Creighton’s Junior WRC success epitomises the hope that the academy brings future rallying stars
Junior World Rally Champion. It has a nice ring to it. For William Creighton, the fact he has realised his rallying dream is just about sinking in.
Creighton’s rallying story has been one of grit, determination, and a fully focused team effort that has all combined to give him the world’s biggest title for young rally drivers.
That team goes from his in-car partnership with long-standing co-driver Liam Regan, to the invaluable support mechanisms headed by Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy’s Sean McHugh and John Coyne, all the way to his M-Sport Poland engineers and his well-reasoning friends at DGM Sport.
Each of Creighton’s five Junior WRC rounds in 2023 has had its own crazy highs and lows, creating the ultimate rollercoaster of a championship win.
Through every adversity, the 26-year-old kept his cool and remained driven to succeed in his third season in world rallying’s junior championship.
Nine of the world’s fastest young rally drivers lined up on Junior WRC’s opening round based on the snow-covered stages of Rally Sweden. And it didn’t take long for the drama to unfold.
Creighton and his Belfast-based co-driver Liam Regan were fast. Really fast. They completed 15-mile stages, in the snow and ice, at average speeds of over 75 mph.
Skating and sliding in their Ford Fiesta Rally3, the Irish duo became masters of Scandinavia’s winter wonder to win six of Friday’s eight stages. Their overnight advantage was relatively comfortable at 34 seconds.
It was all going smoothly on Saturday until a collision with a snowbank ripped their Fiesta’s lamp pod from the front bonnet. What was a common, non-costly incident in Sweden turned into a disaster on stage thirteen, though.
Creighton fixed the damage before the stage but didn’t realise the bonnet pins hadn’t been resecured. Unfortunately, the issue didn’t raise its head on their journey to stage thirteen. Instead, 500 metres into the 17-mile test the wind caught the bonnet and blew it up into their windscreen. They had to stop, jump out into the snow, secure the bonnet into its proper position, and return to their regular rollercoaster ride.
It took almost a minute to resolve the heartbreaking mistake but amazingly Creighton completed the rest of the marathon stage on time despite a cracked windscreen and wonky headlights.
But his lead was gone. With just three stages remaining on Sunday, and a 19.7-second deficit to reigning European Rally4 champion Laurent Pellier – Creighton faced the reality of missing out on what had been a dead-cert maiden Junior WRC victory.
“I felt like I had messed it up,” Creighton remembered. “I would have had to carry that with me.
“I was sure that the gap on Sunday was too big but we went into the first stage with the intention of going as fast as we could to see what time we could regain.”
The 2021 Junior British Rally Champion tunnelled his frustrations into the best 16 miles of his career. Creighton and Regan completed Vastervik 13.6 seconds faster than any of his rivals, bringing him within seven seconds of the category lead.
He repeated his epic efforts on the next test to incredibly return to the front of the pack, holding a 2.7-second advantage with one tricky stage to go.
“The final stage had already been used before so it was quite rough and dug up from the previous cars.
“A lot of things could have gone wrong in there so it was a case of not losing time rather than gaining it.
“Looking back, there should have been pressure, but weirdly it didn’t feel like there was at the time.
“I still feel the rush of adrenaline, I think everyone does, and there would probably be something wrong if there were no nerves at all.
“But I think that is all part of what you channel into staying focused and keeping fully concentrated.”
Creighton kept his cool and even with a brief scare on the first corner of the final stage he clinched his first Junior WRC win by 0.6 seconds. An incredible finish to a ferocious fightback after 18 stages, 188 miles, and nearly three hours of captivating competition.
If there was ever an opening round to represent the drama yet to come, this was it…
Round two took Creighton to Croatia, an asphalt event that is probably the one world rally that is any way comparable to the tarmac stages he has grown up beside in Country Antrim and Down.
The Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver was leading the way, nine seconds ahead of Pellier after day one’s eight stages. Unfortunately, Saturday was to provide another twist to Creighton’s tale as he rolled out of contention on the rally’s ninth test.
“It was a small mistake and we got punished quite heavily,” said Creighton. “But these things happen in rallying. It wasn’t a big impact but we rolled a few times and thankfully the team made the repairs that allowed us to return the next day.”
Croatia proved to be a fightback of different sorts for Creighton. While a respectable result was out of the question, the opportunity to score a bonus point for each stage win was still available.
He hopped back into the driver’s seat to win all of Sunday’s four stages, in total scoring nine stage-winning points over the weekend. It was a result that ended up extending his championship lead.
