Oliver Solberg doesn’t really do excuses. If something isn’t good enough, he’ll be honest and say it’s not good enough.
Has his 2021 World Rally Championship season been good enough? At points, absolutely. At others? Definitely not. But in context, any driver of this age and with this talent can be forgiven for a blip in form.
For years, the son of 2003 world champion Petter has been on a seemingly one-way route to stardom, but 2021 was the first season where the 20-year-old’s career momentum has stayed off the beaten track.
A spate of driving errors and mechanical gremlins – book-ended by some superb results on Arctic Rally Finland and Monza Rally in an i20 Coupe WRC – have made his 2021 hard to read.
“It’s been quite a 50:50 year to be fair,” Solberg tells DirtFish in an exclusive post-season interview.
“It’s been a lot of stuff to learn, a lot of experience definitely. I think it started well, ended well, it’s just the bit in the middle [that wasn’t so good].
“So I think it’s been a good year overall in the WRC car, I’ve done very well and gone above expectations so definitely very happy with that. It hasn’t been easy, it’s been six different cars, five different teams and four different co-drivers so it’s been a tough year to learn a lot about.
“But I think it’s part of the experience, it’s been going well for a long time and I guess these lows in the career come at one point but it’s how you deal with it.
“I think it’s been a big mix between my mistakes and also bad luck with the new car with the new R5 that came, it’s been tough for the team and for me. I think it’s been just a big learning curve for both of us but in the end it ended well, so overall I’m happy still with my year.”
From a driving perspective, Solberg has plenty to be pleased about. His World Rally Car debut on Arctic Rally Finland, where he was a crazy fourth fastest on just the second stage before eventually securing seventh, in particular was the stuff of legend.
“I was always hoping [to be competitive] but I didn’t expect it, not that quickly,” he reflects 10 months on. “I thought maybe I would be close but never that good. For sure it’s one of my highlights.”
The WRC world was at Solberg’s feet after that event, but things soon turned to despair. Fifth in WRC2 on Rally Portugal, beset by a few issues, was a solid enough return given the quality entry list of ex-WRC drivers competing that weekend. But from there it all spiralled.
Solberg was supposed to contest Rally Italy just two weeks after Portugal for his gravel debut in the i20 Coupe WRC but was ruled out as father Petter tested positive for COVID-19.
His reprieve came with a last minute entry on Safari Rally Kenya in the car Pierre-Louis Loubet was originally supposed to drive, but carrying too much speed, Solberg broke his rear suspension and was out before the rally had truly begun.
His teary WRC TV interview told the outside world everything they needed to know.
“It’s probably my lowest ever, definitely,” Solberg confesses. “As I said [this year] was a mix of bad luck and my mistakes during the year, and Africa was definitely my mistake.
“It was my first proper mistake of the year and it was really very tough, definitely. But there was no testing, [I’d] never tried the car on gravel and expectations were different so it’s not easy to just jump in and do anything if you want to do it properly on that level, that’s just how it is.
“Maybe I put my own expectations too high, I should’ve been more realistic maybe, but again that was a big learning curve and definitely my lowest, the lowest part of my career yeah.”
Petter agrees with his son: “I think everybody was upset and for sure it’s never nice but of course coming there with a new car again and no testing in a rally like that, and when you are so young even if you know about how tough it is and maybe didn’t respect it enough, it can happen very quickly,” he tells DirtFish.
The last two events I think that proved back again why I have the seatOliver Solberg on criticism on his 2022 Rally1 drive
“It’s easy to say now that we should have said no to do it without any testing or anything, but it was tough, it was very tough for him.
“That’s where he needed support and being constructive with him because you have a responsibility for the guys you are driving for so you can’t hide under a carpet, you just face it and I think it was the toughest ever, for sure.”
Safari was a real blow, but it turned out to only be the start of a dismal mid-season run for Solberg. He admits “we knew it was going to be tough” as the older i20 R5 was phased out and the new i20 N Rally2 was introduced but “we didn’t know it was going to be that tough, but that’s part of life “.
Engine problems ruined Solberg’s Estonia, an electronic issue denied him an Ypres victory on the final morning of the new Rally2 car’s debut – particularly cruel given Solberg valiantly fought through practically the entire second day without power steering – the suspension broke on the Acropolis and Solberg binned it in Finland.
Just days later Solberg was announced as a bonafide Hyundai works driver, sharing the third i20 N Rally1 with Dani Sordo as Craig Breen moved to M-Sport Ford. The reaction? Quite hostile.
Plenty had noticed Solberg’s barren run of five retirements and questioned if he was ready – or even worthy – of a chance in the Rally1 car. But in rallying there’s always more to a result than meets the eye, which is why the backlash never made any sense to this particular writer.
Solberg reveals it was “tough to see the social media when it’s like that, definitely” but it’s what the team made of his performances that really mattered, and he feels his response on Rally Spain (a cautious drive to seventh) and Monza (career-best fifth) justified his place in Hyundai’s line-up next year.
“I struggled definitely after those five races there, I definitely was in a very low place and really, really struggled but I managed to get back and do a great job on the last two events and I think that proved back again why I have the seat,” he explains.
