Josh McErlean excels at Rally Monza in a Hyundai i20 R5
Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy star Josh McErlean delivered a remarkable drive at the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship, to take seventh place in the WRC 3 category at an unforgiving ACI Rally Monza (3-6 December) in a Hyundai i20 R5.
The reigning Billy Coleman Award winner coped with biblical-like conditions in Italy throughout the weekend, tackling thick snow, heavy rain, and mud strewn stages to secure his maiden WRC finish on his debut in the category.
With co-driver Keaton Williams alongside, the young pairing impressed the entire service park with a series of top stage times, beating many WRC regulars in the process to take his Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing-built i20 R5 to 17th overall in an impressive field of almost 100 starters.
Just a week beforehand, McErlean had returned another impressive performance in the FIA European Rally Championship, taking 21st overall on only his second ever event in the series on the fast and flowing Rally Islas Canarias.
His focus would immediately have to switch to an even bigger challenge, the final round of the World Rally Championship and the 21-year-old from Kilrea in Co. Derry would be set to round off his year with one of the biggest challenges of his short, yet successful, career.
On paper, ACI Rally Monza would be one of the shortest WRC rounds of the season and perhaps the simplest, with much of the event’s 241 kilometres of special stages taking place within the confines of the legendary Monza Race Circuit.
McErlean would also have the benefit of contesting last year’s Monza Rally Show at the venue, but with the entire Saturday leg of the event taking place in the foothills of the Italian Alps, he would need to call on all his ‘box fresh’ skills to record a solid finish on his debut in the WRC 3 category.
However, unprecedented weather conditions in the region during the rally built-up brought heavy rain and, in the mountains, thick snow, offering an additional challenge to an already difficult proposition. The downpours were relentless, turning the perimeter roads to mud strewn tracks, more akin to the Welsh forests than the circuit known as the “Cathedral of Speed”.
A short super special test kicked off the rally on Thursday afternoon, offering the first chance for McErlean to see what would lie ahead over the coming days and 10thfastest in WRC3 was a good start to his maiden category outing, achieved despite a small coming together with a wall on a grass section which also caught out many of the leading WRC crews.McErlean coped admirably with the treacherous conditions
– Click to download high res version – Image credit: Hyundai MotorsportFriday was the start of the rally proper, with 70 kilometres around the circuit on offer and with the rain getting heavier and temperatures dropping, what could sometimes be considered as a ‘tame’ stage turned into one of the most difficult of the season and McErlean would not escape without enduring issues of his own.
A puncture and heavily misted windscreen hampered progress up the leader board, but a sensational fourth-fastest WRC 3 and 20th fastest overall on the final test of the day set the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy ace up for the challenge of the following day.
As predicted the snow had descended on the alpine roads and Saturday’s stages were more akin to Rally Monte Carlo thanks to the unpredictable conditions and ice-laden surfaces. A mature drive through the morning and afternoon loop saw McErlean emerge from the unforgiving leg in once piece despite a trip up a snowbank and a stall.
More was yet to come, ending the day on a high, recording the third fastest WRC 3 and 11th fastest overall time on the final stage of the day around the circuit – his maiden top-three WRC category time.
The final day was a short three-stage blast but again the inclement weather made going treacherous for all crews. McErlean produced a drive well beyond his years to take two more top-five times, and even a final stage scares thanks to a car blocking the road could not hide his delight at taking a remarkable result on his WRC 3 debut.
“It’s been one of the toughest weekend’s I’ve ever had in the sport but I`m absolutely thrilled to have made it to the end of such a grueling event and secure such a great result, for me, the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy and Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing,” said McErlean at the finish.
Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing Operations Leader Andrew Johns said: “I don’t think Josh and Keaton could have asked for a WRC 3 debut in more testing conditions. However, despite the extreme challenges of the weekend they have shown themselves very well as their rallying career continues to build. The times they recorded during the weekend, despite barely having a handful of starts in an R5 car, proved the talent they had and they also showed maturity beyond their years to avoid the sort of mistakes that ended others rallies. I think both they can look back on the event and be incredibly proud of their performance.”
“It was a dream come true to contest the event and I just had to grab the opportunity with both hands” continues McErlean.
“It wasn’t without its drama’s; we had a few issues of our own but I`m proud of the way we handled them and to be setting some top-three WRC3 times is a good sign for the future. I`m truly indebted to those who put their trust in me, the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy, John Coyne, and of course Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing. What a way to end the year!”