It was Thursday January 17, 2019 at 5.21pm in Geneva. That’s when I took a photo of the whiteboard hanging in the office of Alexandre Gueschir, the FIA’s marketing director. That is when we just laid the foundations of what would soon be called Rally Star.
Alex and I worked together at the FFSA [French Federation of Automobile Sport], so we knew the genesis of the Rallye Jeunes detection program, which enabled Sébastien Loeb, Sébastien Ogier and so many others to start their career.
Fast forward to Thursday January 27, 2022 at 9.12 am in Buxtehude, a jovial Dutch driver places our container in the paddock of Estering, the rallycross circuit located south of Hamburg. More than three years after that initial meeting, we are organizing our first continental final.
The arduous journey to Germany had involved working out the minute details of FIA Rally Star, putting together the financing, convincing the partners and, above all, confronting the challenges of a pandemic that put the world on hold for many months.
Despite the adversity of the virus, many national federations managed to organize selections. The support and commitment of the ASNs and member clubs was critical in laying the groundwork for the success of our first event. Without them, FIA Rally Star would not have happened.
First there was the digital challenge in Oulu [Finland] on February 13 2021, followed the next day by the Tbilisi Slalom in Georgia, and then dozens of events across Europe. For those who did not have a selection near their home country, the #RallyAtHome online selections were held on the WRC9 game.
All of these selections resulted in 89 young people from 22 countries qualifying, who we expect to see at Estering the next day. For the time being, everything has to be set up in the pouring rain. Nicolas, Bryan and Bob do not spare any effort. They are soon joined by the happy gang from LifeLive, led by Yannick and Alain Neuville, Thierry’s brother and father.
Our paddock takes shape and everything is finally set up before nightfall, which comes at 5pm sharp. That’s our concern for the next day: the schedule is very tight and leaves no room for the unexpected.
On Friday, the first driver of Group A takes to the track at 9am. The Czech competitor Lukáš Matěja was selected in the draw. Romet Jürgenson, the future winner, will start in Group C, in sixth position. Despite the impeccable execution of our team, a few run-offs meant we fell behind and we were forced to postpone the last two groups until Saturday morning.
Once stage 1 is over, we continue the process with a second confrontation between the 33 fastest drivers. The rain makes the track very tricky and you can feel that tempers are flaring, as this stage 2 is all about consistency.
There are too many drivers making mistakes, the time is running out and it is becoming obvious that we will not be able to get everyone to drive. We decide again to postpone some rounds to the next day. The mechanics need time to repair the machines which have suffered a lot.
As the last candidates leave the circuit, the wind picks up in Buxtehude. Our inflatable tents are tossed about like rag dolls in the storm and we try to hold them up. Jan Regner, the organizer of the Barum Rally who has come to supervise the young Czech drivers, gives us a welcome helping hand.
But it becomes clear that we will not be able to fight against the elements. We decide to gather all the material under the LifeLive structure, which is itself attached to a tractor. With the help of the Estering marshals, we managed to save the equipment. All that remained on the Tarmac were the three Cross Car TN5s, piles of Pirelli tires and the toolboxes.
The LifeLive mechanics are warriors. Despite wind gusts of close to 50mph, they continue to overhaul the machines. As night falls, the sight of the sparks from the grinder is surreal. Meanwhile, Alexandre Bengué, our driver advisor, is repositioning the chicanes on the circuit, lit only by the headlights of a rental car.
Like every member of the team, Alex is working hard to ensure the success of the operation. Once ready, the TN5s find shelter in a building on the circuit. Gale-force winds battered the region all night, until the blue sky returned on Sunday.
Once the 12 finalists have been selected, we hand over the keys to the jury. We’re very proud to have five great personalities from the WRC family. Under the chairmanship of Robert Reid, the FIA deputy president for sport, Thierry Neuville, Pernilla Solberg, Terenzio Testoni and Malcolm Wilson take their roles very seriously and it’s fascinating to see them working together.
Terenzio analy\es the lap times with absolute precision, while Thierry watches the driving of the machines he has developed. Pernilla is very keen on human qualities, while Malcolm is interested in the past experience of the candidates. Robert focuses the discussions, prioritizes, synthesizes and asks the right questions.
Romet can pinch himself, he’s not dreaming. His talent and determination have just propelled him into a new life.Jérôme Roussel
After interviewing each candidate, the jury faces a difficult choice. Soon, there are only two left. Patrik Hallberg from Sweden is only 17 years old, but he already has a lot of experience driving Cross Cars.
Romet Jürgenson, on the other hand, is inexperienced despite being 22 years old. During his interview, he impressed with his determination and passion. Patrik is also an engaging boy. The jury decided that Romet would be the winner and Patrik the reserve driver.
Without further ado, the jury announces its decision. First, the two female drivers who will advance to the final in North America are announced – Maja Hallén Fellenius of Sweden and Great Britain’s Katie Milner.
Now for the overall prize. I am standing in front of Romet when his name is called. He is totally incredulous, takes his head in his hands as if to hide from what is about to take him over. From the 89 candidates, he is the one who will get a season in a Fiesta Rally3 next year.
In talking to him, we realize that he came alone to the event, unlike most of the candidates who were supervised by their federation. So we have the pleasure of sharing dinner with our new star. Sitting between Thierry and Pernilla, Romet still can’t believe it.
The Hyundai driver is delighted to be able to tease his buddy Ott Tänak, texting him that the new generation has arrived. The discussion doesn’t stray far from rally, from pacenote systems to some tasty WRC anecdotes. Romet can pinch himself, he’s not dreaming. His talent and determination have just propelled him into a new life.
While Romet took the overall award, all 89 youngsters did themselves and their countries proud – and their futures look bright. FIA Rally Star is no longer just a vision on a whiteboard.