It’s rare that finishing 37 and a half minutes down, with almost four minutes worth of penalties, could be a result worth celebrating for a top-line World Rally Championship driver.
And of course, Oliver Solberg didn’t fly home from Safari Rally Kenya to a hero’s welcome or a massive garden party. At least we assume not.
But the grit, determination and sheer willingness to make the end of the Hell’s Gate powerstage was simply awesome. Solberg embodied the true spirit of the Safari Rally. In the face of adversity, he never gave up. And he was rewarded with 10th place.
Solberg was woefully underprepared for his first ever crack at the Safari last season. Stepping into a 2C Competition Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, the then 19-year-old hadn’t even had a pre-event test.
It showed. Crashing into a bank did irreparable damage to his car and he was out after just four stages – crying when interviewed by WRC TV.
Ironically he’d have plenty to cry about a year later too, now competing for the fully fledged works team in an i20 N Rally1. But Solberg didn’t. He got his point across – that the mechanical dramas that were affecting him simply shouldn’t have been – but it was all said fairly and in a manner that didn’t impact his driving.
On a rally as difficult as Kenya, and considering the shaky start to the season Solberg’s suffered, that was as important as it was admirable.
Right from the get-go, it was clear that Solberg wasn’t on for a headline result. Admittedly, he likely never was given the role he is playing at Hyundai to support star acts Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak.
But the words “I have something wrong with the car” at the end of SS2 Loldia rather set the tone for what was to follow.
Solberg complained that the car was “harsh”, that he couldn’t “find a good feeling” and he therefore wasn’t “confident”. Some frustration did begin to bubble over. Stage-end comments like “I don’t know what to do, this is the roughest ride of my life” and “it’s so annoying when you are trying to have a clean morning and it doesn’t work anyway” showed it.
But Solberg simply just worked to cure the problem. He did what he could, with the tools and time available to him, to cure the car and made some progress.
Just when he was up, he was straight back down again on Saturday – the most punishing day of the rally. Solberg came across a rock in the middle of the road of the first stage of the day, which he hit with both wheels – causing a slow puncture.
Did he throw in the towel, or even the toys out the pram? Did he heck. Given the situation on the leaderboard with minutes between crews, he checked into SS9 seven minutes late in order to get the repair job done properly – as the rock had bent some components as well as deflating his tire.
“Nothing too severe,” he said, “but I wanted to take my time to fix it properly.”
Changes at midday service revitalized Solberg for the afternoon, but his job had become even more important with Tänak’s retirement due to propshaft failure. That meant he was being relied upon to bring home points for Hyundai’s championship bid.
It didn’t affect Solberg’s concentration. He just kept battling on when the going got even tougher – the wet Sleeping Warrior 2 test the perfect case-in-point. In fact if there was any stage that characterized Solberg’s Safari, it was Sleeping Warrior.
There was drama. Solberg’s engine cut out twice, and he came across his stranded team-mate Neuville whose engine had completely cut. Solberg even accidentally gave him a nudge on the way past.
And there was passion. Safari is an epic adventure Solberg will have heard about from his father, Petter. The last time Safari was in the WRC before its return last year, Solberg wasn’t even a year old.
His joyous exclamation “this is proper rally” as he peered through his misting windshield to try and get a view of the washed out, rugged and perilous road ahead of him told its own story. As did his energy at the end of the stage.
“The engine stopped twice, I lost many minutes, but it doesn’t matter, I’m here. Very lucky, very lucky!” he said.
There was more.
“That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life. Even if it’s hell, bloody hell it’s cool. Our car stopped twice so we definitely need to work on that, but… wow!”
The joy to just be there, experiencing this behemoth of an event, was obvious. And it was infectious.
Solberg’s passion didn’t bring him any fortune on Sunday as he caused a stage cancellation on the very first stage, his car beaching itself and the pair blocking the road as they were forced to change the Hyundai’s air filter.
It dropped him from sixth to eighth, which then became 10th when Solberg continued to struggle with technical troubles on the later stages – including the comedic moment where some photographers sprang out of the bushes to his aid and cleaned his windshield when his wipers weren’t working.
But his will to keep going was extraordinary. Kenya threw everything at Solberg, but not once did he give in.
“It’s an adventure, that is for sure,” Solberg told DirtFish.
“First of all it’s fantastic to be at the finish, not with the result I hoped for but OK we had a lot of issues – every day to be fair – so it’s been very tough, very long, a lot of work but I’m happy to be here.
“It’s thanks to the mechanics who are all here otherwise this car would never be in one piece so I’m very happy that they’re so passionate and we have a very good working relationship together, that’s very important.”
It might be a rally the outside world quickly forgets when Solberg’s career reaches new heights in the future years, but the stories – and lessons – he’ll take from it won’t ever leave him.
And above all else, Solberg made it to the end of the rally without making any driving mistakes.
After an extremely difficult run of form over the past 12 months in particular (a superb Monza Rally aside), that’s exactly what the doctor prescribed Solberg. It’s just a shame the overall result didn’t reflect his supreme efforts.