Anticipation was already high ahead of Arctic Rally Finland – the first time the World Rally Championship will venture into the Arctic Circle – but that hype ramped up a notch when it was revealed Oliver Solberg would be driving a World Rally Car.
Solberg was signed by Hyundai ahead of the 2021 season to pilot an i20 R5 and later an i20 N Rally2 in the WRC2 support category. Little did he expect that three rallies into his Hyundai career, he would be at the controls of an i20 Coupe WRC.
Of all the WRC rounds for Solberg to make his World Rally Car debut on, Arctic Rally Finland seems like a good fit. Snow is the 19-year-old’s self-proclaimed favorite surface and he was competing on the very same stages – albeit in the opposite direction – a month earlier on the Arctic Rally, the opening round of the Finnish national championship.
Family history suggests he should fare well too. Solberg’s father Petter – the 2003 World Rally Champion – received his World Rally Car debut earlier than expected too when he was asked to deputize for an injured Thomas Rådström for Ford on the 1999 Safari Rally. Petter finished fifth, so what might Oliver achieve?
Oliver Solberg is by no means the only teenager to take the wheel of a World Rally Car however. In fact he’s in some rather good company.
Here are the WRC’s other early bloomers to start events in a World Rally Car in their teenage years.
At the tender age of 18, Jari-Matti Latvala made his World Rally Car debut in 2003 (his first appearance coming a year earlier in 2002 on Rally GB in a Mitsubishi) with a semi-works Ford Focus WRC.
Alongside a full season in the British Rally Championship, Latvala entered four rallies that year – Acropolis, Germany, Finland and GB – with a best finish of 10th on debut in Greece and in Wales.
Thereafter the Finn dropped back to less powerful, predominantly two-wheel-drive machinery for the rest of his teenage years in the WRC before a step back up to World Rally Cars in 2006 alongside a program in a Group N Subaru.
At 22, Latvala began his first full-time campaign with the Stobart VK World Rally Team in 2007 before stepping up to Ford’s works team in 2008, beginning a 12-year career with manufacturer teams in the WRC.
As the WRC’s most experienced driver with 18 rally wins, Latvala started early and kept on improving. He is now the team principal of Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Andreas Mikkelsen has been a World Rally Championship regular in recent years, driving for Volkswagen and Hyundai in recent seasons, but he had no affiliation to a manufacturer when he burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced 17-year-old.
Rally GB – the finale to the 2006 season – was where Mikkelsen made his debut in a privately-run Ford Focus WRC, but it ended in an accident. That preceded two partial, European-based campaigns in 2007 and ’08 with fifth on Rally Sweden in the latter year the undisputed highlight.
However the financial crash curtailed Mikkelsen’s WRC adventure, so aged 20 the Norwegian moved onto pastures new in 2009 and began to rebuild his reputation from a young pay driver to a youngster with a big future.
Back-to-back Intercontinental Rally Challenge titles in 2011 and ’12 with Škoda were enough to impress Volkswagen, who handed him a World Rally Car reprieve in 2013, aged 24. He would go on to win three world rallies in a Polo R WRC.
Mikkelsen is now fighting his way back into the WRC’s premier class, spending a season driving a Toksport Škoda in WRC2 and the European Rally Championship.
There are quite a lot of parallels between Mikkelsen and Mads Østberg’s WRC journeys.
Østberg, a fellow Norwegian, debuted in 2006, did so via a private outfit and is now currently on the fringes of the top class despite his obvious talent behind the wheel.
Instead of opting for a Ford Focus, Østberg’s Adapta team ran him in various generations of Subaru Impreza WRCs in partial seasons between 2006-10. While his early performances as a 19-year-old were modest, Østberg’s form improved as his experience increased: grabbing three consecutive ninth place finishes on the snow of Rally Sweden and then Norway when it replaced Sweden in 2009.
The 2009 season was Østberg’s best in an Impreza with two sevenths and a sixth following ninth in Norway. Drives in a Ford Fiesta S2000 on Rally Germany and France in 2010 would prove important however as it opened a door with M-Sport who Østberg joined in 2011 – driving for the Stobart second-string squad.
He immediately impressed, coming a close second to rally winner Mikko Hirvonen before winning his first WRC round at just 24 the following year when, ironically, Hirvonen was excluded from Rally Portugal.
Two separate spells with the main M-Sport squads and Citroën would follow before Østberg – now over 30 – began plying his trade in Rally2 machinery.
The son of M-Sport managing director and WRC podium finisher Malcolm Wilson, Matthew Wilson took the idea of making a World Rally Car debut as a teeanger and went wild with it.
Let alone his WRC debut, Wilson’s first ever rally as a 17-year-old was in a Ford Focus WRC (perhaps no real surprise given the family trade) and between then in 2004 and 2011 when he stopped competing full-time, he only did three rallies at any level in something other than a World Rally Car.
Wilson’s early career was spent in his native Britain but that included a pair of Rally GB appearances in 2004 and ’05. He stepped up to the Stobart VK team in 2006 and stayed there until ’11 when his top flight driving career dried up.
While Wilson never made it onto the WRC rostrum like his father did, he did score several top five results, peaking with fourth on Rally Japan 2007 and Rally Australia 2011.
His last World Rally Car appearance was on Rally Sweden 2013 as a late replacement for Nasser Al-Attiyah and his last WRC appearance Rally GB 2017 when he drove a Ford Fiesta R5. Nowadays, Wilson manages M-Sport in its circuit racing exploits.
Evgeny Novikov is one of the WRC’s biggest enigmas. Had the raw speed been tempered, he could be where Ott Tänak is now but instead he’s almost a forgotten man of WRC history who tested the patience of all those that supported him – including his co-drivers!
Novikov debuted in the WRC in Group N-spec machinery but stepped up to pilot a Citroën C4 WRC for the Citroën Junior Team in 2009, aged just 18. That maiden season typified Novikov’s WRC career: a superb fifth in Sardinia but four accidents from nine starts.
Formula 1 champion Kimi Räikkonen ousted Novikov from Citroën’s set up in 2010 so the Russian went back home to contest local rallies in a Mitsubishi. M-Sport’s second division picked him up in 2011 and kept him onboard for 2012 – by far Novikov’s best season.
Aged 21, he grabbed his first WRC podium on Rally Portugal and repeated the feat later in the season in Sardinia. Consistency improved throughout Novikov’s final season in 2013 as he collected back-to-back fourth places in Portugal and Argentina and then consecutive fifth places on the asphalt of France and Spain but there was no room at the inn in 2014 as M-Sport downsized.
Kalle Rovanperä is Oliver Solberg’s rival to be the sensation of his generation. A year Solberg’s senior, Rovanperä didn’t just make his World Rally Car debut at 19 he completed a full (if you can call a seven-round year full) season with Toyota.
Rovanperä – the son of 2001 Rally Sweden winner Harri – has been an obvious star of the future from the age of eight when footage emerged of him sliding around a Toyota Starlet on a frozen lake. He, like Mikkelsen, Latvala and Wilson, made his world championship debut at 17 but in an R5 car, driving a Ford before being signed by Škoda for 2018.
After WRC2 Pro title success in 2019, Rovanperä made the jump into a World Rally Car with Toyota and was immediately sure-footed, beating illustrious team-mate Sébastien Ogier to third place on his second event in the top flight.
Aside from an accident in Sardinia, Rovanperä has been a model of consistency and has never finished outside the top five on a rally he has finished. Although that first win currently eludes him, it’s surely a matter of if and not when this now-20-year-old Finn ticks that off the list.