Croatia Rally’s fog, rain, and muddy asphalt put World Rally Championship crews to the ultimate test over its three-day event. Jon Armstrong and Brian Hoy continued to show their top-end pace but a deserved result was blighted by several consequences of Croatia’s gruelling conditions.
Three punctures and an off-road spin ended the Northern Irishmen’s hopes of a second Junior WRC win of 2022. Their perseverance and brilliant bursts of speed were rewarded with a fourth-place finish, five stage-winning bonus points, and a maintained hold of first place in the Junior WRC standings.
Armstrong’s dramatic rally started by catching two Rally2 cars in his Ford Fiesta Rally3 during a fog-covered opening stage. Held up by one, the frustration fuelled a remarkable fightback on the following 21-kilometre test.
Armstrong and Hoy went fastest on Stage 2 by an incredible 34.1 seconds over Estonia’s Robert Virves and Aleks Lesk. The time was good enough for 13th in Croatia Rally’s overall standings, beaten only by Rally1 and three Rally2 cars.
The stage win gave the EA Sports Rally crew an early 28.8 second lead in Junior WRC. Despite getting a puncture on Stage 3, they maintained their advantage going into Croatia Rally’s first service period.
Unfortunately, Armstrong’s defence of his 2021 Croatia Rally win unravelled on Friday’s next three stages.
“We got a puncture from a rock hidden in one of the cuts,” explained Armstrong,” on the first stage after service. The cuts got quite deep because of the rain and mud, the inside of the corners had eroded quite badly and you had to go in quite deep to stay on the road. We had to stop to change the punctured wheel but we did that quite quickly which was good. Then on the next stage, something small on the inside of another cut must have damaged the tyre. We had to stop and change a wheel mid-stage again.”
The misfortune had cost Armstrong and Hoy the Junior WRC lead, dropping to fifth, three minutes behind Virves at the front.
A bid to regain lost ground was made more difficult with the knowledge that they had no spare wheels remaining should any more punctures occur through the next two stages.
Combined with the ever-worsening road conditions, Armstrong was walking on a tightrope for survival. Unfortunately, as he explains, his rally challenge hit an abrupt stop on Friday’s penultimate stage.
“I was trying to keep a good rhythm and pace on the next stage,” said the 2021 Junior WRC runner-up. “The mud dragged across the road made it very difficult, though. On a fast-right corner we lost the rear of the car, I wasn’t able to catch it, and we spun off the road and into a tree. We were stuck so couldn’t continue. M-Sport Poland repaired the car overnight and we were able to restart on Saturday morning. We won Saturday’s first stage. That was a nice feeling – to come back from an accident the previous day. There were fumes coming into the car, though, and when we looked under the bonnet we saw a leak in the fuel rail. We tried to fix it but we couldn’t stop the leak and it was too dangerous to carry on. It was frustrating to not be able to continue on Saturday because it was a good opportunity to get more stage-winning bonus points.”
Armstrong and Hoy returned to action again on Sunday to set the pace and bag more crucial bonus points. They made it up to fourth by the end of the event showing that a result is never out of the question if you can keep fighting back.
Their finishing points topped up with the second-most stage wins in Junior WRC mean that Fermanagh’s favourites stay at the top of the championship standings. A surprising statistic considering how many obstacles stood in their way in Croatia.
“In the end, it wasn’t so bad, but for sure we could have gained a lot more from the weekend. We have to be thankful that we are still joint championship leaders. The pace was really good at the weekend. We set some blistering times, especially against the higher-powered Rally2 cars. We managed to win a lot of the stages that we didn’t have issues on. I think a rally win was very possible if we didn’t have those punctures on Friday. It is easy to say that but in the end, you have to stay out of trouble and unfortunately, we had too much trouble this time.”
Junior WRC continues on next month’s Rally Portugal, an event Armstrong led last year before his engine expired.
Croatia Rally Junior WRC results
1 Joona 3:07:24.9s
2 Virves +4:07.7s
3 Franceschi +5:28.6
4 Armstrong / Hoy +1:10:30.1
5 Creighton +1:12:55.6
Junior WRC standings after Round 2 of 5
1 Armstrong / Hoy – 47 points
= Joona / Korhonen – 47 pts
3 Virves / Lesk – 29
4 Creighton / Regan – 27
5 Pajari / Malkonen – 25