“I think it was 19.7 seconds leaving parc fermé.”
You think it was 19.7s, or you know it was?
“I know it was! I have it printed in the back of my head.”
A maiden class victory in the World Rally Championship is always going to feel special, but the way in which William Creighton claimed his maiden Junior WRC success last weekend was truly extraordinary.
Those 19.7s were what separated Creighton and JWRC leader Laurent Pellier ahead of the final three stages of Rally Sweden, and yet it was Creighton who took class victory by a meagre 0.6s after 2h45m of rallying.
Those six tenths are likely the most important of the 25-year-old’s life so far.
Creighton laughs: “Yeah… I don’t want to sound cliché or anything like that but it’s definitely one that I’ll not forget, just the way it all panned out.
“If we continued the way we did on Saturday and ended up winning the rally with a massive lead of course we would have been extremely happy, but just the way we were able to fight back from the deficit, it makes it all the sweeter.”
Creighton has been seen by many as the favorite for this year’s JWRC title – a tag he feels is “fair” given how crucial WRC experience can be and he’s the only one of the contenders to have driven in JWRC before 2023.
But before Sweden, he had never led a round of JWRC let alone won one.
“I didn’t approach that event saying ‘I need to win this’ or ‘I should win this’ or ‘I have to win this’,” he tells DirtFish.
“Of course in my head there was a bit of pressure that I should be able to fight at the top for it but I didn’t want to sow that seed in my own head to start the rally with a big build up of pressure before I’d even done the first stage.”
Creighton was in a class of his own though. Quickest on Thursday night’s opener, by the time he’d reached first service he’d managed to construct a 30.5s lead over Pellier.
It was utter domination.
“To be honest I would say yeah [it did surprise me],” he says. “If you told me before the start of the rally that after the first loop of stages I would have a 30s lead I would have been very surprised at that.
“I think a big thing behind that was doing the warm-up event in Lima [in Sweden] – we started the first stage at the pace we continued the majority of the rally with so I think that was a big contributor to that.”
The big lead did give Creighton a dilemma though. In any other category, managing that advantage would be the only sensible strategy – like Oliver Solberg did in WRC2 for example.
But with one championship point available for every stage win in JWRC, Creighton could do that or he could make hay while the sun was shining and bag as many points as possible while he was in the groove.
“I’d never been in that position before so we quickly had to start thinking about it but the Juniors, if you just start to conserve your lead and you don’t keep winning stages then all of a sudden at the end of the rally second place and a load of stage wins can equal or overtake the points you get for winning the rally,” Creighton explains.
“The pace in the Juniors, you’re always going fast so it’s just trying to take into account what risks you take. We wanted to keep winning stages while we could but at the same time if that meant we had to take big risks then we probably wouldn’t have done it.
“But the way it was going, the pace was good and it felt comfortable and we were able to get stage wins so we just tried to stick to that rhythm.”
Creighton went to bed on Friday with a 34.5s lead and over the course of Saturday morning had built that up to 48.9s. It was all looking fairly routine.
It was just before the first junction, the first 500m, the wind caught it and blew it upWilliam Creighton
But this is when it all started to turn. No good story ends with the protagonist having an easy time on their way to success, and for Creighton his twist came in the form of the hood flying up and covering his windshield.
The escapade robbed him of nearly a minute to the stage winner and now he was 10.4s down on the rally lead.
“On the first stage out after service on Saturday we ended up with half the car in the snowbank – it wasn’t a big off or anything we only dropped a couple of seconds, but we ripped off a bumper light pod in the bank and it was flapping about for the rest of the stage,” Creighton explains.
“After the stage we had to get out and fix it and I was in under the bonnet trying to unclip the light and then whenever I dropped the bonnet the pins weren’t put back in.
“We drove the whole road section to the next stage and everything was fine, I didn’t notice the bonnet rattling or anything and then as soon as we started the stage, it was just before the first junction, the first 500m, the wind caught it and blew it up.
“Some cars I think you can get away with seeing underneath the bonnet but with the Fiesta and my seating position there wasn’t enough visibility – there was no way we could’ve driven the stage, it would’ve been too dangerous, so we pulled in straight away, Liam [Regan, co-driver] jumped out and did very well to get the bonnet back down and get it secured.
“It was horrible. As soon as we got the bonnet back down, I think on the splits we didn’t drop any time from when we started to go again, which I think is pretty impressive with a cracked screen in the dark, the lights weren’t pointing the way they should have on an extremely rutted stage.
“We did well to only lose the amount of time that we did lose and then going into the next stage we had to wear goggles and they’re definitely not the most comfortable thing to wear, especially with a cracked screen.
“We actually spun on that stage which I think I was actually more annoyed about. I didn’t need to do that and that made the situation even worse.”
