Oliver Solberg is a driver that continues to divide opinion. It seems that, more than most, everybody has something they want to say on his ability or his career.
Maybe that’s understandable. As the son of 2003 World Rally champion, Petter Solberg, there was immense interest in Oliver even before he got behind the wheel himself. That’s only intensified now that he has.
That family connection probably works for him when things are going well, but certainly counts against him when they aren’t. How big an impact that has on Solberg’s career is impossible to know – as a basic everyday example I’m a twin, but I can’t ever answer the question ‘what’s it like to be a twin?’ because I’ve never not been one.
Either way, the knock-on effect is that there’s a lot of interest in the 21-year-old’s exploits – and that invariably means he has his fair share of detractors. But I already believe, as we enter the second month of 2023, that Solberg has answered one of the key questions hanging over him this season.
Last year’s dream-turned-sour at Hyundai is firmly in the past and Solberg himself doesn’t want to waste any of his energy going over it, but his battle with old team-mate Thierry Neuville at last weekend’s Race of Champions – and his cheeky comments afterwards – proved the bruises are yet to fully heal.
“It’s fantastic to win again,” he said, fresh from sealing a second Nations Cup victory in a row alongside his father.”Against Thierry Neuville now, my old team-mate from last year, to kick his a** now is a great feeling.”
And he doubled down in the press conference.
Neuville said: “It was a great day but of course I don’t like losing.”
To which Solberg immediately interjected: “Especially against your old team-mate!”
Solberg has re-found his confidence after a year where he didn’t always put his best foot forward, but he equally wasn’t placed in a great position to do that either.
For me, it was circumstance rather than ability that contributed to Solberg’s struggles last year. How you interpret ‘circumstance’ is largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Solberg’s sticky situation in 2022 wasn’t a reflection of his true ability as a driver, and that’s something I feel even stronger about now.
I even tweeted as such on Saturday after his domineering ROC performance where he went undefeated across the whole day, left my phone for the evening and picked it up the next morning to a barrage of notifications.
Hence my earlier point about everybody having an opinion on Solberg!
An interesting counter argument raised was that ROC is a totally different kettle of fish to the World Rally Championship and that Solberg’s performance ultimately didn’t mean that much.
But I disagree, because just one week earlier he was superb in Monte Carlo – winning over half of the rally’s stages in the Rally2 class. And he was only pushing at “92 to 95%”.
ROC may have been different, but it was no anomaly. It was no fluke. Solberg’s level of driving has never been the problem.
Now in an environment at Toksport Škoda where he feels at ease, that’s becoming abundantly clear.
“The team has done a great job to make me happy with the car, I can do what I want with the car,”Solberg told DirtFish.
“Everyone works together to make the best out of everything – so it works well.”
Another cheeky Hyundai and Neuville dig perhaps?
The one criticism that Solberg will need to work to bat away though is his tendency to make mistakes. Even within that commanding Monte Carlo drive Solberg ran wide and clipped a bank, damaging his rear-left rim and affecting the toe of his Škoda.
Innocuous enough given Solberg made a tactically shrewd decision just to drive on the Monte and not score WRC2 points, but he does need to work on stringing together cleaner rallies after an accident-heavy 2021 and some high-profile incidents last year too.
But already, just in that Monte Carlo drive, Solberg has proved just what a talent he is – and then confirmed it in the Race of Champions. He’ll likely only cement the point even further on next week’s Rally Sweden – the first event of Solberg’s WRC2 championship campaign on a surface he’s typically always excellent on.
In a year where (due to the structure of WRC2) being the fastest is possibly even more important than being the champion, Solberg has staked an early claim to be that driver.
2023 could be the year he finally proves to everyone that he belongs at the very top of rallying. And not because he’s called Solberg.