Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver Josh McErlean secured a solid start to his first full season in the FIA World Rally Championship, finishing the highly specialist Rally Sweden in fifth place in the WRC2 Junior category last weekend [25-27 February].
McErlean and co-driver James Fulton, guided their PCRS Rallysport run Hyundai i20 N Rally2 through the unforgiving snowbanks and below zero conditions, to rack up valuable points as the pairing tackled the first of seven WRC rounds planned for 2022.
McErlean, 22-years-old from Kilrea, Co.Derry would be embarking on arguably the biggest challenge of his career this season, not only contesting the prestigious WRC2 championship, the principle support category of the World Rally Championship, but beginning his campaign on one of the toughest rounds of the calendar.
The ultra-high-speed stages, lined with merciless snowbanks require an inch-perfect approach and having never driven a full snow rally at this level before, McErlean would quickly need to adapt to the unique surface on studded tyres. A test event beforehand would ease his way into the surroundings but there was no denying the challenge ahead was significant. Nineteen stages and over 260km of flat-out competition lay ahead and McErlean would be going head-to-head with a bumper list of WRC2 entries as 22 contenders assembled in the base town of Umea.
McErlean wasted no time in acclimatising and despite going up against a barrage of Scandinavian experts, recorded an impressive start to his Swedish debut. A swathe of top twelve WRC2 times was a sign of intent from the Irish driver, ending the opening leg in a remarkable 10th place. Sadly, on the following loop, McErlean was a victim to one of the many soft snowbanks ike many before him, getting the Hyundai stuck and unable to return to the stage, forcing him to retire for the day. Putting Friday’s issues firmly behind him, normal service was resumed on Saturday and McErlean was back in action and eager to climb the leader board. With the aiming of staying out of trouble, the progressive youngster elected to find a comfortable pace and stick with it over the longest leg of the event.
That strategy paid off and with just four stages remaining on Sunday’s final leg, McErlean was on course for a confident start to his maiden WRC2 campaign. A mature drive across the super-fast tests, saw the youngster take a notable fifth place in the WRC2 Junior standings to start his season off on the right foot.
“Rally Sweden was always going to be a tough start to my World Rally Championship season, so our progress over the weekend has been encouraging and I`m glad to have made it to the finish of such a unique and specialist event,” said McErlean.
“It was always going to be impossible to match the local drivers on home turf and we were very conscious that we needed to start the season off with a solid result so from that point of view it was very much mission accomplished. Of course, it was disappointing on Friday, but the important thing was to learn from it and adapt. I think we did that really well and I`m encouraged by the way we used our heads over the remainder of the rally. I know there is much more speed to come too. It’s still a little surreal to think I`m actually here competing at Rally Sweden and it’s been a truly amazing experience. My thanks must go to the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy, PCRS Rallysport and all our partners for their support over the last few weeks to give us a robust start to the season. There is more to come for sure”.