Have Hyundai’s decisions actually helped Solberg?

There's a chance that reverting to WRC2, with the best car and team, could revive his WRC career


I won’t forget the sudden feeling of sadness I experienced when I got the text from David Evans telling the DirtFish newsdesk what was coming.

Oliver Solberg, out of Hyundai. Out of a top-line World Rally Championship drive.

Plenty may disagree with me here, but it just didn’t feel fair. Sure, Solberg’s 2022 World Rally Championship performances weren’t impeccable, but how could they be when he was learning the trade with a compromised car inside a team in considerable disarray?

It felt as if Solberg had been set up to fail. Handed the dream ticket of a Rally1 drive but punished by a sudden and dramatic shift in strategy from Hyundai’s top brass to go for experience instead.

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Cue the recruitment of Esapekka Lappi from Toyota and Craig Breen from M-Sport.

Solberg? Kicked to the curb – but far from kicked to the ground.

Just three weeks after the bombshell that ultimately kickstarted this year’s crazy WRC silly season, Solberg was back out competing. Why sit and fester when you can get back on the horse and rediscover the love?

A car park in the small north Welsh town of Llanwrst was hardly somewhere Solberg anticipated he’d be standing in 2022, but there wasn’t a hint of arrogance, frustration or even hurt. He wasn’t too good for this; he needed this.

“It’s strange,” he said. “Of course I’m not happy I’ve lost my seat, but I feel like myself again, you know?”

You could sense that Solberg had already turned the page and was fully locked on whatever lay ahead – not what may or may not have happened in the past. And it’s to his credit that Solberg will not go on the record and discuss his time at Hyundai. It’s done, he holds no grudges, time for the next.

The problem was, as much as he loved his dominant win on the Cambrian Rally on roads that made his dad so famous, nobody knew what ‘next’ was.

M-Sport had potential vacancies. As did Toyota at the time. The names ‘Solberg’ and ‘Edmondson’ wouldn’t look half bad on the side of either of those. But a deal couldn’t be done.

Rally1, at least for next year, won’t beckon for young Solberg.

But if you can’t be in a Rally1 car, there’s a very clear next best place to be. Toksport, in Škoda Motorsport’s latest Rally2 creation. As soon as we saw Solberg testing the Fabia RS on Monday, Thursday’s news became somewhat inevitable.

Next year’s mission is simple: win WRC2 and fight his way back into the top class.

Give Solberg free choice of his old Hyundai Rally1 machine or Škoda’s Rally2 steed for the Monte, and the i20 would surely appeal. But actually, the heartache of losing a Hyundai drive may be the best thing that’s ever happened to Solberg.

When he was announced as part of Hyundai’s 2022 WRC lineup, opinion was split. But there was an overriding sense of ‘this might be too soon’ for a then 20-year-old driver whose 2021 performances in a WRC car had been patchy.

Solberg hadn’t quite dominated the WRC2 arena in the same fashion Kalle Rovanperä had that made everyone scream ‘get him in the WRC now!’. A common thesis was that he’d have been better served doing another year in the second tier before graduating to the big league.

I’ll be honest and say I didn’t subscribe to that belief. I felt he had shown enough promise to be able to cut it – maybe not slotting in quite as serenely as Rovanperä, but doing enough to justify Hyundai’s decision to promote him.

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That was, of course, before we all discovered how tricky an environment Hyundai was this year for even an experienced campaigner. Any young driver would’ve struggled with Solberg’s lot, so it’s no major discredit to him that he didn’t always flourish. WRC2 again, in hindsight, would’ve been the shrewder call.

But the fallback to WRC2 absolutely shouldn’t be viewed as a failure – and I’m sure it won’t be within the Solberg camp. The number of Rally1 seats is so limited and the standard of drivers within WRC2 so quality that this should provide Solberg with everything he needs.

Pressure – but not too much pressure. Competition – but not at the sky-high level of Rovanperä or Ott Tänak. And opportunity – the chance to prove what he’s really about when not compressed by a tricky situation.

That’s because Solberg’s short-lived Hyundai Rally1 tenure does mean he comes back to WRC2 with some baggage. There’s some that believe Solberg’s now a serial crasher, an overrated talent or not mentally strong enough to hack it.


2023 gives him the perfect chance to silence those critics. With what should be the best car in the field, driving for an ultra-professional team, Solberg can prove it all to be false. He can be fully in control of his own destiny.

A ride in an M-Sport Ford Puma wouldn’t have been a bad way to demonstrate this either, but when considering all the factors at play, this is actually absolutely the best program Solberg could have put together. Even better than if he’d still been wearing Hyundai colors.

He has the opportunity to become a winner again – an opportunity he likely wouldn’t have had had he remained at Hyundai. Not because the car couldn’t, but because Solberg isn’t far enough along his development path to regularly fight for WRC rally victories on merit.

It’s a philosophical debate that often lingers in soccer: is it better to be in the top-flight but fighting to stay in the league, or be in the second tier but fighting for the title?

For Solberg, the latter feels true. Time is well and truly on his side to make it back to the top class, and he already has the ability to justifiably compete there.

But I’m equally fully convinced that he’ll now start 2024 as a better driver after a year of WRC2 with less pressure and politics weighing him down, and more confidence in himself when he does make it back to the top.

So this week, when David Evans texted me, I wasn’t sad at all. I was happy. And, all things considered, I suspect Oliver Solberg will be too.

Words:Luke Barry