Josh McErlean stuns on European Rally Championship debut
Josh McErlean (R) and Keaton Williams (L). Image courtesy of Flat-Out Media Agency.
Current Motorsport Ireland Billy Coleman Award Winner and Rally Academy squad member Josh McErlean secured a remarkable result on his FIA European Rally Championship debut last weekend, securing 11th overall at Rally Hungary (6-8th November) in his Hyundai i20 R5.
The current Motorsport Ireland Billy Coleman Award winner tackled “the toughest rally” of his life, overcoming treacherous conditions to set a string of top-fifteen times against some of the best drivers in the business, and gaining plaudits for his performance, despite being only his second closed-road asphalt event in an R5.
McErlean, 21 from Kilrea in Co. Derry and co-driver Keaton Williams briefly ran inside the top ten during the event, before settling into 11th overall and giving the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy two drivers on the leader board, thanks to teammate Callum Devine taking seventh.
With COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of the British Rally Championship in March and subsequently McErlean’s rallying campaign, he would head to Hungary to tackle the penultimate round of the ERC, arguably one of the most competitive championships in the world.
Famed for its mud strewn stages, ultra-slippery surfaces and unforgiving ditches, over 190 kilometers of special stages would lie ahead, with a “Super Special” on Friday evening before the remaining 15 stages would be spread across Saturday and Sunday.
A buoyant pre-event test was held during the week where McErlean was able to dial in some base settings into the i20 R5, working with the PCRS Rallysport team to understand how the Michelin-shod Hyundai worked on the fast and narrow roads.
The Friday evening run through the Rabócsiring rallycross track opened proceedings and at only 2.4 kilometers long, offered the chance for the spectators to watch head-to-head action at close quarters. An issue with the timing gantry cost McErlean a handful of seconds but would put the car into the overnight Parc Ferme in 20th overall.
The rally proper got underway on Saturday morning with eight stages and the bulk of the mileage on offer during the day. Running 22nd on the road would offer up one of the biggest challenges McErlean had faced in his career, with the previous cars cutting the soft verges, dragging mud onto the otherwise grippy asphalt.
McErlean had no choice but to be tentative through the opening loop of stages as he acclimatised to the conditions but even with a cautious approach, he would end the opening loop in a stunning 16th overall.
A level-headed drive from the youngster saw him climb to a remarkable 13th overall on the second loop and despite the final handful of stages taking place under darkness and sometimes thick fog, McErlean showed capability way beyond his years to end the opening day 11th overall.
Day two dawned foggy, bringing additional challenges to the already tricky event and six stages made up the 70 kilometers ahead. Changeable grip levels were a feature of the morning loop and McErlean would have to work hard to understand where he could push, and where to back off.
On the second test of the day, McErlean came across the previous car on the stage which had stopped in the road, causing him to take avoiding action. Subsequently, the trip into the ditch caused an unfortunate puncture but despite the time loss, McErlean would head into the final three stages of the day in 10th overall.
Some changes to the Hyundai i20 R5 setup in the final service brought a new feeling to the conditions and McErlean was able to once again find a comfortable pace over the following three stages to cross the finish ramp in an impressive 11th overall on his ERC debut.
McErlean was understandably delighted at the result.
“There has been so much hard work from so many people to make this event possible for me so it's fantastic to be able to reward them with a great result on my first time in the European Rally Championship,” he said at the finish.
“I learnt more about the car and myself in the handful of stages on Saturday morning than I had done in my whole career I think. It was so unique and challenging and the toughest rally of my life, but I loved every moment of it. It’s easy to see why the guys out front think this is the hardest event on the ERC calendar and I`m glad that I conquered it without any dramas at all. It’s been a very clean run, the puncture we had was unavoidable and the Michelin tyres were superb, so it has been a textbook event. I`m over the moon”.
After sampling the ERC for the first time, McErlean has his eye on the future.
“The series is as good as I thought it was and it's very competitive out-front,” he says.
“I don’t underestimate the challenge of being at the head of the field, but I`d love to have another go. I don’t think we are done with the ERC yet.
But I must say I would never have had the opportunity to even try without the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy, Michelin Motorsport, Andrew Johns at Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing and of course John Coyne. The PCRS Rallysport team produced a stunning car, it was such an amazing experience”.
McErlean will continue to work on his options for 2021 during the winter period.