Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy’s Josh McErlean takes WRC2 Junior Podium at Rally Estonia
Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver Josh McErlean battled through a rain-soaked final stage of Rally Estonia [14-17 July] without a front windscreen, to take his best WRC2 Junior result of the season, sealing an impressive third place.
The Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing Junior Driver grappled all rally long with almost biblical weather conditions on the super-fast gravel tests of the World Rally Championship qualifier, gradually building his pace and confidence to move into a WRC2 Junior podium position. But, like many on the final loop of stages, the 23-year-old from Kilrea, Co. Derry got caught out on the ice-like surface of the short but unforgiving `Kanepi 2` test, the thick mud dragging his PCRS Rallysport run Hyundai i20 N Rally2 into a ditch and onto its roof.
Despite the off, he and co-driver driver James Fulton would make it to the end of the test, but minus the windscreen and still had the 15-kilometre Wolf Power Stage to complete. In a gutsy and resilient drive and equipped with goggles, the pairing battled through lashing rain and deep mud-strewn ruts to complete the event and secure their maiden WRC2 Junior podium.
“We made that one a little hard for ourselves didn’t we” quipped a soaked McErlean at the finish. “In those conditions being just an inch or two offline could have big consequences and we suffered those in the worst possible way. Thanks to the spectators we got ourselves together and put in a huge effort to make it to the finish whilst still maintaining a podium position. The final day will be a memory that will last a long time for both of us and James [Fulton] did an incredible job, calling notes on these fast roads is far from easy, let alone with rain lashing at the paperwork.”
McErlean’s preparation for Rally Estonia kicked off in Lithuania a few weeks prior at the non-championship Rally Žemaitija to get valuable experience of the high speed gravel tests found in the Baltics.
Some encouraging times saw him seal a top ten overall result and he would head to Estonia to go head-to-head with the regulars in the WRC2 category. With the plan to build the speed and confidence as the rally progressed, McErlean would settle into a comfortable rhythm on the opening leg and despite the road conditions continually changing, he would complete Friday in third place in the WRC2 Junior category, his Hyundai i20 performing faultlessly on the fast and flowing roads.
A puncture on Saturday would be a testament to how deep the ruts were for the second pass of stages, and with the weather expected to worsen on Sunday, McErlean would need to dig deep if he were to
stand on the podium. The penultimate stage roll could have easily derailed his goal of silverware, but thankfully his quick thinking and desire to succeed ensured his bruised Hyundai crossed the finish ramp to secure the best WRC2 Junior result of his career so far.
“The sensation of driving on these roads and flying over jumps has been quite special” he explains. “We put in a lot of work to be `rally-ready` for Estonia and the team has been incredibly supportive helping us improve every step along the way. Thanks to the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy, we have all put a lot of work in after Sardinia to improve and this is a testament to that effort. I am sorry to the team for the extra work [to repair the car], and this was certainly not part of the plan. We have so many positives to take from this week overall and it has been a rollercoaster of a year to date. To finally get a podium is extremely rewarding.”
McErlean currently sits eighth in the WRC2 Junior points standings as the season continues its high-speed foray on gravel with Rally Finland next up in August.
Words by Leo Nulty, Motorsport.ie