We could use just about every cliché under the sun to kickstart this feature, all relating to how motorsport is tricky to break into let alone sustain as a career. The financial barrier to entry is just that high.
But imagine putting in the legwork, starting up a promising rally-driving career as a youngster and succeeding – only for it all to fall apart and you’re left stranded on the sidelines through no clear fault of your own.
Reviving that dwindling career takes guts and steely determination, and that’s exactly what two drivers have done in 2021.
Step forward Jon Armstrong and Chris Ingram.
The pair have forged a comeback in differing ways and have been thwarted at slightly different points in their careers, but the bare bones of their two tales are familiar. Both undoubtedly have the talent to be at the front but didn’t quite have the wallet to match.
It’s something they’re keen to make amends for this season. For Armstrong, that’s via the Junior WRC series for identical Ford Fiesta Rally4 machines as part of the Codemasters Rally Team – a handy collision of Armstrong’s interests as he works for the video game company when he’s not out competing.
“I’ve started more rallies this year [five] than I have the last three years combined,” Armstrong tells DirtFish. “It is mad how little I have done in the last four, five years so it’s nice just to get back into doing more and more events again.”
Ingram has gone down the investment route under the guise of Rally Warrior, piloting a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo in WRC3. He had previously spent an entire season on the sidelines despite just winning the European Rally Championship.
I thought my career was f***** without a doubtChris Ingram
“I thought my career was f***** without a doubt,” he tells DirtFish. “There was always the slim chance in my mind that I could find a way [back] which thank God we managed to do.
“It was already difficult the way we won ERC with no money and stuff, to try and find a load of money to go again, but with COVID as well it just destroyed everything.”
Having poured every ounce of his being into being a rally driver, it was a bitter pill to swallow for Ingram who has gone on record before to reveal the damage it did to his mental health. When you want something that badly and know you have the ability to be achieving it, the realization that it may not happen stings that extra bit more.
“It’s all I’ve been thinking about for the last several years of my life really, and I’ve not had a plan B or wanted to pursue a plan B,” Ingram says of his rallying ambitions.
“If I did have a plan B it would’ve been easy to give up on it, so everything happens for a reason and I’m glad that I’ve had to struggle because without the struggles I probably wouldn’t have ended up here with an amazing chance with even next year all confirmed to go for it in WRC2.”
Armstrong hadn’t hit the same peak in terms of success as Ingram before his driving opportunities dried up, but that didn’t make him any less determined to right the wrong. Winning the inaugural WRC Esports competition in 2018, Armstrong has created a strong brand for himself as a sim racing icon that’s also more than handy at the real thing.
He finds himself in the thick of a title fight with Sami Pajari and Mārtiņš Sesks in Junior WRC – and is the only driver to win two events after a win in Croatia and last week in Belgium – despite his comparative lack of seat time. If he goes on to seal it, it’ll cement at least one more year of international rallying with the prize of either a Fiesta Rally2 or Rally3 from M-Sport on offer.
“That was one of the big doubts going into the season: if I was still capable of being able to challenge for wins and championships. And we’re in the championship fight, each rally we’ve been winning stages,” says Armstrong.
“It’s been better than probably what I expected, the results have been really good, and the performances have been really good too.
“You definitely keep improving. I’m more, I don’t know if cautious is the right word, but I try and take a more steady approach and just figure things out through the event that what I would have done probably when I was younger, [when I] would have been more [flat from the start].”
Asked if that’s a deliberate ploy or just a consequence of his lack of rallying in recent years, Armstrong says: “I think it’s a bit of both but it’s deliberate more so because it’s good to get your eye in on the first couple of stages, see where you’re at and once you know where your comfortable pace [is] then you know you can go a percentage more and it’s just a nice way to get your eye in against your competitors and see where everyone’s at and then make your move.
“Of course, you could go out all guns blazing on the first stage, but I just have to find the confidence with everything because I don’t do as much pre-event testing as I would like to, so it’s risky going into the first stage and pushing really hard. It’s just a comfortable way to do it for an old chap like me!”
This approach has certainly worked for Armstrong, not least on his first event back – Rally Croatia (pictured above) which he won. It goes to prove that even when a driver is stuck on the sidelines, they can still do things to better their craft in anticipation of another shot which will pay dividends when that shot does come.
“You always try and build upon your experiences from the past and you learn things on each rally, it’s just gleaning those across through the season,” Armstrong says.
“Obviously I haven’t done that much in the last four years so it’s nice just to get back into doing more and more events again and you definitely start to build more confidence as the season goes on and you have more belief in what you can do.
“In Croatia we had a really steady rally, there were a lot of things to improve on but that’s to be expected whenever me and Phil [Hall, co-driver] had been out of that level of rallying for quite a while.
“[But] studying the junior championship in previous years, knowing what approach works: you just need to get as many points as you can. You don’t have to win everything – it helps if you do, but essentially you need to make the most of every situation you’re in and pick your battles as well.
“You see that with even Ogier at the top; whenever he knows he doesn’t have the pace to win a rally for one reason or another, it’s just getting the best out of a situation that you can and getting as many points as you can. It’s just being a bit more patient probably than anything and just trying to think of the bigger picture.”
Armstrong may have a wise head on young shoulders – don’t believe him when he calls himself an “old chap” – but that doesn’t mean to say the adaptation back to an intense rallying program didn’t stun him at first.
All aspects of rallying are routine for seasoned professionals, but time away from the hot seat slowly means these habits need to be moderately relearned. And without any tangible results to go off in recent times, self-doubt begins to creep in.
I’d rather go into an event feeling not so confident than over confident because it means that I’ll work harderJon Armstrong
“It was definitely quite uncomfortable to be honest,” says Armstrong of his Croatian experience.
