Wales Rally GB: Is Oliver Solberg rallying’s next big star?

Solberg is a name that has long been associated with rallying, but despite a changing of the guard, it looks like it will stay at the pinnacle of the sport for years to come. Petter Solberg, the 2003 World Rally Champion, will hang up his helmet after this week’s Wales Rally GB.

However, the name is set to live on through his highly-rated son Oliver, who will make his debut on the global stage in Wales.

Oliver Solberg Rally Wales GB

The question is, can Oliver reach the same heights as his famous father?

Aaron Johnston, the Northern Irishman who co-drives alongside the 18-year-old, certainly thinks so.

“He has exceeded everyone’s expectations, even Petter’s,” believes Johnston, “For being 18 years old in his first year in a R5 car and in his first year with me, he’s something special.

“We’ve won events in American and even the European Rally Championship round in Latvia, which was quite surreal.

“There is a lot more competition in the WRC, we have to learn and the most important thing is to finish in Wales and get the experience under our belts.

“Oliver is a sensational talent and it will be no problem to him.”

Making his own path

Despite the obvious pressures that come with being the son of a title-winning driver, Johnston believes Oliver is a big enough talent to forge his own path to the top.

“Of course he has that pressure, but we don’t remotely think about that in the car,” admits Omagh native Johnston.

“We’re just thinking about how fast we can take the next corner.

Petter and Oliver Solberg
Changing of the guard? 2003 WRC champion Petter Solberg will hang up his helmet after Wales Rally GB

“Oliver has to learn his own way and Petter is very good in that respect, he lets us do things our way.

“He advises us and tells us what he thinks, but at the end of the day we have the freedom to decide how we want to do it.

“He’s making his own path and we can learn a lot from doing it that way.”

“We do our preparation and let the results speak for themselves, and I think so far they have.”

Everything has paid off

Johnston, despite himself only being 24, is no stranger to rallying and has been co-driving since he was 12 years of age.

“My father got me interested in co-driving from a very young age,” he recalls.

“I did the Northern Ireland Night Navigation Championship with my dad in a little Nissan Micra.

“When I turned 16 I started to do stage rallying and I eventually got a break with Abu Dhabi Racing in 2017, and I was doing that for two years before I got picked up by Oliver.

“I’ve competed every year relentlessly and it has now paid off.

Solberg, who only turned 18 last week, is one of the youngest drivers to compete on a round of the World Rally Championship.

“I think the two of us have the youngest combined age in the World Championship by quite a margin,” joked Johnston.

“It’s worked out well because we can both build our pace up race-by-race and think long-term about our relationship.

“It’s great to be the position that I’m in, at the age I am at.

“I never dreamt of this when I was sitting in Dungannon with my Dad in a Nissan Micra, and never thought I would be in a works Volkswagen with a Solberg beside me doing Wales Rally GB.

“You have to dream and thankfully I am living my dream at the moment.

“There’s a lot of hard work and determination, blood, sweat and tears behind the scenes to get where I am, it’s not come easy.

“Every little detail matters and we’ve both worked extremely hard for it.”

A Solberg and a Northern Irishman? We’ve been here before

Johnston has another Northern Irishman to thank for helping him to the top, with Chris Patterson navigating Petter towards of the Norwegian’s stellar career and suggesting his protégée for the role alongside Oliver.

“I can’t thank Chris enough, and everyone else behind the scenes who have put their faith in the two of us,” reflects Johnston.

“Chris has been there and done it all, so to have him at the end of the phone is fantastic.

“It’s brilliant to have a mentor like that so close to home.

“He has so much knowledge and experience from years gone by to help both me and Oliver progress.”

Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson
Northern Ireland’s Chris Patterson was Petter Solberg’s co-driver from 2010-2012

Despite being brought up in his Norway, Solberg’s pacenotes are in English rather than in his native tongue.

“He actually quite likes my accent,” jokes Johnston in his thick County Tyrone tone, “He says it’s very sharp and clear, which is always useful for my job.

“When we’re having dinner or something there is the odd phrase that he doesn’t understand, but as soon as we’re in the car with the pacenotes then it’s not a problem.

“We get on really well both in and outside the car, which is really important because you spend so much time together.

“As long as he’s happy with it then I’m happy with it.

“I’m very lucky and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

We have to be realistic

Oliver Solberg
Solberg has 32 rally starts in his young career, compared to his father’s 234, and the pair will go head-to-head at Wales Rally GB in Volkswagen Polos

Despite a lightening start to Solberg’s fledgling career, Johnston feels the pair have to be realistic on their WRC debut in the Welsh forests.

“As competitors you always want to win,” admits Johnston, “It’s the reason that we do it, but we have to be realistic.

“It’s our first World Championship round and it’s a very long four-day event.

“It’s both our debuts and it will be pretty strenuous on body, mind and machine.

“Realistically if we’re in the top three or top five then that would be good.

“If I’m honest, we never really speak about predictions, we just go and do our best, which has turned out pretty well so far this year.”

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Source: BBC