Jon Armstrong has been here before. When he fires his Ford Fiesta Rally4 into the first stage of Rally Croatia next week, he will have started the opening round of the Junior World Rally Championship season for the third time in his career.
Except Jon Armstrong has not been here at all. Never has the 26-year-old headed into a rallying season with such security around him and such a well-structured plan in place. After all, he has only done seven rallies in four years since his first Junior WRC attack back in 2016 when the series was called the Drive DMACK Trophy.
“It’s crazy to think four years ago I was pretty much a dried up rally driver with no budget, and now I’ve pioneered a way back into the sport through probably a bit of luck but communicating with people and opportunities started to open up then. It’s pretty cool,” Armstrong tells DirtFish.
“I don’t think I’ve done a [full] rally campaign since 2016 in the Drive DMACK series so it’s very exciting to be starting a year with the goal of just trying to do as best we can and seeing where we can end up in the championship,” he adds.
“Everyone wants to win it at the end of the day but there’s a lot of things between now and that end goal that you have to focus on.”
The security and excitement is all thanks to the brand-new Codemasters Rally Team. It really is the perfect package for Armstrong; the 2018 WRC Esports Champion who works as a game designer for Codemasters while harboring major ambitions to compete in real-life rallying.
Codemasters is the company that created the legendary Colin McRae Rally games as well as the modern DiRT Rally franchise, while it also has won the license to develop the official WRC game from 2023. As brands to have behind you partnering and supporting you, it’s up there with the best of them.
Armstrong openly admits however that “it took a while to convince the decision makers in Codemasters” to support this new rally team, but now it’s all in place he feels it’s a win-win situation for not just himself and Codemasters but also for both the rallying and Esports communities.
“I think it’s properly cool what we’re doing, being able to bring this rally team to real-life rallying is something you’d vision and work hard to try and make it happen, and to see it actually come to fruition is something to be honest I thought was maybe never going to happen,” Armstrong says.
“Codemasters is the best game developer in the rallying and racing field so it makes sense with us making the best rally game out there that we would be involved in the real-life form of the motorsport, and that’s what we’ve been trying to show.
“I think it’s all about trying to grow the sector of rallying, that’s what we’re really focused on. Rallying is something we benefit from in making the game but we also want to support the real-life sport so that it can grow.
“Rallying is such a nice sport and rallying in gaming is also quite niche in the grand scheme of things, so just trying to bring everyone together to increase the amount of people that can see the sport and get interested in it is good.”
The crossover between virtual and reality is getting closer and closer and that’s a big plus pointJon Armstrong
Gaming and real-life motorsport are two worlds that are increasingly colliding; no doubt helped by the various pandemics lockdowns that have forced people to look for new ways of entertainment and motorsport competitors to find a new way to keep themselves sharp.
Armstrong was one of the first drivers to jump on the bandwagon, using a modded version of Richard Burns Rally to prepare for Rally Germany and Spain in a Ford Fiesta R5 four years ago as a prize for his Drive DMACK campaign.
Since then, he won the aforementioned WRC Esports title (becoming the first person ever to do so) and has continued to keep his hand in gaming both for fun and for driver development, even holding his own online championship.
“I think gaming is only going to get bigger, it’s the biggest entertainment industry in the world and it’s something very exciting from my point of view to be working in the studio but also being part of the real-life sport and just trying to combine everything together,” Armstrong explains.
“The crossover between virtual and reality is getting closer and closer and that’s a big plus point from doing the whole activity from Codemasters’ point of view. It closes the gap between virtual and real world, just showing that I’ve done both and I use the gaming side of things to prepare for real life and how it helps both ways.
“I think it all makes sense and that’s why it’s actually come true. I’m up against the budget being spent on influencers, YouTubers, YouTube adverts and stuff like that so it’s very competitive [against] the other ways they could spend their money so I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on things and just hope that it does provide the return on investment the marketing team will be keeping an eye on.
“There’s a bit of pressure on the track and off the track but we’ll see, we just have to try our best. Of course it’s good for me too that it grows my profile across the board in virtual and real-life.”
The real-life aspect is what matters most to Armstrong – he wouldn’t have tried so hard over the last 12 months to put this program together if it didn’t. While he hasn’t reached Colin McRae levels of mystique in terms of some players believing he was a fictional character, Armstrong is keen to get back out and do some regular rallying in the real world.
His most recent outings have been mixed. With the support of Codemasters he did two rallies in Ireland – Galway International and the Down Rally – in 2019 with a Ford Fiesta R5 and Mini John Cooper Works WRC; finishing fourth on the former and winning the latter outright – the first overall rally win of his career.
