The Brabham BT44B might not have a handbrake, but with 450bhp courtesy of the combined brilliance of Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth in its Ford Cosworth engine, it’s little wonder Petter Solberg enjoys driving it.
And he’s good at it. So good, in fact, he’s starting to trouble some of the world’s best open-wheel racers.
The 2003 World Rally champion and double World Rallycross champion is among the hundreds of top drivers embracing the Esports boom while real-world racing is paused – but Solberg hasn’t stuck with his off-road comfort zone. He’s gone Formula 1 racing.
Solberg is not only a winner in The Race Legends Trophy, he’s now a championship contender in the online series in which a host of motorsport greats come together in identical mid-1970s F1 racers.
Four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel is among the superstars Solberg has beaten at their own game lately, and in yesterday’s Estoril event he tore through a field including 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button and double Indianapolis 500 victor Juan Pablo Montoya to win from 16th in the reversed-grid race.
He secured the lead with a move in which he went from fourth to first in a single dive.
It was, however, something of a topsy-turvy race. Button finished fourth having recovered from a first-lap roll…
Such is the virtual world.
Before the world locked itself down, Solberg hadn’t spent too long gaming. Like fathers around the world, he’d settle down to show his son how to drive, only to beat a hasty and ultimately frustrated retreat from the sofa hours later.
But now he’s driving for Renault in Formula 1’s official Virtual Dutch Grand Prix, competing in the Solberg World Cup and The Race Legends Trophy.
His Portuguese win has promoted him to third in the championship, just 14 points off series leader Emanuele Pirro – yet another ex-F1 racer and a five-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner.
One of the keys to Solberg’s enjoyment of the Legends series is the BT44B itself, Brabham’s 1975 F1 car.
“It’s quite difficult to drive, but it’s very rewarding when you are getting it right,” said Solberg.
“I did the Virtual Dutch Grand Prix with Renault last week. That was using the 2019 Formula 1 car and everything was so precise; more like driving a little bit on the knife. Is that what you say?
“But this Brabham, these older cars, yes you have to be really careful because they have a lot of power in the rear [wheels], but they’re quite soft as well.
“When I was competing in rallying and rallycross, I liked to run my cars quite soft to take great traction – but it also meant you could really pitch the car at the corner and drive through it on the throttle. This race car is a lot like that. I love it.”
Were it not for a race one spin, Solberg might have completed his weekend ahead of second-placed Button in the standings.
“That was a bit frustrating,” he said. “I was running in third place, but I got a wheel on the grass and it spun in a long left-hander. I think I hit David [Brabham] a little bit as well.”
He did. Twice.
“Sorry for that, David.”
Like the rest of the world, Solberg can’t wait to be back out for real, but right now the mix of DiRT-based action in the Solberg World Cup, a DFV-powered mid-seventies F1 car and the odd shot in Daniel Ricciardo’s R.S.19 has got him hooked.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “B****y hell, it’s difficult and you can get quite stressed when the big pressure is coming. But honestly, this is the proper Saturday night fever!
“All I need to do now is get Oliver off my simulator!”
Solberg is not the only driver with rallycross pedigree in The Race All-Star Series. Current World Rallycross star Kevin Hansen is competing in the Pro Cup races against rivals from the contemporary open-wheel, touring car and sportscar worlds.
His best results so far are a heat race podium at Lime Rock Park in the LMP3 cars a few weeks back, as well as climbing from 26th to 10th in race two at Estoril yesterday. He also was running in the top 10 in race one until Philipp Eng made a mistake and tagged him.