Oliver Solberg’s World Rally Car debut was so convincing that it only took one loop of stages on Arctic Rally Finland before Hyundai Motorsport team principal Andrea Adamo was being asked when the 19-year-old would get to drive a Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC again.
And then he was asked again on Saturday. And Sunday. Then after the rally by DirtFish. He was asked so many times that Adamo eventually admitted that, yes, the son of Petter will be in a top-class car again in 2021.
But the Italian remained coy enough to not go any further in his answer, not even revealing if Solberg’s second slice of World Rally Car action would even be in the World Rally Championship. Remember, Toyota has used national rallies to prepare its protege Takamoto Katsuta over the past few years.
DirtFish’s thoughts on what happens next for Solberg landed in two camps: Hyundai should promote him full-time to the WRC now, or he should focus on his WRC2 campaign for 2021 while adding to his top-class experience. Here’s the summary of the arguments laid forward.
Promote him now
David Evans: So, just to be clear, this feature is about, essentially, telling Andrea Adamo how to do his job?
Yikes. Do I still have to do this bit?
OK, if you insist… Adamo, you have to keep Oliver Solberg in an i20 Coupe WRC for the rest of the season. Budget? I don’t know, that’s your problem. But, here’s what I do know: putting that 19-year-old back in a Rally2 car will be a waste of a season.
Look at what he did in Finland last week, on the fastest of the fast stages, he jumped on and drove – give or take – as fast anybody else in the world. On his first time in a World Rally Car!
On reflection, the snowy conditions definitely played to his strengths, but the aero – arguably the biggest single factor in these cars – was a massive learn for him. Just six miles into the rally, he was relying on downforce to keep wheels on the ground through a frighteningly quick right-hander. And he did it.
He’s taken a massive step forwards and to put him back in a Rally2 car, to me, wouldn’t make sense.
We’ve seen how Kalle Rovanperä flourished once he was in a World Rally Car week-in, week-out and we’ve seen how detrimental it can be to young guys taking one step forwards only to then shift back to a Rally2 car.
Solberg is ready. He’s quick enough and good enough, so he’s old enough. Taking a young Solberg and slotting him into a World Rally Car… there’s a history of that being a pretty good thing for Asian automakers!
Countering that, I can see why you’d want him driving an i20 N Rally2 to showcase the speed of the new motor. That’s short-sighted. Go on, play the longer game, I dare you.
Switchboard, if an angry Italian calls for me, I’ve left the country.
Josh Suttill: While it may appear naive to suggest that one driver could influence a manufacturer’s commitment to the WRC, Solberg isn’t just any driver.
Hyundai already has two current title contenders in Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville but with seats at M-Sport and a Sébastien Ogier-sized gap to fill at Toyota, neither Tänak or Neuville is guaranteed to remain beyond 2021. If either – or even both – were to leave, who would replace them?
While Craig Breen has shown he’s worthy of another full WRC campaign, Solberg is the real star of not only the future but of right now. The teenager has repeatedly shown throughout his short rally career an immensely impressive adaptability.
Sure, he crashed on the powerstage on the Monte Carlo Rally and Arctic Rally Finland, but 2021 can be used as a real learning year.
There’s no fear of failure if he’s driving for the 2C Competition outfit and if there’s not always operational room there, he can pilot the third factory-run Hyundai on rallies that he’s familiar with such as Italy and Estonia.
The star quality and added media coverage Solberg can bring – not just because of his surname but because he’s arguably the most exciting young driver in the WRC bar Kalle Rovanperä – would also boost the arguments in favor of Hyundai committing to WRC’s next generation of cars.
Alasdair Lindsay: Adamo has a problem. Hyundai’s board in Korea still hasn’t green-lit his division’s participation in WRC beyond this season. How can he solve this problem?
Hyundai needs a clear return on investment to continue at the WRC’s top level. Can one driver – a 19-year-old at that – suddenly turn the cost/benefit analysis of that decision the other way?
It sounds mad but, yes. It can.
From a driving and talent perspective, Solberg deserves his chance now, that much is clear. But there’s an even bigger objective at stake here: giving the bigwigs in Seoul an unmissable opportunity. A driver that can single-handedly boost the entire N division’s marketing pull.
Colin McRae did it for Subaru. Petter reinforced it. Now it’s the second-generation Solberg’s turn to do it for Hyundai.
