Categories: RallyWRC

Why Oliver Solberg picked Hyundai – and what comes next

David Evans looks at Solberg Jr's route to the WRC champion team

Cracking America. It’s important. Just ask Paul McCartney. Mick Jagger. Led Zeppelin. Pink Floyd.

They all did it. Eventually.

Oliver Solberg did it in his first full year performing.

Granted, storming the 2019 American Rally Association series is not quite the same as turning the heads of 60-odd thousand in New York’s Shea Stadium with the words hey and Jude.

Oliver Solberg in ARA action in 2019 (Image: Vermont SportsCar)

But what a 17-turned-18-year-old Solberg did Stateside last season was mighty impressive, even if he didn’t ultimately wrest the title from David Higgins.

In climbing aboard a Subaru USA WRX and winning the DirtFish Olympus Rally, STPR and Lake Superior, he established himself on the rallying radar.

Becoming the youngest ever winner of a round of the European Rally Championship in Latvia, driving his family run Volkswagen Polo R5, in the middle of impressing America increased the frequency and intensity of that radar beat.

Solberg wins ERC's 2019 Rally Liepaja (Image: FIA ERC)

This season has shifted Solberg to the very center of that same radar screen.

He’s become the most watched and followed young driver in the recent history of the World Rally Championship. Even more so than Kalle Rovanperä.

When Solberg’s then-fellow-teenage-prodigy was announced at Toyota at the end of the 2019 season, it caused hardly a ripple in WRC newsrooms around the world – so well-known was it that Tommi Mäkinen had long since had Harri’s boy under lock and key.

But when Oliver Solberg agreed terms with Andrea Adamo and Hyundai for the next two seasons, there was an eyebrow raised here or there. On both sides.

How can he cope with coming to a team where not everybody is speaking his same language – how does he cope with going to the empty hotel room and being on his own every night? It’s a different movie for him now.Andrea Adamo

Granted, Solberg was never trumpeted as a full factory Škoda driver, but his association with the Czech manufacturer was as well received as it was successful.

The factory Fabia has been the training tool of so many of rallying’s rising stars – some saw Solberg following in the footsteps of Esapekka Lappi, Pontus Tidemand and Rovanperä and spending at least a couple of years on Škoda’s books.

But Solberg’s speed over the second half of the season elevated him to a different level.

Offers from elsewhere would follow before agreement with Hyundai Motorsport was found.

All the talk is about next year’s WRC2 campaign, but all the interest is in the following season’s shift to an i20 Coupe WRC.

Adamo’s not interested in discussing what might or might not be coming Solberg’s way in 2022. The Hyundai chief’s distaste for hybrid has been well documented and he remains sufficiently guarded not to fall into the trap of making any agreement on a Solberg Rally1 car – tacit or otherwise – a conduit to any kind of commitment.

But Solberg’s not along for the Rally2 ride. He could have stayed at Škoda for that. And the fact that M-Sport was interested in writing the family name on the side of one of its factory Fiestas for the first time since papa Petter was aboard one in 2012 signals Oliver’s true intent beyond 2021.

Strong as Hyundai’s line-up is right now it’s universally 30-something. Even the ever-youthful Craig Breen clicked over and out of his 20s this year.

While Ott Tänak, Thierry Neuville, Dani Sordo and Breen are all very much part of the team’s immediate future, Adamo knows he has to take a longer view – at least in terms of drivers, even if he won’t offer the same reflection on the wider program.

Typically with the charismatic northern Italian, all things come back to Lancia.

“I try to create the same like it was in Lancia when I was growing up,” Adamo tells DirtFish.

“Lancia was incredible at growing these young boys into great drivers and then keeping them to the family. A little bit Henri [Toivonen], but for [Miki] Biasion…”

Open that further to the full Fiat Group and Markku Alén and Attilio Bettega come immediately to mind.

Adamo continues: “If you can do this, make a home for the young drivers then you can make the team for the future.

“I have these guys, guys like Oliver and Jari [Huttunen] and [Ole Christian] Veiby and I want to see them drive as a team next season.

“Years ago in Lancia the young guys would go off and do some other rallies outside of the world championship. Maybe, I don’t know, some Italian Championship or some European rounds or something.

“Like we did this year with Roma and Alba, maybe we take them next season and maybe if we can find a World Rally Car, we go with this.

“This is in my mind, nothing is planned yet, but it’s a good way to see who can deal with the pressure.

“We have to create some pressure in these young guys to see who can survive and to see which of these boys can become the man like was the case in Lancia.

“It’s the reason I want to see them drive against each other in WRC2.

“OK, I don’t talk about making a big competition between them, but I want to see if they can work as a team.

“You can see from next season when we have Breen and Sordo, we have to have team drivers. Team players.

“For me, looking at Solberg and Huttunen, I see again [Didier] Auriol and [Juha] Kankkunen. Both of them were fantastic drivers, but remember with Didier, he was always smiling and always happy with the media.

“But Kankkunen was a little bit more quiet, more shy and not talking with the reporters all the time. I can see the same in Oliver and in Jari.”

Oliver Solberg with fans on Rally Sweden in February (Image: McKlein)

Looking more specifically at Solberg, Adamo’s requirements are more tailored.

“We all know about Oliver’s speed,” he said. “We saw that.

“But he’s not driving for his father’s team anymore. He’s driving for Hyundai Motorsport and we have to see how he can cope with that.

“How can he cope with coming to a team where not everybody is speaking his same language – how does he cope with going to the empty hotel room and being on his own every night? It’s a different movie for him now.

“You know, when I was 18 years old I left Cuneo, I left my home and I went to study in Turin.

“Suddenly, I was on my own. I was doing my own washing, cooking my own food – these things change you a little bit. At some time we all have to leave the nest to see if we can fly.”

As we pointed out at the top of this story, fledgling Solberg has taken flight. And made history.

And, let’s not forget, the step to 2022, 400 horsepower and downforce is nothing new for him. He was running a 600 horsepower Supercar in rallycross when he was 15.

And for natural talent, let’s reach for the first couple of corners on that most celebrated of runs up the Duke of Richmond’s drive last summer. Solberg stopped Goodwood’s Festival of Speed in its tracks. Regularly, the all-angles attack attracts the eyeballs, but rarely has such commitment looked so controlled.

But America and West Sussex are one thing. The wider world, quite another.

In pinning his colours to the mast of Adamo’s back-to-back world championship-winning team, Solberg has given himself a very clear view of his Everest and its cloud-tickling summit.

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