Chicken meet egg. Egg meet chicken.
The decision to drop Oliver Solberg for a more experienced driver shines a light on one of the main issues in the World Rally Championship today. Maybe it’s a reflection on a global economy which is doing little or nothing to fuel long-term investment or maybe it’s a generational thing which centres on instant gratification and delivery yesterday.
Either way, Hyundai’s apparent policy of short-termism is an undoubted cause for concern.
As a sport, how do we develop drivers and generate experience if teams are pulling the plug on the plan so quickly.
Comparisons between Solberg and Kalle Rovanperä are as obvious as they are appropriate, given the 357 days which separate them in age.
But actually, comparisons couldn’t be more unfair. Since signing for Toyota at the top of the 2020 season the recently crowned world champion was given a car for every event, a sustained and logical test plan and the full backing of every member of the team.
Oliver? Hmm. Less so.
I’ve watched Solberg grow across the years. I remember his first crosskart title and when he stormed America with Subaru USA.
And 2019, becoming the youngest ever winner of an FIA event when he took a European Rally Championship victory at Rally Liepāja aged 17. That was a big summer for the teenager, not long after Latvia he took his dad’s DS3 Supercar up the hill at Goodwood. Thousands watched on, committing that run to memory so they can tell their grandchildren about an audacious, all-angles attack which stole the show.
Let’s fast forward to his debut in a factory World Rally Car. Remember Rovaniemi? The rally where he was trading times and hustling defending world champion Sébastien Ogier.
Point is, Solberg has the speed. And he has the potential to follow in Petter’s footsteps to become the second world champion in the house.
There are, undoubtedly, a bunch of folk who will read these words and dismiss them as the blinkered view of an overly enthusiastic Solberg fan.
Half of that’s right. I am a Solberg fan. I’m a believer.
I’m very well aware that Oliver has made mistakes and will make mistakes. Again, an omelette can’t be made without breaking eggs.
By the same token, that omelette can’t be constructed without a fully functioning cooker and pan. And it can’t be eaten without a knife and fork.
I’m stretching the metaphor, but I think you know where we’re going with this.
What really frustrates me is that Hyundai has traded the potential for its own Kalle story.
There’s so much that I simply don’t understand about Hyundai right now.
Talk to Ott Tänak about life at Hyundai right now and the conversation will be short. And in no way sweet. These drivers are all about the performance of their car, but this disquiet is about more than geometry or suspension. It’s about the feeling and the atmosphere within the team.
It was another member of Hyundai Motorsport who put Thursday’s news into perspective.
Calling contacts to talk over the Korean firm’s bombshell news, two things became increasingly obvious. According to insiders, Hyundai has no need for a new team principal. It already has one. He drives as well.
The second thing?
Hard to swallow as it might be right now, Solberg’s career might well be better served by Hyundai seeking a more experienced line-up for 2023.
Stories of Neuville’s growing influence within Hyundai are nothing new. He’s been there since the start and he’s worked hard to build the car and the squad around himself. And who can blame him for that?
Sébastien Loeb did the same at Citroën. Sébastien Ogier did the same at Volkswagen. And they were lauded for it. And rightly so, they won world championship after world championship in the process.
Neuville’s won rallies, but the titles are yet to start rolling in.
The issue can’t sit with Neuville. Ultimately, he’s a driver who’s doing his bit. The issue is with the decision-makers above him.
Of the four Hyundai drivers, only Neuville hasn’t talked about not being in an i20 next season – a conversation Oliver only joined when he found out his future wasn’t where he thought it was.
So, what is his future?
With Toyota full and committed to its drivers, the obvious place would be M-Sport. Malcolm Wilson and Richard Millener came close to signing him two years ago and Dovenby Hall’s family oriented environment is one where Solberg would likely flourish quicker. But is there room? Could that work?
Take a quick look at M-Sport’s historic and storied youth policy. Yes, it could and would work.
And if there’s no Puma with Oliver’s name on it?
Then I take you back to 2008, when Subaru walked away from the WRC and left Solberg Sr high, dry and without a seat in sight.
What did he and his wife Pernilla do?
They got on the telephone in November and stayed there until February. They stayed there until they had a car, a team and another shot at the world championship.
Expect a similar approach this time.