It’s hard to overstate the influence of driver marketability on the entire viability of a WRC team. Ford spent the big bucks on McRae in 1999 not only for his talent behind the wheel, but to capture some of the marketing magic he’d sprinkled on Subaru for itself.
And team partners contributing to the budget need brand ambassadors with plenty of pull. They’ve got one in Solberg.
Put him in and keep him there. The results don’t really matter, so long as he’s as spectacular to watch as in Rovaniemi.
If the Hyundai board still says no to 2022, Adamo can at least be satisfied he played every card in his hand to keep the Rally1 program alive.
Mix and match
Luke Barry: What’s now abundantly clear given his performance in the Arctic is that Solberg is absolutely ready for the WRC. He probably already was, but now he, the world and perhaps most crucially Adamo all know that he can compete on the big stage in the big car.
Solberg cannot be kept out of a WRC car for the remainder of the year. His debut really was that good. If he can already perform, why stunt that progress?
But equally, that doesn’t mean that he should suddenly have access to an i20 Coupe WRC for the entirety of 2021. He’s only 19, why rush this process?
Sticking to the plan with his primary role in WRC2 – alongside a rotating cast of Jari Huttunen and Ole Christian Veiby – while also giving him further chances to impress, learn and keep his eye in at the top tier is truly the best of both worlds.
Solberg gives Hyundai arguably the best chance of winning WRC2, something it wants to do otherwise it wouldn’t be competing, while giving him some more 2C Competition outings is a low-pressure way of refining his craft.
If he was to go full-time, more and more would begin to be expected of him.
Chucking the kitchen sink at it and going full send in a WRC car is an appealing prospect for all parties, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that learning how to tame an i20 Coupe WRC isn’t necessarily going to benefit Solberg’s long-term future.
As early as next year the WRC’s regulations are changing and the cars will incorporate hybrid technology. In short, they will be a lot different to drive. Involving Solberg in the testing and development process of next year’s challenger would actually be a very shrewd use of his downtime.
Elliot Wood: The Adamo era at Hyundai Motorsport could probably be described as not taking ‘fairness’ into consideration with WRC driver line-up decisions, but the pick-and-mix strategy that the Italian enacts has won two manufacturers’ titles in a row.
However this isn’t a new thing, because Michel Nandan – whose job as team principal was taken by Hyundai Customer Racing manager Adamo at the start of 2019 – was just as ruthless.
When Hayden Paddon won 2016 Rally Argentina, it put the underperforming Neuville under genuine pressure. It was all about who had their feet under the table when the next round of decision taking took place. Neuville upped his game, while Paddon slowly got pushed down the order of Hyundai’s favored drivers.
Both Nandan and Adamo were and are only ever thinking about scoring manufacturer points, and so what’s best for Solberg comes after what’s best for Hyundai. Except Solberg would actually be contributing to 2C Competition’s points haul in any future World Rally Car appearances. But that’s still good for Hyundai.
The earlier Hyundai gets Solberg into a 2C Hyundai on a regular basis, the earlier he gets up to speed and the more he scores for 2C alongside its full-time driver Pierre-Louis Loubet. If Loubet purges the mistakes of his first five WRC rallies in the top class, then he should be banking enough points also for the team to beat M-Sport Ford in the manufacturer standings. Now that would be big news.
But an even bigger deal for Adamo is selling the i20 R5, and the incoming i20 N Rally2. Solberg winning in and raving about the new car would be a commercial boost to please the board.
Solberg still needs asphalt rally experience too, so staying in WRC2 for those rallies (with more competitive miles than European Rally Championship equivalents) is going to be a big benefit for him and will keep him in a mindset of fighting for wins.
So the winning combination is WRC and WRC2 this year.
Give Solberg two more rallies with 2C in Portugal and Italy, then later in the year Adamo could assess whether he’s likely to contribute more points on gravel than Breen or Dani Sordo would as the factory team’s third driver.
Italy is locked down for Sordo after winning it twice, and Breen’s second place at Estonia should secure his return there. Between those is the returning Safari Rally Kenya, effectively a new WRC event and one where there would be a nice parallel to Solberg’s father if he’s in a factory World Rally Car.
Then to Finland, a country where Hyundai hadn’t made the podium since 1999 prior to last weekend, and the kind of rally where Solberg’s talent would shine enough for him to score several points in a Rally2 car anyway. WRC or WRC2? Hyundai Motorsport or 2C? Future world champion or Hyundai’s 2021 WRC2 winner?