Five years ago, if you caught wind of a driver trading a Volkswagen Polo for a Ford Fiesta you’d more than likely have questioned their motives. But in 2021, for Nikolay Gryazin, that transaction makes complete sense.
Gryazin has been on the periphery of the World Rally Championship for a while now. First earning true international attention back in 2018 with some swashbuckling European Rally Championship performances – particularly on fast rallies – which netted a Junior U28 title, Gryazin stepped up to WRC2 in 2019 and stunned with victory in Finland ahead of local driver Jari Huttunen.
The 23-year-old has always been known for his speed, but a season as a Hyundai junior somewhat undid the reputation he’d fought hard to earn as things just didn’t quite click. Teaming up with Movisport in a VW Polo GTI R5 in 2021 then looked to be a sensible shift.
Yet, eight rallies into the 2021 WRC season, Gryazin’s fingertips will be gripping onto a different steering wheel once more as he will try a Ford Fiesta Rally2 for size on the Acropolis Rally.
“We have reached the point where we have to decide which direction to go in 2022 and further years,” Gryazin recently told the WRC’s official website.
“Since the Polo is not developing, we decided to change it for the upcoming years. One of our options is to continue with [the] Fiesta.
“I have really liked the performance of the Fiesta on gravel, and on Tarmac as well, this year and I would like to drive it to see for myself.”
There are plenty of drivers itching to prove a point in WRC2 this year, not least Andreas Mikkelsen, Mads Østberg and Esapekka Lappi, who all hope to have the chance to prove they can still cut it in a top-flight rally car. Gryazin is part of a smaller group of drivers fighting for that first break.
His future is a simmering topic that’s yet to bubble over, but plenty could potentially be read into his comments. Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that Gryazin was seen sitting in with Adrien Fourmaux on an Arctic Rally Finland test in a Fiesta WRC.
While Gryazin will continue to compete with Movisport in Greece, his Fiesta will be looked after by M-Sport, the team that’s the center of the 2022 driver rumor mill at the moment and has just parted company with Teemu Suninen, its driver since 2017. Indirectly, Gryazin will be M-Sport’s key presence in WRC2 – aside from Rally Finland, where he will step back in the Polo – with Adrien Fourmaux leaving the class behind to pilot the World Rally Car for the rest of the season now.
Aligning himself closer to a World Rally team can hardly be considered a bad move for Gryazin’s future. But it’s a wise move for the present too, particularly when you consider, like he has, that Volkswagen Motorsport disbanded last year and the Polo will therefore be no better than it is right now.
Of course, Lappi has proved the Polo still packs a punch in the WRC, winning the two rallies he has started in 2021. But it’s fair to say Gryazin’s relationship with the car hasn’t always been so “sweet”, if you like.
Who can forget his line in Portugal, where Gryazin joked “this car will not be getting a sweet after the race” as it had developed turbo problems? It followed a power-steering issue in Croatia and preceded a radiator problem in Italy.
There have been problems of Gryazin’s own making – a crash when fighting for the lead in Croatia, another roll in Estonia when he was second, and then a familiar story in Ypres when he was caught out by the notorious ditches.
But among all of that, there have been some blistering, mind-bending stage times. Oliver Solberg received a lot of plaudits for his final-day pace on the Monte Carlo Rally, but Gryazin was right there with him – not featuring outside the top eight overall across the whole day.
And in Portugal, when his car was working, he set five top-eight times and has dominated rounds in the ERC in Poland (before helpless punctures) and Latvia too.
Gryazin’s season has, therefore, been far greater than the sum of its parts. He has driven a lot better than just two WRC2 podium finishes and sixth in the points would suggest.
The chance to compete, tucked under the wing of M-Sport, will give him the opportunity to unlock his prospects. He’ll have nowhere to hide, but if a driver is serious about progressing, they need to test themselves in the toughest conditions against the very best.
The WRC2 field is filled with superstar drivers right now, and Gryazin looks to have as much talent as any of them. If he can transfer his Polo pace into the Fiesta while ironing out some of his mistakes, Gryazin will be one heck of a driver. And the M-Sport fold is hardly a bad arena for a developing talent to blossom in.
“I wanted to work with them because I have big respect for Malcolm and their past, making fast drivers into world champions,” Gryazin said during an appearance on ERC Radio on last weekend’s Barum Rally Zlin.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to cooperate with them.”
Gryazin has reached for the reset button, and it could be the making of him.