Junior WRC’s contenders didn’t get much chance to soak up the Sardinia sun on round three – they were busy figuring out how to survive one of the most gruelling rallies in the world.
“Rallies like Sardinia are so demanding,” described Creighton. “You can’t drive slowly because you’ll get left behind your rivals but equally if you drive flat out then you increase the risk of getting punctures or damaging the car.
“You have to be smart by understanding the specific sections to be careful through.
“Our game plan worked, even though it’s hard to stick to when you see other people punching in faster times.
“There was one point in particular when I was able to react to avoid a rock sitting right in the driving line. If I was going any faster then I wouldn’t have been able to miss it and would have lost loads of time with a puncture.”
Creighton’s strategy paid off clinching his second win of the season after sitting fourth at one point on Friday. It was the drive of a seasoned rally winner, understanding the conditions to defy his youthful exuberance with a cool, calm, and collected approach.
The smart approach didn’t happen by chance. Creighton and Regan have been persistent through two challenging years in Junior WRC. Battling against more experienced and highly talented Junior WRC rivals in 2021 and 2022 made getting even a podium finish a tough task.
But Creighton stuck to his development-focused approach, encouraged and engrained by the MI Rally Academy, which he clearly benefitted from in his championship assault.
“You need that competition to drive you on,” explained Creighton. “Your natural instinct is to figure out how to go faster and get to their level.
“It is the same in any championship. I remember wondering how to beat really fast guys in Junior 1000 at the very start of my career. There are always people with more experience but that gives you a great benchmark to aim for.”
Junior WRC’s fourth round, Rally Estonia, was perhaps the one event that really showed how much William Creighton’s driving had improved over the past two years.
Estonia’s high-speed, jump-ridden, loose gravel stages demand a specific set of skills that are often confined to Scandinavian and Baltic drivers. After Rally Estonia’s opening four stages at an average speed of 100 kph, Creighton and Regan had built a 17.1-second lead over Luxembourg’s Gregoire Munster.
“Going back to Sweden at the start of this year for the second time,” started Creighton, “my driving had improved a lot.
“I felt much more confident at higher speeds, had much more commitment in the car, and I was able to bring that driving style into Estonia.
“It is hard to describe but I had a completely different feeling in the car compared to previous years in Estonia.
“I was so much more confident to let the car slide, carry so much more speed, and have much more commitment, particularly on wide roads.”
But this is rallying. Just when Creighton was getting comfortable, Rally Estonia was about to issue a sucker-punch blow to his Junior WRC campaign.
While continuing in his rally-leading rhythm on Estonia’s fifth stage, Creighton’s Ford Fiesta Rally3 popped out of a rut on a fast right-hander, throwing the rear of the car into a bank. What seemed like a small impact had actually damaged his Fiesta’s rear-left suspension, forcing them to stop mid-stage and ending their hopes of a strong result.
“We were in a good position, able to set a good pace, felt comfortable, and then all of a sudden we were sitting at the side of the road hoping we could return the next day for super-rally.
“That’s just the sport. There are so many fine margins and small mistakes can punish you hard.”
Creighton’s weekend was far from over, though. He knew that if his M-Sport Poland engineers could get his Rally3 Fiesta repaired in time, then he would be back fighting for a total of 13 stage-winning bonus points that were still up for grabs.
As normal as it is to get disheartened or feel sorry for yourself after an untimely retirement, Creighton had to remain focused on securing every point possible from Junior WRC’s penultimate round.
“It was actually natural enough to bounce back into a good pace and challenge for stage-win points,” remarked Creighton. “It wasn’t as if we crashed because we weren’t in a good rhythm or we were forcing something that wasn’t there.
“We were in a good place which made it easier to reset and return to the good rhythm that we were in at the start of those events.”
And reset he did, claiming a total of 11 fastest times on the fast-paced event to ensure the Ulster duo headed to Junior WRC’s Acropolis Rally Greece in prime position to secure Ireland’s first WRC title in 12 years.
“Greece, where do we start – it was a mad, mad rally…”
Everyone knew Greece was going to be an unpredictable rally. Junior WRC’s double-points finale put several crews in championship contention and the gravel event’s harsh terrain meant there was a high chance of getting a puncture or hitting mechanical trouble.
But the drama started before the rally got underway thanks to the huge September storms that swamped the region. Creighton’s pre-event recce schedule was turned on its head, not knowing when or where the stages would be passable.
