Rally México always has a habit of throwing a few curveballs at drivers. It’s demanding, it’s challenging, and at times it’s downright brutal. It’s not very often that a driver can make it through the rally unscathed, something Oliver Solberg can attest to.
His rally was littered with incidents preventing him from fighting Gus Greensmith for WRC2 class victory. Although the end result doesn’t look overly fantastic, having finished over a minute behind fellow Škoda driver Greensmith, it doesn’t actually do Solberg’s performance justice.
It took Solberg a few stages to get fully warmed up on México, but come Friday afternoon he’d found his groove and won three of the next four stages.
But the one stage he didn’t win that afternoon was also the one that cost him the most, with Solberg picking up a puncture on SS8 that cost him one minute-and-41.5 seconds to Greensmith.
That instantly dropped him out of the lead battle, and Solberg could have chosen to change tactics and drive more comfortably for the rest of the rally to ensure at least a few points, that wasn’t the decision he made.
Instead he decided to fight on just as hard and won the final two stages of the day, ending Friday fifth in WRC2, 1m41.2s off Greensmith.
With most of Saturday morning’s running curtailed due to Esapekka Lappi’s crash, WRC2 runners didn’t get going until SS14. But when the action did get underway, Solberg was once again right at the front, winning every single stage that day.
Again, looking at the timesheet at the end of the day, Solberg’s gap to Greensmith didn’t look fantastic and. as a result, the time he made up on his old Rally1 rival could easily get lost. But it shouldn’t.
Over the course of Saturday’s five stages that ran for WRC2, Solberg reduced the deficit to Greensmith by 22.4s. It was an incredible amount of time to make up in a relatively short space of time.
He was pushing hard, but crucially he wasn’t making mistakes. There was no argument that Solberg was the star of the WRC2 class on Saturday.
On the SS14 superspecial he was third fastest overall, 0.5s off the stage-winning Thierry Neuville in his Hyundai Rally1 car, and on the SS18 superspecial Solberg was fourth fastest and only 0.4s off the fastest Rally1 car. On that stage he beat Dani Sordo, Elfyn Evans and even the rally winner Sébastien Ogier.
That level of pace wasn’t a fluke either.
On Sunday morning, Solberg completely annihilated the rest of the WRC2 field on the 22.14-mile Otates test.
He didn’t just win that stage, he won it by a huge 26.6s. He was in a different league compared to his class rivals, and his pace was that good that he set an identical time to the Ford Puma Rally1-driving Ott Tänak.
It was a bit easier to understand Solberg’s competitiveness in comparison to the Rally1 cars on SS18, as that stage was only 2.19 miles. But Otates was a different ballgame.
Driving at that pace for that long in a Rally2 car was nothing short of amazing. He drove the Fabia to its limit and beyond, and did it without making a mistake.
— Oliver Solberg 🍩 (@OliverSolberg01) March 19, 2023
That stage alone proved why Solberg is the real deal and why he shouldn’t have been judged too quickly when he struggled at Hyundai.
He has the talent, he clearly has the pace, and he’s able to display it when the environment around him is right.
Unfortunately for Solberg he was unable to make the same impression on the final two stages. Not because of his personal lack of pace, but because the car picked up a problem, meaning the engine was only running on three cylinders.
That wasn’t going to stop him though. He pushed on to the end, extracting what he could from the Fabia, and, although he lost 18s on the final stage, he still managed to finish the rally eighth overall and third in WRC2. He now sits 10th in the WRC standings, and is the WRC2 points leader.
The rally may not have gone exactly to plan, but Solberg was still happy with his overall performance.
“Yeah, but that’s how it is sometimes. That’s rallying,” was Solberg’s response when it was suggested by DirtFish that it hadn’t been a great weekend in terms of luck. “But I’m still happy with the speed.
“I feel I know myself what could have been and what should have been but anyway, P3 is good in the end. Good points.”
And he should be happy with his speed, very happy in fact.
He might not have won in México, but Solberg set out a clear statement to his rivals that he can win regularly and will win regularly if the car holds out on him.
The Otates stage alone will have definitely caught the attention of his rivals. They now know what he has in his back pocket and they will be quickly searching for answers because at the time, they simply didn’t have any.
México is tough, but it also has a habit of separating the great from the good.
And last weekend, Solberg showed the world that he is capable of separating himself away from the good.
His next task is to go out and do it regularly. Do that and he will have Rally1 teams knocking on his door again, just like they were a few years ago.