It’s hard to argue with Andrea Adamo at the best of times. He’s a deeply intelligent and deep thinking man. Don’t be fooled by any of that self-deprecating nonsense.
And he’s right in his appraisal that Hyundai Motorsport has “the best compromise between experience and youth and the ideal mix for a new era of WRC.”
Only Jari-Matti Latvala, Carlos Sainz, Petter Solberg and Sébastien Loeb have started more WRC rounds than Dani Sordo. That, right there, is what you call experience. Turning your back on your teenage years last month? That’s Oliver Solberg covering off the youth side of things.
Maybe the more interesting aspect of Adamo’s statement is the bit about the WRC’s new era. That’s the bit I’m interested in. And that’s the bit where I can’t really decide where I stand.
On one hand, we’re going to have the most complicated and potentially fastest rally cars in the sport’s history (at least when the hybrid boost is being deployed alongside internal combustion).
On the other, we’ve never started a season so totally and completely in the dark. Experience? What does that really look like as we prepare for the first year of Rally1?
This is a formula nobody has driven before. Nobody knows what hybrid will really be like when we get to the first stage in Monte Carlo.
Rarely has a sheet of paper been cleaner. Rarely, you could argue, has experience been so irrelevant.
Sordo has started 175 rounds of the WRC. But he and Solberg have precisely the same level of experience of a Rally1 car in competition. That level of experience is universal across the service park.
Added to that, there’s the strong and sensible argument that time in a Rally2 car isn’t necessarily a bad thing going into 2022 – given parallels between platforms which include five-speed transmission, no center differential, limited suspension travel and seriously dialled down aero.
Now more than ever you can construct an argument that this is a good time for a young driver to step up – certainly more so than when the previous homologation cycle was in its infancy. Remember the paranoia about letting the young and old anywhere near a 2017 car?
Let’s be honest, being so fresh out of his teenage years, Solberg’s going to be ruthlessly well-versed in knowing how and when to keep his device charged.
Is it a gamble to go with Solberg? Of course it is. But no more so than when Tommi Mäkinen gave Kalle Rovanperä the green light to step aboard a Toyota Yaris WRC in Monte Carlo at the top of the 2020 season. That hasn’t worked out too badly.
The key thing here is not to be fooled by the absence of fulsome facial hair or a workable understanding of life before the 21st century kicked off.
Oliver Solberg was taming his dad’s 600bhp DS 3 Supercar when he was 13. He was winning races in it two years later. And the RallyX Nordic Championship title a year later. He has grown up with the smell of petrol and the sound of cylinders.
Driving is not something new to him. And nor is competition or the World Rally Championship.
This is the new generation. We played with radio-controlled cars, they put mile after mile down on simulators. Then turned the virtual real as soon as their feet could touch the pedals. Solberg is as ready for this as Rovanperä was.
Wouldn’t keeping Craig Breen have been the most obvious answer for next season?David Evans
Granted, he didn’t arrive at Wednesday’s announcement basking in the glory of a WRC2 win or a stunning rally similar to the one he put together in Lapland earlier this season, but that doesn’t make his selection any less coherent.
Solberg’s had a tough run; there’s no questioning his ability and his potential. But does that make him the right man for the job? Yes, by the ‘ideal mix’ criteria Adamo set out up top. There’s a hint of the marketing speak about ‘ideal mix.’
Adamo’s objective for 2022 is much more straightforward: both world championships.
Is this the set-up that’s going to deliver the most points and the best wingman for Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak? Possibly. Possibly not.
You could argue that returning a driver like Andreas Mikkelsen to the team might have been the way to go. Or maybe Adamo should have chased Esapekka Lappi? Or Hayden Paddon – the Kiwi’s definitely been overlooked here, given his understanding of alternative energy-sourced rallying.
There’s no doubt a rotated third seat delivers more strategic flexibility, especially when it comes to gravel rallies in the summer. But by his own admission, Adamo considered trading that for continuity and familiarity of one driver in the third car.
But who? Sordo’s not fussed by a full campaign anymore. And the likes of Lappi, Paddon or Mikkelsen might have come via the party line of supporting Tänak and Neuville, but once they got their own title tilt moving, would they have stuck to it?
If it was going to be one driver, it should have been Solberg. If he’s Hyundai’s future, he’s Hyundai’s future. Whether you agree or not, Toyota pinned its colors to Rovanperä, got on with it and is now reaping the reward from that 2020 investment.
There is, of course, one very obvious point that hasn’t been made yet. I guess it’s now the elephant which sits in the corner of meetings in Alzenau right now… Wouldn’t keeping Craig Breen have been the most obvious answer for next season?
If Adamo has made a mistake, it’s letting him slip. Breen’s result in Estonia last year should have made him a shoo-in for this year. By contrast, sending him off to drive about in the European Rally Championship was borderline insulting.
A Tänak-Neuville-Breen line-up for next season would likely have worried Toyota more than anything else.
But from a championship perspective, Breen to M-Sport Ford is a great, great story. And for that, we have to be grateful.
Ironically – but for quite different reasons – Hyundai and Toyota will now rotate a third seat next season, so the advantage Adamo has enjoyed in recent seasons will be negated by the prospect of Sébastien Ogier gleefully wiping the floor with everybody from 10th on the road in Sardinia.
A Sordo-Solberg split will work well. Sordo is a close friend of the Solberg family and he’s somebody who can help Oliver progress in every aspect of Hyundai life.
The two of them will, however, have to find their own feet with hybrid.