But those would be the only rallies he’d manage all year, and he sat out the entire 2018 season altogether. Last year wasn’t much better, with his one outing in the Junior WRC coming to a very sudden and very scary end when he careered into a telegraph pole.
However Armstrong was back in testing action recently in Wales as he builds up his preparations for Croatia and the rest of the season.
Strong analysis and preparation is an area Armstrong admits he has worked hard on for his return to action.
“I think in the past I was always more reluctant to try and do research on the stages,” he says.
“I was always of the mindset that I was going to make my notes and drive to them but you do see more and more now that the top flight drivers in the WRC class are constantly doing their prep work on the stages to try to find out what’s similar to other events and try and watch onboards and what not.
“In general I’ve just been stepping up the prep work and also the paperwork side of it, just trying to make sure I’m keeping record of everything I’m doing in terms of car set-up and stuff like that and also tires and things that you have to plan ahead of; things I wouldn’t say I’d done properly in the past but definitely stepped up my game – pardon the pun!
“I’m hoping that that pays off. I think that whenever you don’t get a lot of seat-time, you start to perhaps think too much into it and you start to doubt whether you can be on the pace but even though I had that accident in Sweden and it was pretty big, getting back into a rally car recently to test everything felt good again.
“It felt like my ability behind the wheel was obviously still there and I was able to do what I wanted to do with the car and drive it, not over the limit but close to where I wanted to be on the test.
“With these sorts of competitions like Junior WRC it’s very competitive and it’s really hard to be on the pace but I know once I get to the rallies and gauge where I’m at it’s always just a matter of finding out how I can get faster and getting closer to the pace if I’m slightly away from it.”
However if he isn’t on the pace straightaway, Armstrong is prepared to take a wider look at the situation and utilize a virtue he believes is underappreciated in rallying.
“Patience is probably not a word you associate with rallying that often if you’re trying to win stuff, but you can be patient in the likes of JWRC because they’re long events and anything can happen; punctures or car issues or people just going as hard as they can for as long as they can and it doesn’t always mean that they finish.
“You have to have a bit of patience, especially if you’re not doing lots and lots of test events and whatnot but I’ve never really had that so it’s not something that I’m missing out on.”
Another difference for Armstrong will be working with new co-driver Phil Hall who himself has strong Junior WRC experience having sat with Tom Williams for two seasons.
“I’m really looking forward to doing my first rally with Phil,” says Armstrong. “He’s properly professional in his approach so all the signs are really good so we shall see.
“It can make such a big difference, it’s probably over 50% of the equation. Your relationship in the car can affect so much, even just your own feeling and confidence and the way you’re feeling as a driver the co-driver can affect that so much.”
All the ingredients therefore look to be in place for Armstrong to give it his all and finally make a career for himself in world rallying. He’s certainly up for the challenge, but is there a sense of 2021 being a little bit make-or-break for him given the various stalls his career has suffered?
“It’s a difficult one isn’t it because I think I would have had a lot more competition at that level if I had had the money behind me that some other drivers have.
“I think I did more than enough to prove myself when I was in the world championship and the opportunities… I wasn’t able to get the opportunities off the back of what I’d done.
I think I’ve always shown really good potential. If I am able to get into a nice rhythm I’ll show my potential againJon Armstrong
“To do stuff that I’d done was really, really good – to go to the world championship and win two rallies in my first year in the category and then to be winning stages in the R5 car on my first rally in an R5 car at WRC2 level it’s stuff that you never see really. Not to blow my own trumpet too much!
“But I do think I was destined to keep going but the opportunities just didn’t open up, I didn’t have the right people around me to make it happen and I tried hard myself but coming from a small part of Ireland where everyone who’s got money spends it on themselves going rallying. It’s the luck of the draw.
“Going back to the question, obviously I need to make the most of it [in 2021], that’s the way I’ve always looked at my rallying and sometimes it hasn’t worked out on winning any big championships but I think I’ve always shown really good potential. If I am in rallying and able to get into a nice rhythm I’ll show my potential again.
“This year it’s going to be very difficult to win the championship, there’s a lot of really good drivers in there that have been active over the last couple of years that are going to be super quick. It’s a good year for me though, there’s a lot of Tarmac in the championship so it suits me with Tarmac being one of my preferred surfaces.
“You just have to try your best, and if I don’t win the championship this year, does that mean that I don’t go any further?
“It’s so hard to say isn’t it because you can always get money from somewhere but that’s the most difficult part.
“We’ll see, I just need to try as hard as I can on-stage.”