“We just had to go with the flow,” admitted Creighton. “It was really difficult.
“Recceing the stages became less about making pacenotes and more about actually getting through the stage without getting stuck in the water.
“That left us with a huge amount of work to do watching video footage from recce but even with the rain and mist that wasn’t too clear.”
Still, as championship leader, Creighton knew if he could stay out of trouble on the sodden stages then the biggest junior prize in world rallying would surely be his.
Unfortunately, those hopes were shattered on only Greece’s third stage. A broken radiator pipe had damaged his Ford Fiesta’s engine. Despite Creighton and Regan’s best efforts, pushing their car for three kilometres to the rally’s next tyre fitting zone, the car damage was terminal and they had to retire.
Their title hopes were on the line – any chance of staying in contention depended on the M-Sport Poland mechanics repairing the Fiesta’s engine in time for Saturday’s stages.
“We went back to the house and worked on our pacenotes.
“It was late into the night when we actually knew whether or not the car was fixed but the team called to say that they’d done everything they could to fix the car and put it into parc fermé with seconds to spare.
“Even then, no one really knew how it was going to perform until we got it out onto the stages.
“Thankfully we started the day with a stage win so we quickly saw that the guys had done a great job and the car was living again.”
Creighton’s rivals Laurent Pellier and Diego Dominguez were now in the driving seat to seal the 2023 Junior WRC crown. All the Moira man could do was pick up stage-win bonus points without risking any more rally-ending damage.
All of a sudden, the rugged Greek roads had taken their toll on Pellier’s Fiesta – the Frenchman was out.
Creighton’s tally of four stage wins and his fightback to fifth on the Junior WRC timesheets amazingly put him back ahead of rally leader Dominguez. Survive Sunday’s stages and the Junior WRC title was heading back to Ireland.
“It felt like a rally that went on for two weeks rather than three or four days,” remembered Creighton. “Those stage win points were so important on Saturday afternoon, there were times that Liam and I had a rhythm in the car that was as good as it’s ever been.
“The weekend was an emotional roller coaster but it was definitely easier for Liam and I in the car. Each time we were faced with a challenge all we could do was keep going, whereas, the guys looking from the outside could only watch on.”
The emotions peaked when the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy duo arrived back at Rally Greece’s service park with a fifth-placed finish and four crucial bonus points that proved enough to clinch the 2023 Junior WRC title.
Two victories in Sweden and Sardinia combined with an incredible 38 fastest stage times showcased Creighton’s searing speed on the global stage. Perhaps his greatest asset, however, was the maturity to come fighting back from the three retirements that forced him into super-rally in Croatia, Estonia, and Greece.
It is clear to see how Creighton’s MI Rally Academy training and development plan has augmented his impressive approach when faced with unexpected scenarios.
Junior WRC’s prize fund will help propel Creighton and Regan into WRC 2’s Rally2 category. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that extends an amazing story of career progression for the Ulster duo.
“It is mad how it all happened,” reflected Creighton, “it has been a lot of hard work but we are very lucky to do what we have done for the last three years in Junior WRC.
“It has been brilliant to do it with Liam [Regan]. Greece was our 97th rally together. I don’t think there are many crews who can say that and a big thanks to him for continuing to jump back into the car with me.
“The journey started way back in the Junior 1000s, then into the Rally4 category in Ireland before taking on the Junior British Rally Championship.
“Every category was competitive and when we did well in each one we were able to move to the next level – it has felt like a natural route of progression.
“It has been a great journey and it is a special feeling to be Junior World Rally Champions.”
Creighton’s Junior WRC is Ireland’s first since the late Craig Breen sealed a similarly dramatic WRC Academy win back in 2011. Breen’s title was pivotal to his future WRC career and offers the same potential for Creighton.
It has been a tough year for rallying in Ireland since Breen’s tragic passing in April. The Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy has offered a glimmer of hope in WRC and Creighton’s Junior WRC success epitomises the hope that the academy brings future rallying stars.
Having tasted Rally2 action twice already in the WRC, Creighton, with the help of the MI Rally Academy is planning a WRC 2 programme for 2024. His Junior WRC prize will be an invaluable help – four fully funded WRC 2 drives in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta Rally2, a pre-event test before each event and 200 Pirelli tyres.
Creighton will be a welcome addition for Irish rally fans to follow in the WRC’s primary support championship – and there is no doubt that he will do us proud.