Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy pilot Josh McErlean returned a faultless drive at the unforgiving Renties Ypres Rally last weekend (13-15 August), to secure his best-ever FIA World Rally Championship result by finishing 12th overall in his PCRS Rallysport Hyundai i20 R5.
The Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing driver successfully conquered the super-fast and demanding Belgian closed road event, to beat many local specialists on his way to fifth place in the WRC3 category, further cementing his rapid progress in the world’s top-flight series.
The 21-year-old from Kilrea, Co. Derry would be joined by a new co-driver in James Fulton and despite the pairing sitting together for the first time, set a string of competitive times in the WRC3 category throughout the weekend to scoop an impressive result on only his second World Rally Championship outing in 2021.
And McErlean was understandably delighted at the result.
“It’s simply superb, I`m pretty lost for words to be honest,” he said at the finish. “I’d come to this event with a really open mind and had the benefit of having experienced the roads as part of my Junior British Rally Championship campaign, but it was of course in an R2 car. Going to Belgium in an R5 is a very different prospect so I just wanted to drive my own rally and build pace as I went. We got faster as the weekend progressed and to see us finish just outside the top ten of a World Championship event is a really positive outcome. I’m elated with that”.
McErlean’s 2021 season has seen him rack up an impressive list of accolades, including two overall podiums in both America and Italy. As he continues to build experience of events across the world, McErlean would tackle his second WRC event this year after taking fifth in WRC3 at the gruelling Rally de Portugal in May.
Ypres offered the chance for McErlean to acclimatise quickly to the unique nature of the Belgian roads thanks to his previous experience, offering a confidence boost heading into the opening two legs of the event. However, Sunday’s four-stage blast would be a new set of stages for McErlean, with the event’s Power Stage and final leg being held around the iconic SPA Francorchamps Circuit.
With possibly the most unforgiving asphalt stages in Europe in store, McErlean elected to take a cautious approach to the opening leg of the rally. With large ditches ready to catch out the unwary and unpredictable gravel-strewn corners, that would be a wise move, climbing from 10th in WRC3 to seventh by the end of the day.
Classed very much as a specialist event, Ypres Rally is often dominated by the experienced locals, but McErlean was feeling very much at home. As his relationship in the car with Fulton built, the times tumbled and even a puncture couldn’t halt his progress up the leader board, vaulting to fifth in WRC3 and an impressive 12th overall as the rally headed into the final day.
Just four short stages were in store on Sunday and despite McErlean’s inexperience on the roads in the region, kept his head to scoop a remarkable result for the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy ace.
“It’s still sinking in” said McErlean. “It genuinely is a really tricky rally to master, and you need to be inch perfect with every turn or else you’re heading into fields and never coming out. James and I bonded in the car straight away and I just had the confidence to find a good pace and stick to it. To come away with twelfth overall, ahead of so many World Rally Championship regulars and European drivers is really encouraging for me. It was also a real privilege to have the support of John Coyne and the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy at the event. It’s been a long journey but I`m glad we can reap the rewards of our hard work and I`m very excited to see what we can do with this progress in the near future”.
McErlean’s plans for his next outing will be released shortly.