Germany’s World Rally Championship history is a relatively modern one. But it’s still a rich history. We think of Germany in rallying, we think of Panzerplatte, and of the lush vineyards lining the banks of the River Mosel.
What we don’t think of is Estering, a historic staple of rallycross that’s almost 400 miles north of Rally Germany’s former host city Bostalsee. But that’s where an important milestone in rallying is taking place right now.
A staggering 89 young hopefuls between the ages of 17 and 25 are fighting for the prize of a lifetime: six events driving a Ford Fiesta Rally3 as part of FIA Rally Star’s training program, a first step on the pathway towards a WRC drive.
They’ll do battle over three stages around the Estering track in a LifeLive TN5 Evo CrossCar, each stage progressively longer than the one previous, and each stage will eliminate those who aren’t near the top of the timesheets.
How these 89 drivers got here varies. Many demonstrated their car-control skills in a standard road-going car by driving through a tight, confined handling course. Others have gone the thoroughly modern route: Esports.
WRC9 featured a #RallyAtHome game mode, allowing the world’s fastest Esports drivers to qualify without leaving their houses. And there’s a couple of wildcards selected by national federations for good measure.
If it all sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it’s not new in principle. It’s got the DNA of Rally Jeunes flowing through it.
Created by the French motorsport federation, FFSA, Rally Jeunes also uses production cars on a slalom course for talent assessment. And the entry fee is a paltry €20. That hardly covers the cost of running the talent-seeking operation but the competition’s efforts have been paid back 100 times over. Both of the WRC’s great Sébastiens made their first steps there – Ogier winning it and Loeb featuring as a finalist. Adrien Fourmaux is the latest Lauréat to graduate to the WRC.
FIA Rally Star, therefore, has a lot to live up to. Its net is cast wider than anything before it. It’s global. This week’s event is a European final but there’ll be similar events elsewhere around the world on other continents.
How on earth do you pick between 89 drivers, though? And who can be trusted with such a task?
Robert Reid, FIA deputy president sport and Richard Burns’ former navigator, heads up the jury. He’s got the best in the business when it comes to unearthing talents that go on to win WRC rallies alongside him too: M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville will also be casting an eye over proceedings, plus Pernilla Solberg and Pirelli’s rally manager Terenzio Testoni are also on the panel.
A solid lineup indeed. And the same thing goes for the drivers. These aren’t 89 random kids off the street. There’s some serious firepower in this gaggle of aspiring WRC drivers, some of whom already have trophies to their name in the world of off-road motorsport – both real-world and digital.
Sweden, for one, is not messing about here. Isak Reiersen and Patrik Hallberg were protagonists in one of the closest finishes for any title fight in motorsport history last year, as Reiersen pipped Hallberg to the RallyX Nordic CrossCar title by 0.042 seconds.
Those two are realistically the best CrossCar drivers on the face of the planet right now, such is the level of competition in RX Nordic’s CrossCar division. And they’re driving CrossCars (albeit a different model from their own) on a rallycross track here. If you had to tack the ‘favorite’ tag onto someone, it’d be one of these two.
Finland has an ace in the hole, though: Tommi Hallman. The man who can do it all. He’s one of the best Esports racers in the world, yes. He’s also part of the SET Promotion squad that runs Marcus Grönholm’s World Rallycross Championship team. But best still: he ran rings around everyone in RallyX Nordic’s Supercar Lites category in his debut season, even as a privateer against the in-house might of the Olsbergs-run cars. He looks like the real deal.
Esports stars are well represented too. WRC Esports champion Sami-Joe Abi Nakhle is too young to enter but two of his main rivals are here – Dylan Nöel and John Bebnowicz-Harris, who finished third and fourth in last year’s grand final respectively. Plus there are champions of other Esports disciplines here: Killian Dall’olmo is a DiRT World Series winner.
On Sunday night, one of those hotshots – or the other 83 guys and girls we didn’t mention above – will have a contract to drive an M-Sport Fiesta next year. It’s a culmination of years’ worth of work and coordination, for both the organizer and the drivers.
Will they find the next Séb?