“I really, really want to say to factory teams ‘Hello, my name is Erik Cais and I’m here’.”
This is how Erik Cais closed his conversation with DirtFish ahead of the delayed start to the 2020 European Rally Championship just over 18 months ago.
But he had no need to say it to us again as we call him in February 2022, fresh from two consecutive podiums in WRC2 that included a superb second place – and WRC2 Junior win – on the Monte Carlo Rally.
His driving had already made that statement for him.
“For sure I wanted to say ‘hello, here is some guy from Czech Republic who also can be fast’ but I had the biggest respect to the competition [I have ever had] in my life [on the Monte] because I wanted to stay on the road and to be clear I didn’t drive as fast as possible on the stages but I drove mostly constant, because I just wanted to finish every stage with a constant result,” he says.
“When I had big confidence on the stages I pushed, and for sure Sisteron [which you can watch above] with the snow it was something absolutely incredible because I love when the conditions are changing a lot, that’s what I really like.
“I drove normally but I really enjoyed that stage but to be honest at the finish I was wondering how it’s possible that the time is so good! But anyway, I’m absolutely speechless about the result we reach in Spain and also here now in Monte Carlo.”
After two seasons in the ERC with his Ford Fiesta Rally2, this year represents a step-up for the 22-year-old as he contests his first proper campaign in the world championship.
Quite clearly, he couldn’t have realistically expected a better start to his career at this level. After all, if you head over to the rankings section on the DirtFish homepage you’ll see Cais’s name on the overall top 10 leaderboard after the first round.
“Yeah! I don’t know what to say,” Cais beams.
“I remember when we spoke in that interview that it’s a dream to compete in WRC and absolutely the same for the Monte Carlo because everybody knows how legendary this competition is, it’s something incredible.
“We were the top guys in my class and even in the top 10 on Monte Carlo and now in the standings, it’s just the first round of the season but it’s really good.
“This result makes me really happy and absolutely speechless because I really don’t know how to describe the feeling about it. You dream about something and then when you see it in black letters on white paper, I still don’t believe it.”
Disbelief yes, but denial no. It would be remiss to claim that this was a fluke from Cais, but he is aware that Monte is a very specific rally and success on round one does not guarantee success throughout the entire season.
His task now is sustaining this high level, but there could be a hurdle in a way.
“We need to also think that these were both Tarmac and I really need to improve myself on gravel,” Cais cautions.
“I was not born on gravel. For sure I know how to go fast in a few sections but then in other sections I absolutely don’t know, so I need to get much more experience on gravel and then it will be perfect.
“But I’m really happy that on the Tarmac I can be constant and I can be fast, that’s a really good feeling for me and it’s giving me a little more confidence for the future.”
Cais isn’t making the trip to Sweden in two weeks but will be back in Croatia – where he must surely start as a favorite given his recent form and the similarities between the Croatian stages and those back in Cais’s native Czech Republic.
But from there the onus will be on gravel with events in Portugal, Italy, Estonia and Finland before a potential entry on the to-be-confirmed event in August and on Rally Spain.
The WRC2 Junior title would seem like a feasible target for this ambitious young driver to shoot for, but Cais’ focus is actually elsewhere.
“I mostly think it’s to be closer to the top guys on the gravel because there’s a lot of gravel races and especially in the WRC there is mostly gravel races, so that’s I think the biggest goal for this year: to get closer to the top guys on gravel and also get to know the rallies, to remember the stages.
I need to show to people that I can go fast but I can finish the rally, that's the most important thingErik Cais
“About the result it’s really difficult for me to say because it started really, really well [but] it’s really difficult to say how fast I will be on the gravel. Mostly I want to improve myself and then think about the result.
“If we take Mr [Andreas] Mikkelsen the experience in the rally car, it’s like 10 times even maybe more compared to me, the same with [Mads] Østberg and guys like this.
“It’s really hard to compete with less experience but I’m trying to do my best to catch these guys. I need to show to people that I can go fast but I can finish the rally, that’s the most important thing.
“You can be the fastest guy out of the world but if you are crashing cars a lot of the time you are not so much respected by the factory teams, your partners and everything.”
That last point is a lesson that Cais has had to learn the hard way. Last year he sensationally led his home rally – Barum Rally Zlín – by a seemingly safe 20.2 seconds over record event winner Jan Kopecký before on the last stage his rally became a heartbreaker as he crashed.
As soon as Cais mentions the need not to crash, he’s anticipated DirtFish’s next question. We begin with we “almost hate to ask this” to which he immediately responds “Barum” and laughs, almost as if to mask the pain of last August.
“I don’t think you can imagine how big a lesson it was!” he says. “Really, really, really big.
“That day was a knockout for me for me personally because I was so sad about it, but it’s… it’s racing. You’re racing, you don’t want to lose even on the last stage.
“My experience was not so big to avoid the pressure and just do my job and be a little slower on that stage. I raced the last stage because I’m a racer but I did a mistake. I did a small mistake with a big impact.
“Now I know what to do better on the last stage! But as I said I’m a racer and I want to race. It cost me the Barum Czech Rally Zlín win but I take a lot of experience from this moment.”
It’s impossible to disagree with him, as Cais hasn’t made any major driving mistakes since. Sometimes in life – and certainly in motorsport – you have to go through the painful moments to learn and become a better driver in the future.
Cais has, and just look what he is now capable of. What’s incredibly encouraging is there is still more progress to be made. “I’m 22 and it’s a really good feeling to be close to these [leading] guys on some stages,” he says.
“It feels really, really good because you know in the future you can be more precise, you can be more relaxed, you can be more experienced and you can be even faster.”
If that doesn’t frighten Cais’s WRC2 rivals, what will?