite happy with that, so yeah overall very strong.
“A top 10 result obviously, that would’ve been an even bigger talking point, but I think we still created a good impression and there were so many people talking about the stage times,” Armstrong continued.
“I sort of kind of forgot what we were doing was unusual. People kept saying about the stage times and I was like ‘yeah, it’s quite normal now at this point’ so I was just trying to get as close as possible then for the rest of the rally.
“Once we had a good stage time and I knew it was possible then it was kind of frustrating if I couldn’t get really close. I think overall it was a strong weekend for us and a strong weekend for the car as well.
“We would’ve got more recognition if we’d have got the overall result, but we still got, let’s say, 50% of what we would’ve got.”
I've maybe come in at the wrong angle and with a bit too much speed and the front of the car has dipped down going into itJon Armstrong
Perhaps, but Armstrong’s speed was completely unignorable. For any young driver, the raw pace they can show can ultimately prove decisive. We all know Malcolm Wilson’s mantra of being able to make a quick driver consistent but finding it harder to make a consistent driver quick.
That’s not to say that getting the job done isn’t hugely important though. Armstrong knows that, but at least this time his day one retirement comes at no great personal cost as he isn’t mounting an ERC campaign this season.
The important thing now is that he learns from his error, and speaking to DirtFish at Lisbon Airport on his way home from the rally, he already seemed to know why he ran into trouble.
“I think it’s probably my first time going through a proper watersplash and I’ve maybe come in at the wrong angle and with a bit too much speed and the front of the car has dipped down going into it,” he explained.
“You came downhill and round a short, right corner and then you went into the watersplash which is almost through a dip which I guess means the front of the car is probably more pitched down than usual and I guess I needed to be, I don’t know how much slower but I probably needed to be on the brakes a lot more than what I was.
“Honestly I thought it was going to be fine, I wasn’t expecting it to do damage, but we got out to check and we could see that the radiator had been slightly pushed back and it had caused some damage that meant we couldn’t continue or we couldn’t repair it.
“It was quite frustrating but as much as I’ve learned how to drive on simulators, I think potentially this was one downfall of driving on simulators. You can go flat out through water splashes and you don’t get any damage. I guess maybe I had a false sense of what to do in that situation, so a lesson learned.
“Also on recce, it was drier, so the water was a lot lower. Then when we got there, there had been a lot of rain overnight and it was raining a lot that morning, so the water splash was really high. So that’s another lesson learned: if it rains then water splashes are going to be quite bad.”
Learning onboard, his focus has now immediately turned to Rally Croatia in just a handful of weekends, where Armstrong will go from being an underdog to a big favorite. He currently leads Junior WRC following his win on Rally Sweden and took victory on Rally Croatia 12 months ago.
“To be honest I think we’re in a good place, the main thing is to stay relaxed and try to do the best job possible,” he said.
“I think obviously there’ll be an expectation of a good result in Croatia and we will try to get as many points as possible. I want to win the rally if I can but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t, as long as we can stay in the mix and pick up good points that would be the minimum goal. Of course, winning the rally would be the ultimate goal.
“It’s going to be quite a challenging rally and there’s four or five of us that could win the event depending on what happens, so it should be one of the more interesting events of the season. But as we’ve seen in Azores, I need to try and stay out of trouble as well as being fast.”
At least there’ll be no water crossings next month.
“Yeah, you never know! There could be something worse,” Armstrong laughed.
Spirits are high, and rightfully so.