The blond hair. The blue and orange overalls. They sat in stark contrast to the surrounding Finnish evergreenery. They sat broken. They sat inconsolable.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Oliver Solberg had been his usual buoyant bubbly self. Running into him in the middle of the service park, I teased him with talk of the team around him. An apparently dysfunctional team. A team in complete disarray, so they say.
Oliver was having none of it.
He put his hand on my shoulder and silenced me.
“David,” he said. “This is Finland…”
He didn’t have to say another word. The blue eyes were shining.
The conversation progressed to the opportunity that lay ahead. The opportunity to live the dream and drive the roads that create legends. Saturday, for example, would bring the road where his father Petter had added a Norwegian flavor to that most legendary of roads in Ouninpohja.
“I watched that onboard so many times,” grinned Oliver. “Pappa and me, we watched it 100 times. I love it. We don’t use all of that stage, but the hairpin [at Kakaristo] will be special. I drove this so many times on the computer game. But I think it’s a bit tighter in real life.”
Solberg Jr’s enthusiasm was utterly infectious and the perfect antidote to the spiralling negativity which has infected Hyundai Motorsport.
I’ve known Oliver his whole life, like I knew Pernilla and Petter through their whole careers. They are, without a doubt, the most positive people I know. Negativity is simply not tolerated. If it’s not right, you look forwards, you look to the solution and the next step.
Seeing Oliver sitting in the forest on Friday morning was hard to take.
I have an Oliver of my own. My Ollie’s six years younger than his namesake and has played rugby pretty much since he could walk. I’ve stood on the touchlines and watched with towering pride as he’s stepped a couple of centers and powered down the wing for try after try.
And I’ve stood on the touchline when he’s been brutally sat down. Or when a dying seconds conversion has slipped just wide of the posts.
For me, there’s nothing new about an emotional Oliver.
But this was on another level. Seeing him sitting so alone was tough. Instinctively, I couldn’t leave him there. Space could wait. He needed a shoulder.
Elite level sport or playing for Shrewsbury under-14s, the feeling is scalable, but the same. When my boy missed the two points, I hugged him and told him there would be another game to win. It was the same today. There will be another rally. The world will keep turning.
But still, those bright, bright blue eyes were the deepest of deep red. The boy was lost in a world of pain. And there were no words. No words. Less than an hour ago, his whole world had been slapped against a Finnish rock and smashed to pieces.
Right now, that world is full of angst. It won’t last. He’s a Solberg, he’s better than this.
But right now, he’s hurting. And, what’s worse, there’s a bunch of folk out there who will prey on his hurt. They’ll take to social media and condemn him. They’ll laugh at his efforts to demonstrate his speed, his ability and his bravery.
Social media will, no doubt, be ready and waiting with its poisonous side, with supposed experts taking to their keyboards to condemn a young fella who has more courage, fortitude and determination in his little finger than they could collectively muster.
Yes, he made a mistake. Yes, he made a mistake in Croatia. But let’s not forget this is the same Oliver Solberg who carried the fight to Sébastien Ogier – on a level playing field – in northern Finland at the top of last season.
Solberg’s talent is there. His speed is there. I defy anybody to question his commitment and car control. Look at what happens when he jumps into a 600bhp Supercar for a one-off rallycross outing… he wins. And he wins in an overweight car.
What happens then? He loses the win for winning in an overweight car.
The wave Kalle Rovanperä is surfing stands over Oliver like one of Nazaré’s hundred-footers. The Hyundai driver struggling to catch any kind of break right now.
The comparison with the Finn is another source of torment. A year younger than the championship leader, nobody knows better than Oliver about the diverse trajectory the two are on right now.
Can Oliver surf? Can he get on that wave?
Yes he can. His pace isn’t the problem. What he has to focus on now is finding a way to work with a team which is pulling itself to pieces.
I’ve been careful with what I say about Hyundai Motorsport and I will continue to marshal such caution. But things have to change. Rovanperä’s career has blossomed to a backdrop of stability, positivity and support. Solberg gets the same. From some of the team. Some of the time.
Again, don’t get me wrong, it was Oliver’s right foot on the throttle when he went into Laukka’s first left-hander – but when Kalle attacked the same curve, he did so with the full support of a team and a car working in perfect harmony. That makes a world of difference.
And I walked that corner four or five times. It’s a long one, but it’s a nothing one if everything’s hooked up and hanging on. The rear of the #2 i20 N Rally1 was trying to overtake the front at the apex.
Listen to Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak, it’s exactly the same story. The difference for them? Neuville will dial things back on an event where he feels distinctly uncomfortable. There’s no more comfort in the Estonian Hyundai, but this is Tänak-land. Like my colleague Colin Clark said: “Ott’s ready to be a warrior this week.”
Sitting here, typing these words, there couldn’t be a more apt description of his first morning.
Difference for those two is that they’ve established their careers. One’s a world champion and the other one should have been.
Oliver’s a rookie on this road. He’s desperate to show the world he’s fast. He’s desperate to show the world he’s worthy.
He is. And time will turn those red eyes blue.