Which brings us back to those 19.7s.
Creighton had proved himself to be more than a deserving winner in Sweden, but now he had to dig extremely deep if he was to actually be credited with first place.
Sweden’s final leg was longer than most WRC Sundays at just under 40 competitive miles, but to take that amount of time from a rival in the same car and on the same tires as you is an extremely tall order.
“I was so frustrated on the Saturday night, we worked so hard to build up that lead and we were very comfortable and everything was just going very well,” Creighton recalls.
“It wasn’t a lack of concentration that it happened, it was just an error and it happened. There wouldn’t have been a lot of chat on Saturday night, to say the mood was fairly low would be an understatement.
“But even when you’re trying to think ‘we’re still in second here, we can get a couple of stage win points and come away with a good overall position’ it was hard to even get into that mindset after the position we were in.”
Only a win would do. But the pair were realistic.
“We got back to the accommodation on Saturday night, went through the notes as normal, had a good look at the recce footage but I think both Liam and I quietly thought that it was too much time to get back and not enough stage kilometers.
“We knew after the first stage what position we’d be in and where we stood for the rest of the day.”
If anybody doubted how much Creighton wanted his first place back, take a look at the stage times from Västervik 1, Sunday’s opening test. Creighton was an astonishing 13.6s quicker than Pellier, slashing the reigning ERC4 Junior champion’s lead to 6.1s.
Game very much on.
DirtFish asks the same question as before: was Creighton surprised to have taken so much time out of Pellier?
“I suppose I would have to say yeah. We got to the end of the stage and a lot of stages in rallying you think you’ve had a good run and the time’s not what you expected and vice versa, so you never know until you actually see the times.
“But I probably was more surprised at the second pass to be honest because he had to take it cautious and didn’t want to chance anything [the first time] but after having done the stage I thought he’d have been able to go quicker on the second pass, so I thought taking anywhere near the same time was going to be more difficult on the second pass.”
Creighton was right, the gap wasn’t as big, but taking another 8.8s away from Pellier restored Creighton to the front with a 2.7s buffer ahead of the powerstage.
Now he was on the defensive, not the offensive.
“I knew we didn’t need to panic going into the powerstage with the lead, the only thing was it wasn’t a nice stage in terms of the road was very cut up and rutted because we’d been over the second half of it four times.
“Looking back on it now, the 30s lead after the first day, I was worried that it’s only a spin or it’s a stall. But if I was in that position again, and we’ve had to deal with having a two- or three-second lead, all of a sudden a 30s lead seems huge.
“We had a bit of time to kill before the powerstage and M-Sport provide Marek who is a trainer and I did a bit of work with him and just tried to not get caught up in the moment too much. There was still a lot of work to do.
“We didn’t want to panic but at the same time we just had to have a tidy run, and we didn’t actually have as tidy a run as we could have had.
“But still, it was 0.6s tidy enough.”
Pellier did what he needed to, beating Creighton on the powerstage. But going 2.1s quicker wasn’t enough and Creighton clung on to record a truly sensational and unforgettable win.
To get a win in the JWRC or even a podium we're delighted when we get one of those, so to get a win and the way we did it made it all the sweeterWilliam Creighton
Not that he knew it at the time. Just to spike the emotions even higher, Creighton wasn’t immediately sure if he’d managed to hold on.
“There was a little bit of confusion which was unfortunate for Laurent as well,” he says.
“He thought, I think, that he had got the win and when we rolled up to the stop line we thought that we were second, so it wasn’t until we got round to the holding area that my dad actually was trying to call Liam and then we were on the times and we saw that we had won.
“It took a little bit of time to realize what the overall position was, but trying to get a win in the JWRC or even a podium we’re delighted when we get one of those, so to get a win and the way we did it made it all the sweeter.
“We were pushed all the way by Laurent.”
A 10-point championship lead thanks to the rally victory and nine stage wins out of 18 is a dream way to start the season, but Creighton’s not counting his chickens for the rounds ahead.
“All the drivers are going to get faster so we’re under no illusion that just because we won and we’ve got a couple of stage win points, it doesn’t mean anything other than it’s a good start to the year.
“Of course the way that we did it, that we were able to dig deep, gives us confidence, and I think a lot of people recognized what we did which was nice.
“The support we got from everybody on Facebook and back home, I didn’t realize how many people were watching or following it until they all started sending messages after the event.
“That was pretty awesome but we know we need to keep working and doing everything we can to try and do our best and I think we’ve been able to prove that whenever we’re at our best we’re going to be not far away.”
But Creighton’s joke that he’s “going to carry a defib in the car in the future” was telling.
As sweet as this breakthrough JWRC win was, he’d much prefer his next to be simpler. And on the basis of what he showed last week, there most definitely will be a next.