Josh McErlean and Keaton Williams are living the European Dream

McErlean weathered the storm on his WRC 3 debut to take seventh. Photo Credit: Hyundai Motorsport. 

Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy Driver and reigning Billy Coleman Award winner, Josh McErlean, dived into the deep end recently with three international rallies in five weeks, alongside co-driver, Keaton Williams. They recall their World and European Rally Championship adventure with Luke Barry of Motorsport News. 

The Eurostar travels from London to Paris, but the latest Eurostar appears to travel from Kilrea to Milan via Gran Canaria. As Josh McErlean says himself: “If you had have told me at the end of Birr Rally in February that we’d be doing two European and a World Rally Championship event [this year], I wouldn’t have believed you to be honest.”

And who can blame him? When his programme this year was set to be centred on the British Rally Championship, the international stage was hardly going to be at the forefront of the 21-year-old’s mind. But 2020 has been one strange rollercoaster of a year, and McErlean’s season is proof that at least something good has come from it for someone.

Things weren’t looking so rosy in the initial phases though. Granted, the opportunity to drive a PCRS Hyundai i20 R5 in the BRC alongside Keaton Williams was huge, but the season-opening Cambrian didn’t go to plan as the pair slid off the road out of fourth place. The Birr event – used as a warm-up for the West Cork Rally – was similarly disappointing as a fourth stage puncture put paid to their efforts. West Cork was then called off due to the rising threat of Covid-19, and so began the lull in rallying action.

McErlean, like his peers, was sat on the sidelines. But as the European rallying season coaxed back into life, prospects brightened. An entry and 17th place on Rally di Alba in early August was more like it until it all went quiet again. But being a member of the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy paid real dividends as it was soon arranged for McErlean to partner Callum Devine in a two-car PCRS team on the penultimate round of the ERC: Rally Hungary.

“It was quite a big deal, it was probably the start of a new adventure for us together,” McErlean says. “It was quite a big step from what we were used to [so] we took it stage by stage and made sure everything was done in the safest way from the pacenotes to car set-up to carrying two spare wheels. It paid off, we got to the end of the rally with a good result and the outcome of that was going to Canaries.”

The chance to contest Rally Islas Canarias – the ERC finale – three weeks later was the next treat for McErlean and Williams, particularly as when they flew home from Hungary, they thought that was it for the year. McErlean admits having that base understanding of what an ERC event was like made Rally Islas Canarias “easier going into it” but the untraditional late November date of the rally threw in a curveball or two.

“The weather thrown at us in Canaries, I don’t think anyone predicted that,” McErlean explains. “On the test we had bone-dry conditions and we were well sorted but then at the rally it just came full wet and I don’t think we were that well prepared for those conditions in terms of our experience and the car set-up. We were waiting on it drying the whole weekend and it never came. We had to keep on adjusting set-up throughout the weekend but we weren’t that far away towards the end of the event and it’s good knowledge going forward.”

That knowledge is key. Ultimately the purpose of McErlean doing these rallies was to learn and finish rallies – “this was purely the aim”. And there was one last chance to continue this voyage of discovery too as McErlean and Williams linked up with the RedGrey team (which usually runs Hyundai’s WRC 2 concern) to contest Rally Monza, the final round of the WRC just a week later.

This meant instead of reflecting on a job well done, the young crew’s heads were buried into Monza prep the night of finishing Rally Islas Canarias before boarding a flight to Milan the following day ahead of the Monza rally week. Surely this was when the pressure really began to mount?

Not according to McErlean, despite the onslaught of snow that they faced. “I would probably say there was less pressure going to Monza as we didn’t really have any expectations,” he says. “We weren’t going there to set the world alight. And I think being at Monza last year was quite good to settle the mind quickly, you had a half idea what to expect but I don’t think we realised what the conditions were going to be like. I think we dealt with the whole situation well.”

The proof there is in the pudding with a top three stage time in WRC 3 at the end of Saturday. The end result was seventh in class, following a brace of 11th and 21st overall finishes in the ERC. But these numbers are merely by-products to the experience gained by both members of the crew.

“It’s been such a blur the last few weeks,” Williams says before reflecting on what he’s learned. “The same as the driver, you need kilometres in the cars and you need to be in every single scenario that there is; dry Tarmac, wet Tarmac, gravel, snow, ice to make yourself better. So you put yourself out your comfort zone, learn different things and that’s when you’re really going to get better. Everywhere we’ve gone it’s been challenging: Hungary on gravel running the Tarmac set-up to the shininess of the surface in Canaries, adding a bit of snow [in Monza] didn’t really faze us as we were in at the deep end on every rally we’d been to so it was just another experience for us.”

There’s no doubting that it’s been a steep learning curve but also a great experience for the pair. But the duo haven’t just been gifted the chance on a plate. “Obviously we didn’t really know what was happening after every rally so it was rally at a time so there was a lot of hard work put in this year, probably a lot more behind the scenes than people expect,” McErlean affirms.

“They probably just see that we’re getting opportunities out of nowhere but there’s a lot of hard work going on and I think you just have to keep the communications going, keep the contacts right and it’ll work out some way.”

Now with three international events in an R5 are under their belts, what’s next? McErlean says he feels he’s ready to put what he’s learned into practice after managing his pace on recent events, so now wants to “knock it up a gear and improve the pace.” He adds: “It’s hard for me sometimes not to go 100% but you have to play the team game and look at the future and I think we’ve done that now. I think we’ve passed that stage of development so it’s ticked off the list now.”

But where will McErlean be looking to prove his potential? “Keaton was asking me this when we landed in Heathrow after Monza. My answer was I don’t know, and that’s the truth!” he says. “ My ultimate goal next year would be to be in the European championship but there’s a lot of hard work that has to be put in from now March to make it happen. But we’ll give it our all and give it a go."

Impressing the Boss

McErlean’s European adventure is largely courtesy of the relationships he has managed to build up, particularly within the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy which, in turn, has a strong bond with PCRS and Hyundai Customer Racing. Academy co-ordinator Sean McHugh is more than impressed with what he’s seen from last year’s Billy Coleman Award winner this season.

“What we’re really, really happy with is that he has learned with PCRS all year, he has really bought into the training wheels as we call it,” McHugh tells MN. “We have been kind of holding him back a little on some of the European rounds, just so that he gets the total mileage. For want of a better word he’s been on a bit of a leash on the ERC rounds but because he had the experience in Monza it was then right: have a go now and prove what you can do and he very much proved what he can do.”

McErlean’s season has had something of a snowball effect, with opportunities coming one by one like falling dominoes: “[We’re] disappointed that the BRC didn’t happen because that was our main goal with Josh,” McHugh adds, “but then we transitioned from BRC into the Hyundai Invitational, as I’m calling it, in Alba where a number of customer cars were invited. I thought that was going to be the only highlight of the year for Josh but then an opportunity came up with a little bit of funding and we thought let’s put our toe in the water with Hungary: he did a fantastic job there.

“Everything just evolved event from event. We only entered Canaries once he’d finished Hungary. He did a fantastic job, carrying out the brief of mileage, experience [and] building his pace, he had no goals in terms of overall results. And that was noticed by a number of people and his reward was Monza.”

This article was written by Luke Barry and originally published in Motorsport News on December 31st, 2020.

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