The last time Seb Marshall stepped out of a Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC was just over two years ago as he moved directly to the second step of the podium in Coffs Harbour. It’s fair to say he didn’t expect to be back in the seat of an i20 this weekend, but welcome to a modern world where anything can happen.
Marshall hasn’t competed in the World Rally Championship since 2019 when he partnered Kris Meeke in a Toyota Yaris WRC, moving to Meeke after a stint with Hayden Paddon.
In Rovaniemi to help his former employer Hyundai out with the logistics of a new rally, Marshall’s week changed course considerably on Tuesday, when it was confirmed Solberg’s co-driver of choice Aaron Johnston wouldn’t be allowed to participate due to the FIA’s COVID regulations.
Marshall is the archetypal co-driver. Chatting to DirtFish 24 hours earlier, the conversation centered on the frustration that coronavirus bubbles, despite being in the same town, there wouldn’t be the opportunity to share a beer.
Fast forward to Tuesday afternoon and the chat is rather more focused. Seb might have been asked off the bench just hours earlier, but he’s in race mode already.
But before answering any questions, he wants to be clear why he’s in the car.
“I’m keeping Aaron’s seat warm,” he said, “that’s all I’m doing this weekend. Obviously, it’s really nice to be back in a World Rally Car, but these sort of circumstances are far from ideal for anybody, especially Aaron.
“That said, I’ve been asked to do a job and that’s what I’m totally focused on right now.”
To that end, he and Solberg have already been out for some recce practice.
“We only did a few kilometers,” Marshall added, “but it was important for me to get a feel for writing Oliver’s notes. His system’s similar to the ones Hayden and Kris used: one to six with six being the quickest corners. That’s good, it means I’m not turning everything I’ve done for the last few years on its head.”
Anybody expecting Marshall to deliver the overblown hyperbole about the task ahead doesn’t know him very well. He’ll take this in his stride.
“My approach won’t be any different with Oliver than it’s been with the other drivers I’ve worked with,” he said. “I’ll get in the car and try to keep everything very relaxed, cool and calm.
“Yes, it’s a big deal for Oliver to be driving a World Rally Car for the first time and that’s a moment you never forget as a driver. I’ll do everything I can to help him get the most out of the event – but fundamentally, like he’s said a few times now, the key is for him to enjoy himself. Nobody’s expecting him to light up the timesheets.
“It’s been a while since Hayden and I competed together in an i20, but I don’t think the car will have changed too much inside – it’s quite nice for me to be going back into a car where I’m a bit more familiar. It hopefully means there will be no faff or panic in there.
“And to work with a group of people I’ve worked with before. OK, we’re working with 2C [Compétition] here, but I’m sure I’ll recognize a few of the engineers. Basically, what I want to bring for Oliver is a bit of assuredness.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited. The Solberg family's enthusiasm and passion for the sport is quite extraordinarySeb Marshall
“OK, I was on the other side of the car, but I’ve been where he was – competing at this level for the first time – and I know how that feels.”
This being a brand new round of the World Rally Championship has helped ease Marshall’s passage back into the co-driver’s seat too.
“If this was an existing round of the championship that Oliver had done I would have been busy working on notes,” he said, “I’d have rewritten them into my own handwriting, that sort of thing.
“As it is, I’d done a lot of the map work before the event – you know me, I’m all over the maps when a new rally comes, so I’d spent hours poring over them already. Since then I’ve worked on the roadbook and watched some onboards.
“The real work starts with the recce on Wednesday and then, of course, the real excitement starts at shakedown on Friday.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited; competing at this level with drivers at this level is why I started out in this sport and why I still absolutely love it. The Solberg family has been really supportive, their enthusiasm and passion for the sport is quite extraordinary.
“The chance to work with Petter and Pernilla is really nice for me as well. But, like I said earlier, I’ve come off the bench for this one.”