The carousel for co-drivers in the 2021 World Rally Championship has been fierce. Some have been kicked off but managed to jump back on, in the case of Elliott Edmondson, while others, such as Martijn Wydaeghe, have received the role of a lifetime.
But spare a particular thought for Keaton Williams. Just when he had grabbed hold of what he calls the “golden ticket”, it was ripped from his hands almost in an instant.
Having started the season co-driving for Hyundai junior Josh McErlean in Rally2 machinery, Williams was suddenly thrust into a Toyota Yaris WRC alongside Takamoto Katsuta for Ypres Rally when Dan Barritt was injured in Estonia.
It wasn’t a total shock – Williams had done several tests with Katsuta already, in effect assuming a position of back-up co-driver should anything happen.
But getting the call-up for Ypres, where he was supposed to compete with McErlean, still gave Williams “goosebumps for sure” even if he had “kind of put two and two together” that he might be required.
“Everything just happened so quick, I never had a huge amount of time to process it. By the time I’d thought about it I was at the Ypres pre-event test,” Williams remembers.
“I was doing trips back and forth to Finland on mechanic training and doing work with Taka to make sure we did as much as we could before the event, so it was intense, there were some real long days, but it was all worth it.”
The rally didn’t go to plan as the pair violently crashed out of the second day, but Williams says it was still “one of the best rallies of my life” despite that bruising conclusion.
His name was alongside Katsuta’s on the Acropolis and Rally Finland entry lists too, so although Williams was only there for “one rally at a time”, it looked as if all of his hard work to reach the big time had paid dividends.
But, suddenly, that all changed as he woke up preparing for another day of recce on Tuesday, September 7.
“I had a phone call on Tuesday morning saying I needed to get back home and quite quickly, and that was it,” Williams says.
“From the information I got from the phone call it was no question I had to get back, and to be fair hats off to Toyota and Taka because everyone just understood the situation and they gave me no drama, no hassle or anything.
“Obviously it was quite an emotional time at some points but they were very supportive and I can’t thank them enough for that to be honest. Even after the rally and months after they were still keeping in touch, making sure I was alright so I was quite impressed by that to be honest.”
It’s been over three months since Williams’ WRC career essentially ended before it had even begun, and in that time he’s gone back to his roots working in anaerobic digestion.
I had no doubt that if the performances kept coming like they did then the chances of me still being in that car would be very highKeaton Williams
However, he’s been trying to “keep myself in the loop a little bit because without rallying I think I’d go mental”, which has meant helping out UK pacenote provider OnThePaceNote with recces and on-event support with car trackers.
“But it’s been a strange year, living the high life to then working 9-5 Monday to Friday,” concedes Williams.
How does that feel? Surely it must sting, even just a little bit?
“You’ve got to think about the bad times in order to process them and think about the future,” he says, candidly. “You’ve got to just accept it for what it is and just move forward. I would never change my decision to step down when I did; I know some people disagree.
“And to be honest when I did get back and for weeks after I was pretty down as I was thinking, ‘OK, I’ve got to the WRC very quick but I worked bloody hard to get there’ and then for it just be shattered through no doing of my own – it’s not like I made a mistake or there was a disagreement, it was just a situation that was out of my control.
“I had no doubt that if the performances kept coming like they did then the chances of me still being in that car would be very high,” Williams continues.
“Aaron Johnston’s gone in and he’s a very good mate of mine so I’m more than happy for him. One side of me thinks I could still be there and I could be doing next year but that’s unfortunately how it goes sometimes, and family has to come first in these situations.”
As much as we all like to think we’d do the same, it’s absolutely to Williams’ credit that he took the courageous decision that he did. Of course when there’s a family emergency that’s going to consume you, but there’s a real chance Williams’ career could now be destroyed as a result.
He’s determined for that not to be the case. Although he’s been off the radar ever since his shock departure from the world scene, he’s sure his absence is only temporary.
“It took me a while to get my head around it but the sooner I understood the situation the sooner I was able to focus on going forward and that’s what I’ve done,” Williams explains. “As much as I miss it now, I’m focused on the future.
“I went into Toyota, I did six tests and one rally, and I got a huge amount from it. OK, I’ve gone down as soon as I came up but now for me it’s about getting my career back on track and heading back up to the WRC and getting back up to that kind of level.
“I’m more than capable of doing it and know I can do it, if it takes two years, three years, whatever. That’s where I’m looking to go.
“The support from everyone has just been fantastic, but now it’s time to just knuckle down, crack back on and get back to business.
“For sure, I’ll be back.”