There aren’t many rally drivers who face a tougher career crossroads than Jon Armstrong right now.
His talent has been clear for the rallying world to see of late, but he doesn’t currently have the resources to make the move he knows he needs to.
In essence, Armstrong has been rolling doubles on the Monopoly board – proving his pace and emerging as a real contender for the Junior World Rally Championship title in each of the past two seasons.
But in both 2021 and ’22 he rolled one double too many and found himself in jail; pipped to the title by first Sami Pajari and then Robert Virves.
And he doesn’t currently have the $50 to pay his way out.
WRC2 is the obvious next step for Armstrong in his career, but securing the means to make that jump – without the car and tire package the JWRC title would’ve earned him – has proved a big challenge.
“It’s hard to know where you go next because I probably won’t be doing Juniors again and if you want to win another championship it’s obviously a lot of budget required to do ERC or WRC2 and it takes you a couple of seasons probably to get into the position where you’re consistently on the pace to be able to challenge for a championship as well,” he tells DirtFish.
“So it’s difficult from that side of it. Even doing something like the British championship or Irish championship is more achievable budget-wise but it also feels more of a challenge because it’s harder to get sponsors involved in those regional rallies too.”
As neutrals, it’s a frustrating situation as there’s little doubt that Armstrong is ready for Rally2.
He’s competed in the class three times before and was already winning stages on his debut some five and a half years ago in Germany. Considering this and his pace relative to the likes of Pajari (who’s proving a real force in WRC2), it doesn’t feel like a reach to suggest Armstrong would be a real contender.
At 28 years old time isn’t exactly running out, but equally there is a sense that Armstrong needs to get into a Rally2 car sooner rather than later if he’s to keep up the momentum and advance his career.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he agrees.
“That was my goal so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be in Rally2, I think that could be really exciting for me to see what sort of times I could do.
“There’s no guarantee that I’m going to be able to match times sitting at home on your armchair but having seen the times that Robert Virves and Sami Pajari and even Lauri Joona were doing Sweden, it makes me wonder what I’d be able to do if I was out in the same machinery.”
Sourcing the backing to make that happen, at least for now, has proved problematic though. As Armstrong acknowledged: “It’s a difficult time for sponsorship at the moment, it’s a tricky time for the sport in that regard.”
But by no means is he giving up on this. It just isn’t in his DNA.
After all, this is far from the worst situation Armstrong has been in. You need only cast your mind back a couple of years to when he did just three rallies in as many years and crashed spectacularly on his WRC return in 2020.
Armstrong fought back from that, so forging a path now will feel like child’s play.
“I definitely never give up, it’s part of who I am,” he says.
“I’m always going to be a rally driver first of all, that’s what I enjoy doing the most, so if there’s an opportunity I’m always going to be trying to make it happen and trying to get behind the wheel somehow.”
And that’s exactly what he will be doing this weekend, six months on from his last appearance on Acropolis Rally Greece.
It may be back in a Rally3 and not in the Rally2 car that a talent like his deserves to be driving, but Rally Serras de Fafe in the European Rally Championship in a car and team he’s familiar with is the perfect substitute.
Armstrong says he is “grateful” to M-Sport Poland for offering him “something that was achievable for me to get involved in”.
“Obviously it’s going to be exciting to get back out,” he adds.
“I was in Monte Carlo doing route note crew and then I was at Rally Sweden doing some other activity, so I’ve been getting very itchy feet being at those rallies and not competing, so I’m looking forward to getting back out.
“Any driver now that’s competing at international level you’re always looking for ways you think you can improve, and I want to put that into practice, so this is another chance to do another rally and keep working on pacenotes and driving and working with engineers and setup.
“It should be really nice to get back out, and I think it’s a good rally too because it’s not like it’s a bit of an unknown, it’s an area I’ve been in a few times rallying.
“I think that always gives you a bit of comfort or a bit of extra benefit when you go and do rally you’ve been at before.”
Armstrong’s tie to M-Sport Poland – the division that runs the JWRC – has proved crucial. Although news from his camp has been basically non-existent since September, he’s not been sitting at home twiddling his thumbs this entire time.
The Northern Irishman’s been involved in test and development work with the Fiesta Rally3, and is looking forward to utilizing some of that work he’s done on an actual rally.
“And later on in the year there’ll be a Renault kicking about,” he says, “so that’ll be quite interesting to see what we could do against them.”
The aim this weekend though, just like he did in his one-off ERC appearance last season in the Azores, is to become a nuisance to the more powerful Rally2 cars and do a spot of giant-killing.
“It’s difficult to know what is realistically possible because there are so many Rally2 cars and a lot of good drivers too, like it’s a quality field. So it’s not going to be easy to get a top 15 or even a top 20 but we’ll just go there and try to focus on the driving and see where our times are at.
“I think if it’s dry there’ll probably be a bigger gap but if it’s a bit more wet and muddy, I think we could be quite close like we were in Azores last year where the conditions were a bit more slippery, we’ll just have to see.
“It’s always difficult to know where your pace is going to be, even when you’re in the same machinery, so when you’re trying to compare against different classes it’s really difficult to know how close or far away you’re going to be.
“But for sure, we have to try and punch in some good stage times and maybe get a good overall result too.
“That’s the goal: to try and show the car off because there aren’t really that many other Rally3s, I think there’s only one other one.”
Muscle his way into the equation this weekend against a star-studded field, and Armstrong will certainly be showing off the car.
But he’ll be showing off himself too. A one-off opportunity this may be, but every opportunity represents a shop window for Armstrong to ensure the turn he makes at his current crossroads is the right one.