“And again, I think it was tough for me to read all those comments but it’s how you get over it, and I know the people don’t see the whole picture. They see the retirements. For sure Africa and Finland were my mistakes, but it happens.
“Definitely the other events were bad luck [but] people don’t see the difference and I got a lot of support from inside the team – they see the difference, they know why and how and that’s the most important. That’s all that matters.”
Solberg drove within himself on Spain – a necessary tactic given his troubling run but it was “still very difficult when you want to be fast, and I’m a winner – that’s it”.
“Basically I was a tiger in a cage and I was let loose out of the cage in Monza,” Solberg surmises. “But it’s experience again, and that’s what I learned a lot. You need to build experience, that’s it.
“And as a young driver I have the feeling I am fast and able to be fast but if you don’t know the event, if you don’t have the notes, if you don’t have the experience it’s still difficult.
“[Monza] I think was just a perfect event and finally I could just get a clean event and prove myself and let loose you know. Get that confidence back, and it’s fantastic for the next season.”
Watching and working with Oliver closely, Petter believes this trying 2021 has been “the best experience that he maybe has learned from because his career has been going up and and up and up all the time, and this was maybe the toughest time he has had since he was maybe eight years old”.
He adds: “The main thing is the speed and the speed has been there, and now with some issues that have happened it’s made him better in all the other areas also.
“To be a complete driver, all these things you have to go through and you have to be sharp enough to evaluate and learn from it and then work from there.
“You can think of even [Adrien] Fourmaux [who] had some big crashes and things happening, there’s so many other people who’re doing the same thing but of course Oliver is a little bit in the limelight because of the situation.
“It’s of course a little bit harder when you are that young age with the pressure on the shoulders. But it will not get any less pressure for the future!
“So as I say it’s something you have to go through but at the end of the day it’s all about communication, helping each other, supporting each other and of course coming into the team next year with [Ott] Tänak and [Thierry] Neuville and Sordo, I think it will be a great support for him.
“Hopefully the guys will take him under their arms and support him like Tommi [Mäkinen] and Carlos [Sainz] and Colin [McRae] and [Richard] Burns, all of these guys did for me. I know how important that is because these young guys are looking up to these big stars.”
Oliver is in agreement: “It’s been going well for a long time, all my years and I guess lows are coming.
It’ll be such a new year for everybody so you just have to try and be consistentOliver Solberg on 2022
“You don’t really expect it or you don’t really hope for it, it’s just something you have to deal with and when you look at it now it was probably in a bad way a good way, but at that moment it was very, very tough definitely.
“But I think it’s all part of the experience and it made me just stronger. You know, I think all the lows happens for everybody in their careers. If you look at every man’s career, they have had many lows and many tough times and it’s just how you come back from it.
“I think it was very important for me to end the last two races like I did and prove I am here for a reason, that’s what’s very important for me.”
Solberg’s 2022 will begin on the Monte Carlo Rally before a shot at Rally Sweden, his home round of the world championship. Beyond that?
“I know nothing beyond that,” he says, pre-empting DirtFish’s line of questioning. But he did confirm that he’s “found my way fairly quick” with the Rally1 car in testing which he describes as “a bit like R5 driving”.
“I feel good to be honest with the car. [There’s] definitely something to learn with the electric part but I think it’s the same for everyone and I think I’m lucky that I do a lot of gaming maybe and I can get into things quickly,” he continues.
“I haven’t driven the current car a lot and I think I’m not used to the current car which was maybe a good thing to get into this new car.”
So what about his expectations? We’ve outlined the challenges his first season as a Hyundai have thrown at him and how he’s learned from it, but what can we now expect from Solberg?
“I think we have to split the season into where you feel confident, where you think you can do well and the rest of the races you have to just get experience and learn and get to the finish.
“It’ll be such a new year for everybody so you just have to try and be consistent, and if you manage to do that with a decent speed you will end up quite good I think. So just need to learn experience, consistency and enjoy. Try to do well on the events you feel comfortable.”
Solberg is sure he’s in the right place to perform too. The last few months have been tricky for Hyundai with team principal Andrea Adamo unexpectedly leaving and then Neuville crashing the only Rally1 chassis on a test, leading many to suspect the team could be in trouble.
“We are not in trouble, don’t worry about that!” Solberg interrupts.
“I think we are in the right place. We have a fantastic team atmosphere we are working on and we are growing. For sure the test crash that happened for Neuville didn’t really help the situation, but those things happen. It’s a new car, we have to test it out, things happen.
“I think the team is still flat out, we are working a lot, we are working together very nicely and everybody has a passion and motivation to work together and get to Monte Carlo prepared. I think we have a good plan.”
Plans can often go awry, as Solberg’s 2021 season proves. But that’s not always to the detriment of the endgame.
As weird as it is to say, there was no better season for Solberg to encounter these struggles without the pressure of a manufacturers’ championship on his shoulders.
Now that he has a better understand of what failure feels like (and a more consistent setting with just one team and one co-driver with Elliott Edmondson locked in for 2022), expect it to be a sensation he limits significantly in 2022.