“The recce was really tough because it’s just a bit daunting whenever you haven’t done an event in a long time and you’re trying to make your pacenotes, and I think what I’ve learnt over the course of the season is just as long as you’re making consistent pacenotes and then drive to them during the rally you can quite quickly calibrate yourself during the rally and everything just falls into place.
“Whereas in Croatia I was worrying like ‘aw have I had a good recce? Are the pacenotes OK? Will I be on the pace?’ There’s just so many doubts whenever you come into the first rally of the season.
“It’s a good thing because it makes you focused on trying to do the best that you can and you’re always looking at ways you can improve, and I’d rather go into an event feeling not so confident than over confident because it means that I’ll work harder rather than thinking I’m going to be the fastest and then you don’t put in any work. I like just being unsure and feeling like it’s going to be a tough task but I’m up for the challenge.”
Contrast that to how Armstrong’s feeling now, and the similarities are thin.
“I feel a lot more familiar with the task and the process, what our strategy is for a rally and how the rally goes. You start to get into little routines and I’m much more comfortable and confident with how that’s going to go.
“I’m still wary of how my performance will be, I still focus on making sure I’m prepared as I can be and that I’m ready to do a good job. I think you just have to focus on doing the best that you can and hopefully that will be enough.
“Of course, you can come to events and maybe everything won’t click together and that’s really frustrating, but what I’m focused on is just making sure that we can have a good rhythm and feeling from the get go and we won’t be too far away because the main thing is just to be in the fight in Junior WRC because anything can happen.”
Ingram went through a similar period of adjustment when he also started his rallying comeback on April’s Rally Croatia. While he had done one event in the ERC with a Renault Clio Rally5 (pictured above), Croatia was Ingram’s first rally back in a four-wheel-drive car since November 2019.
“The biggest thing I noticed was because my confidence was low, it was really hard to feel what the car was doing like I used to be able to,” admits Ingram.
“And it’s taken quite a while and [for me] to go through a lot of mental barriers to find the confidence to be able to push enough to get that feeling of the car back. It sounds quite complicated, but that’s been a huge challenge this year.”
Ingram’s comeback season in WRC3 has been a touch less successful than Armstrong’s as he hasn’t quite gelled with his team like he had hoped. It means he’s essentially preparing for yet another reset for the second half of the year.
“I would say that Croatia was a complete baptism of fire, first time back, extremely low confidence with some problems,” Ingram explains.
“Portugal, we showed good promise and had we not made stupid tire decisions then we would’ve been in the fight to win WRC3. Sardinia I’d say we got really good experience of the rally [before retiring] for next year and now we know what we need to do to get back on track.”
Ingram will return “home” to get back on track, reuniting with the Toksport team that ran him to the 2019 ERC title – a deal that was announced earlier this week. He will enter the Acropolis Rally in Greece and then Rally Spain towards the end of the season before a full tilt at WRC2 with the squad in 2022.
“There’s great support from the Škoda engineers and Toksport engineers so I know that what’s underneath me is going to be perfect, which is already a massive confidence boost,” he says.
I feel like I’ve not been able to do that for a while. The rest of this year is going to be about getting that back.Chris Ingram
“The start of the year didn’t go as planned, we wanted that to be [fighting] this year straight away but it just didn’t turn out how we wanted. Toksport is like home. In Acropolis there’s going to be seven or eight Škodas which is unbelievable, it is like a works team how they operate now.
“I’m looking forward to testing with the Škoda engineers again, we’ll learn so much. And to be able to compare data with five or six other quick drivers [is mega].”
Ultimately Ingram wants to find his swagger back, having either spent the last few years not driving at all or doing so with one hand tied behind his back. While it’s often said that a mistake can spell the end of a driver’s career, that literally was the case for Ingram when he won his European title.
“I’ve learned so much these last few years. An overwhelming amount, but it’s going to make me stronger, so much stronger when we get confidence back in the car,” he says.
“In the juniors and when I had my first year in four-wheel drive, my driving, the actual performances, I was getting stronger and stronger whereas the last two years and even the year I won the ERC, the focus on my actual driving and performance wasn’t at all where I wanted it to be.
“That is a really hard position to be in because as a driver you want to be going into rallies with a fighting mindset of wanting to win and being able to focus on driving at a really high level.
“I feel like I’ve not been able to do that for a while. The rest of this year is going to be about getting that back.”
Results are therefore a secondary aim for the rest of 2021 as Ingram readies himself for a full-blown attack next season. Finally, he’ll be able to show what his true potential in a Rally2 car is.
“Next year’s the main target,” he affirms. “For the first time ever now we’re going to literally have everything we’ve ever wanted in terms of a great team, a perfect car with support from Škoda engineers, the manufacturer, all the budget, all that kind of stuff in place so next year’s like our biggest chance to really focus on performance.
“The year I won the ERC there was so much from a financial point of view going on in my head, but next year will hopefully be the first time where I’ll be able to do it without having to worry about it.
“If I can win the ERC – I know we didn’t win any rallies, but we were quick consistently every rally – if I can do that when I’m in a bad place and worrying about my future every second of every rally, I’m excited to see what I can do when I feel a bit more free.
“I don’t know how that feels yet, so I’ll find out hopefully on these next few rallies. At the moment there’s no plans to do anything else, just focus loads on those two [Acropolis and Spain] and then we’ll start with Monte Carlo next year which will be unbelievable.”
With Armstrong’s focus firmly on the Junior WRC title finale in October, which could earn him his own Fiesta Rally2, it isn’t implausible for both Ingram and Armstrong to be on that Monte start line in WRC2 next year.
Who would have thought that was possible 12 months ago? In rallying, giving up is never an option, and both of these two drivers have that ethos absolutely nailed.