Oliver Solberg will be a top-level World Rally Championship driver at some point. There’s little doubt about that. But on his journey to get there, he’s unexpectedly been presented with an opportunity to become champion of Europe.
Can he make it happen? There are quite a few obstacles in the way on the European Rally Championship’s Canary Island season finale.
For the overall title, Solberg is really up against it. Saintéloc Junior Team’s Alexey Lukyanuk remains out in front with a strong chance of regaining the crown he last had in 2018.
With the Spa Rally called off, we now know that the best four scores out of five will count this year. That puts Solberg in a tight spot; all Lukyanuk needs to get the title is to get 13 points on the board this weekend. That’s not asking much for a driver who’s won this rally twice before.
Realistically Solberg needs Lukyanuk to have an absolute shocker to win the overall crown. It has happened once this year already; Lukyanuk’s navigator Dmitriy Eremeev made a complete mess of a rescheduled time control on the first day in Hungary and copped a five-minute penalty for the pair. Even then he still rallied back to get eight points on the board, plus Eremeev’s been benched for his old co-driver Alexey Arnautov.
A needlessly complex points system in ERC means points can be picked up in multiple ways. In addition to finishing position, the top five after each leg score bonus points in 5-4-3-2-1 order. Lukyanuk has a habit of scoring a few of these on every round, regardless of whether his Citroën C3 R5 ends up on its roof, the wheels fall off or it spontaneously combusts. And finishing seventh will guarantee Lukyanuk the title even if he scores zero bonus points.
But let’s say a meteor falls from the sky and obliterates Lukyanuk’s Citroën. An open goal presents itself to Solberg. What will he need to do to capitalize?
Solberg’s main goal with all of these ERC appearances has been to accrue experience on asphalt. This championship has lots of it; Rally di Roma, Rally Fafe Montelongo and Canary Islands Rally are all pure asphalt, while Hungary was an extremely low-grip, muddy asphalt event.
His pace has been solid on asphalt – he got an overall podium in Rome – but Solberg’s now going up against at least half-a-dozen sealed-surface specialists in the Canary Islands. Even if Lukyanuk no-scores, getting those 28 points is going to be a big ask.
“I’ve never been to Canary Islands Rally before, so it will be an adventure,” said Solberg.
“For the championship, let’s see; my main rivals Alexey Lukyanuk and Grégoire Munster have been competing on this rally before, so it’s tough for me to match that experience.
“For sure, there’s going to be lots of pressure to win this rally and fight for the title.
“Aaron [Johnston] and I have been doing lots of homework to get ready, watching as many onboards as we can. That’s all we can do really.”
Lukyanuk and Munster are not the only drivers standing in Solberg’s way this weekend.
Andreas Mikkelsen is back for another round in a Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo and, as Rally Hungary showed, he comfortably had the measure of the rest of the field. Craig Breen is also back in a Hyundai i20 R5 and based on both he and Emil Lindholm’s pace on Fafe Montelongo, the MRF tires should be a decent match for Pirelli and Michelin here.
So too is reigning French Tarmac champion Yoann Bonato in a C3 R5; while he had a nightmare run-in Hungary, he bagged second on Fafe Montelongo and the high-grip asphalt in Gran Canaria should be more to his liking.
The locals are likely to pose a big headache too. The cadence of the Spanish national championship is fast and furious, with only seven points separating last year’s Canary Islands winner Pepe López and José Antonio Suárez. López is also fighting on two fronts, as this rally marks the season finale of the Spanish Superchampionship where he’s fighting against a past Junior WRC champion in Nil Solans. He has to get a move on rather than play it safe and work the percentages, in other words.
Throw in Iván Ares, who scored an ERC podium on Fafe Montelongo this year, plus two quick Canary Islanders in Enrique Cruz and Luis Monzón – who between them have 41 starts here – and suddenly Solberg’s path to a make-or-break top-two finish to have any hope of overhauling Lukyanuk looks a tad bleak.
If, somehow, Solberg wins in Gran Canaria and scoops the ERC title, it will be a sensational last-gasp trophy grab; the heist of the year.
But Solberg can at least target a somewhat easier, if less prestigious, bit of silverware, in the ERC1 Junior title. He starts the rally one point behind Munster but so long as he gets to the finish line, he has the upper hand.
So long as Solberg banks at least 24 points in the Juniors this week, Munster can then score up to eight more points than Solberg and it won’t even matter. Dropped scores will come into play, Solberg’s Rally Liepaja nightmare will be wiped from the board and Munster’s consistent if unspectacular results in the first half of the season will turn into his downfall.
We did say ERC’s points system was needlessly complicated, didn’t we?
While the points dynamic is different in this title race, there’s less of an experience gap issue for Solberg in Juniors too.
Mercifully for Solberg, this is the first year López isn’t eligible for Juniors, and he’s had the measure of the other seven drivers who are this year. Rally Team Spain’s Efrén Llarena may well find an extra gear on his home ERC round, having already fended off Solberg’s late advances for the final podium place in Hungary, and factory M-Sport driver Adrien Fourmaux could potentially insert himself into the mix too. But in the end, none of that may matter.
In ERC1, Solberg needs luck to intervene. In Juniors, he can make it happen on his own. He was running ahead of Munster on raw pace in the early stages of Fafe Montelongo, the most similar event to this one, before exhaust damage ruined his rally. Beat Munster on the road and the job’s done. Simple. Unlike the ERC points system.
Saturday afternoon can’t come soon enough. Not only so we know the destiny of the ERC’s various titles, but also so we can put the calculator away until Monza Rally.