The unknown rallying talent that’s stunned Europe

Michael Lengauer's victory on last week's Jänner Rally came against many people's expectations, including his own

04-Michael Lengauer Erik FÅrst JÑnnerrallye 2024 CR Martin Butschell

It’s understandable for rally fans to be focused on the World Rally Championship. It’s what every driver wants to win; it’s where fans can watch the fastest cars in the world, driven by those who’ve risen to the top after years of graft and thousands of miles under their belt to prove they’ve got what it takes.

But those drivers need to come from somewhere. To spot them before they’ve made a name for themselves on the international stage, you’ve got to delve deeper. You’ve got to look at the national series.

Thanks to Central European Rally, Austria gets to be the center of the stage rallying world in the autumn. But it’s also the main focal point on the first weekend of every calendar year: Jänner Rally has been a fixture of the calendar for decades, occasionally as a European-level event.

We got a ‘proper’ Jänner Rally this year. On Saturday, snow had already begun to fall; on Sunday, it was like the Monte Carlo Rally had come early, with snow and ice everywhere. Narrow, studded Sweden-spec tires were the order of the day.


In rallying, more than any other motorsport, experience is considered key. You need to know the car to know its limits; you need to know how to manage tires to get the best out of them. And you need to know the stages inside and out.

As a four-time competitor on Jänner Rallye, Michael Lengauer has one of those ticked off. The rest? Not even close.

Lengauer has done 16 rallies in his entire life. Some drivers, especially well-prepared youngsters trying to carve their way to the top level, manage that in a single year. And yet, he won a national championship round, on merit, in a Rally2-spec Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo.

It was only the second time in his life he’d driven a Rally2 car in competition. The first time around, a year earlier, he’d finished fourth in a 2019-spec Fabia R5; on that occasion, factory M-Sport driver Adrien Fourmaux turned up and defeated the locals.

This is extremely unusual. You do not rock up to the top level of rallying in your country, with so little seat time, and beat the field on merit alone. It does not happen.

“I didn’t expect it. It was a dream for me,” Lengauer tells DirtFish. “We didn’t expect that we can end up first at the end. I have no words for that.”

It’s understandable that he’s lost for words. He is a rally fan living out a childhood fantasy that seemed unattainable. He’d spent years trying to find the money to do just one rally, to experience what being a competitor was like, back in 2015. He rented a Suzuki Swift – and he won his class on debut.

07-Michael Lengauer Sieger JÑnnerrallye 2024 CR Martin Butschell

“My childhood dream was to drive one time in a rally,” explains Lengauer. “I started with a small car and I would try it; it was good for the first time. So we worked to be better, to get a better car.”

It was another three years before he managed to get back behind the wheel. But he got better, and quickly. By 2021 he laid down a marker that made Austria pay attention: an overall podium finish on Jänner, in a production-spec Subaru WRX, against a field of Rally2 cars.

This progress gives Lengauer all the hallmarks of a young charger climbing his way up the ranks to WRC. If it’s not thousands of stage miles responsible for being quick out of the box when rally day rolls around, then what is it?

“I did some simulator driving; Richard Burns Rally. That’s the only thing,” he explains.


How many hours has he clocked behind the virtual wheel?

“Oh, that’s a good question! Many, many hours. Too much!

“Sim racing is good for concentration. I think it’s the main thing for me.”

This sounds familiar. The younger generation that is breaking into the junior ranks of rallying today are putting in hours behind the virtual wheel; it’s far cheaper than real-world testing, of course.

That’s also what FIA Rally Star was designed to do: use sim racing to find the best untapped talents around the world. Lengauer, surely, would be an ideal candidate.

But there’s one stumbling block.

“I’m too old. I’m 29 [years old]; that’s my problem,” says Lengauer.

He has missed the boat; FIA Rally Star simply came along too late to make it happen. Which makes this a race against time, of sorts.

01-Michael Lengauer - Erik FÅrst JÑnner Rallye 2024 - CR Michael Jurtin

Kalle Rovanperä has set new standards. He was only 20 years old when he became the youngest winner of a WRC round; he’d turned 22 the day before he clinched his first world title. But Rovanperä had also completed 16 stage rallies by the time he was 15 years old.

Is it too late for Lengauer to make it? No. Rallying is about experience – yet he’s already upset the odds more than once despite a thorough lack of said experience. It took Hannu Mikkola until he was 41 years old to become world champion; by that thinking, Lengauer’s still got 12 years to work his way up the ladder.

So, can he make his way to the international level of rallying, starting so much later than his peers?

“It’s a good question,” he says, followed by a long, thoughtful pause. “I don’t know.”

06-Siegerteam Lengauer-FÅrst und LKW Friends on the Road - CR Michael Jurtin

That thought hadn’t crossed his mind. Why would it? This whole adventure began to satisfy a lifelong itch; at no point did it seem like a career option. And it still isn’t. After that stunning Jänner win, his budget for the year is gone.

“WRC is far away, WRC2 is far away, ERC is far away. It’s crazy to think about that.”

Financially speaking, that level is another planet away for Lengauer. But his results thus far suggest that bigger things are within his grasp if the opportunity arises.