In Monte Carlo, the round-one Rally2 race was all about one man: Andreas Mikkelsen. The Norwegian dominated in the fashion he’d fancied, but there was another Scandinavian happy to fly beneath the radar and dodge the support series spotlight.
Had he been running in WRC3, Oliver Solberg would have been leading by a minute going into the final stage. Had he been in WRC2, he would’ve started SS15 in the thick of a fight for third with former M-Sport factory driver Eric Camilli.
Having signed for Hyundai Motorsport in the off-season, the Gap-based event was 19-year-old Solberg’s first official outing for the Korean manufacturer. He drove a test i20 R5 on the Arctic Rally earlier this month, but Monte Carlo was his first high-profile outing.
“The plan for Monte was to drive for more experience and to get to know the car,” Solberg told DirtFish. “We drove in the Arctic and the i20 felt fantastic on the second day. But Monte Carlo is different. In Finland we had a car set up for gravel, while we were running more of an asphalt car last week.
“I had to learn the car again and for the first time in a long time I was with a new team without any of the guys from the family team. We were driving with 2C Competition, which was fantastic – they were very, very good, but it wasn’t quite so familiar like it had been with the guys I knew for maybe the last five years since I was in crosskarts.”
The team around the crew is crucial, but such things fade to the periphery once the stages start. That’s when it’s time for the driving to do the talking.
But still, Solberg wasn’t ready to make any big statements. This was only his second shot at one of the world’s most complicated rallies. And last year had demonstrated how hard the mountains can bite.
Solberg slid wide midway down the 12-mile road from La Bréole to Selonnet and damaged a rear suspension link when his Volkswagen Polo R5’s left-rear slapped against a curb. He dropped 22 minutes on the stage, but made the finish and learned plenty of lessons.
“You have to respect this rally,” he said. The thought of last year brings a change of tone, momentarily the sparky teenage Oliver has been replaced by a young professional. The grin’s gone and his pre-race face is serious.
“This year,” he said, “it looks we will have some really tricky conditions and we have to make the most of those. I want to drive on the wrong tires, I want to cross the tires, take all the options to understand how the weather changes the grip, the road. There’s a lot of take from this one.”
And what about the speed? Is that important?
“Of course it is,” he said, grin back. “But the experience is what we really need.”
In the end, he took both. His first split in stage seven was sensational, level with his i20 Coupe WRC driving 2C team-mate Pierre-Louis Loubet. Unfortunately that one was red-flagged when Loubet dropped it further down the road.
Top-five times in Rally2 on 10 of 14 stages, Solberg was at his absolute best as Saturday afternoon became Sunday morning.
Nobody – not Mikkelsen nor M-Sport’s top man Adrien Fourmaux nor any of the experienced and rapid French fellas in Citroëns – could touch Solberg through the last day-three stage and day four’s opener.
Better than topping the class times was the fact that he was fifth and fourth fastest overall respectively.
That was good. Very good. It demonstrated a massive step in pace from the same roads 12 months earlier.
Unfortunately, being the only i20 R5 on the entry, it wasn’t possible to measure him against drivers like his Hyundai Motorsport team-mate Ole Christian Veiby. The pair had, of course, locked horns in equal machinery a week earlier in Lapland with Solberg winning that one.
But this story’s about Oliver Solberg’s Monte Carlo Rally.
How good was it? Very good. There was a puncture, a spin and small boost issue on the car and a couple of other issues, but beyond all of those, the pace was impressive for somebody with experience of one Monte and only seven WRC rounds in total.
We have, of course, so far forgotten to mention the fact that he and co-driver Aaron Johnston failed to finish. They went off.
“So frustrating!,” said Solberg. “I was a tiny, tiny, tiny bit too fast to one corner and we slid off. We were stuck in some mud. If there had been two people there to help push us, we would have dropped 10 seconds. Honestly, this was so bad. I felt really, really bad for this. It was such a small mistake, but we paid a very big price.
“I was so scared to go to tell the team what happened, but they were amazing. So much support and so much help. But still, I was not happy. We made good pace and good experience, but we missed the chance to finish the job and make a nice story for 2C and for Hyundai Motorsport.
“One thing I can say, this Monte taught me a lot – a lot!”