Zero to a JWRC podium in under a year, the Max Smart story

The South African’s rise has been one of the success stories of the FIA Rally Star season so far


A year ago, Max Smart had never sat in a rally car. A week ago, he stood on the Junior WRC podium for the first time.

Rises don’t come much more meteoric than that, but the man representing Africa in the FIA Rally Star program is well on his way to being a regular contender in the Junior World Rally Championship.

Third place in Sardinia marked another significant step forward after seventh in Croatia and 10th in Sweden. It’s all been part of a well-planned program centered on small but steady steps forward and learning his craft.

“My main focus last year was consistency and learning how to drive a car,” Smart told DirtFish. “To focus on things like weight transfer, how you can feel the traction. Consistency, for me, is like this biggest foundation that you need in rally, and then you can build everything on top of it.”


Smart's preparations were key to his good result in Sardinia

This was clearly part of the strategy going into Sardinia, and Smart admitted the plan was always to play himself in before building the pace from there. There’s no easy ride on the Italian island, especially in a lower-category car, so good preparation was a key part of the approach.

“The pre-event prep that I did for the recce was really good,” he said. “I knew exactly where it was going to rise up. I knew where there was a bump on this crest that you have to watch out for, or where someone had possibly made a mistake in previous years.”

That preparation was clearly not time wasted as, by the end of Saturday, Smart had a 28.4-second advantage over fourth-placed Petr Borodin. That meant another first: defending a position.

Smart continued: “On Sunday, he [Borodin] was hunting us, so I really, really had to up my game. I’ve never pushed myself like that in a rally car before because we really, really wanted it. And, yeah, it was incredible to drive with pressure like that.”

It has been a rollercoaster journey for the 21-year-old, who was selected as one of six FIA Rally Star drivers after winning the all-Africa final in 2022. Up to that point, all of his experience had been in motocross.

“Yeah, it’s been mad,” he said. “The learning curve in a sport like rally is like, to be able to learn so much in a year is incredible because you have so many things to focus on: from the driving to the pacenotes, to managing the car and the mechanics of it, as well as just working with a team in general.”

A program of four European events in 2023 would eliminate two of the six contenders, while the four survivors were awarded a full season in JWRC in 2024. Despite his inexperience and some setbacks, Smart made the cut.

“It took lots of work, and it wasn’t easy,” he said. “The beginning of last year was tough. We had two pretty big crashes. But, yeah, just trying as hard as we could. The learning curve was pretty steep, but we eventually got it right.”

Being part of Rally Star has meant big lifestyle changes for the South African native too. He has relocated to Scotland to live with coach Brian Cameron and, when he’s not working on a farm, there is plenty of training to be done.

That included two months on the island of Mull with co-driver Cameron Fair; there are few places more complex and rewarding than the Hebridean island to learn how to write notes.


Seventh place on just his second JWRC appearance in Croatia showed Smart was adapting quickly to his new life as a rally driver

Smart credits Fair as being instrumental in his rapid development.

He said: “During a rally, after every stage, me and Cam, we’re always looking to be better. We’re seeing what we did well, what we must keep doing, and some things that we need to start working on better.

“I think that’s Cam’s mindset, and it really helps to have someone in the car that wants it as bad as you.”

Another tool in Smart’s arsenal was his sim setup. Time in a digital rally car helped him to adapt to left-hand drive (South Africa is a right-hand-drive market), as well as giving him a taste of the events he is competing on for real in 2024.

One place where he will need all of that knowledge is the next round of the JWRC: Rally Finland in August. Following his steady progress up the rallying rostrum, is Smart looking to make it a win at the Finnish grand prix?


Smart won the African final of the FIA Rally Star program, having never even sat in a rally car

“That would be incredible,” he smiled. “I’m just going to have to keep this respect. You know, we’re still really new and it’s such a complex sport, but I’m always looking to do better.

“I will study exactly what I’ve done right in this event [Sardinia], why I got such a good result. And I’ll study what I could have done better to get an even better result.”

Next year, just three of the four Rally Star drivers will be offered a second season in JWRC and Smart is, of course, targeting one of them.

“My goal is to be one of those three drivers. But my main thing is to learn every event, to learn these events that we’re doing because they are all unique.

“I want to be able to use this year to gain as much experience and as much learning that, when going into next year, I can fight for the JWRC [title].”

It’s a big goal, but look how far he’s come in a year. He’s gone from never sitting in a rally car to mixing it with some of the best young talent in the world. So, as the man himself says: “Keep shooting for the stars.”