Solberg and Subaru… winners again - but this time it's Oliver!
There’s nothing new about a Solberg winning a rally in a Subaru. Except when it’s Oliver Solberg, the 17-year-old son of Petter.
On only his second ever event with Subaru Motorsports USA, Oliver didn’t just win the DirtFish Olympus Rally (April 27/28), he dominated it with fastest time on 8 of the 12 forest stages in the state of Washington.
The potential for victory had been clear after Oliver scored a stunning second place on his debut aboard a Vermont SportsCar-prepared Subaru WRX STI at the 100 Acre Wood Rally in March.
“Honestly, this is such an emotional moment for me,” said Oliver, moments after stepping down from dancing on the roof of the Subaru, complete with its famous blue and yellow livery.
“When we got to the end of the last stage, it was like a dream had come true for me. My mom was first to the car and then dad… you know we have all worked hard for this and I have a lot to thank those guys for. Us Solbergs, we’re an emotional family and this was an incredible, incredible moment for us all.
“Saturday was a good day, everything went to plan, but yesterday (Sunday) was a little bit more complicated. I got two rear punctures on stage 10 which made the final stage closer than it should have been. We went into that last 20-miler with only 13 seconds lead over my team-mate David [Higgins]. Because we had that issue with the punctures and I was so focused to the fight, I think it helped take away some of the nerves. For sure, it added to the feeling of relief when we came across the line.”
And that final-stage performance was vintage Solberg: Oliver was 13 seconds faster than David to win by 26 seconds.
“We pushed, but we didn’t take the risks,” said Oliver. “It was about managing the situation.”
8 wins from 12 stages and a 26-second victory might have made the Shelton-based American Rally Association (ARA) appear straightforward. It wasn’t.
Just days before the start, Oliver discovered his co-driver Aaron Johnston couldn’t make the trans-Atlantic trip for personal reasons. This is where having a triple FIA world champion for a father helps… Petter opened his contact book and called French legend Denis Giraudet in. Having co-driven world champions Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol, Oliver was delighted with Denis. Predictably, he did the perfect job in calling the notes on the fast, but exceptionally tricky stages.
The other complication was running first on the road and sweeping the loose gravel clear to make the road faster for those following.
“This is only my second ever gravel rally in a four-wheel drive car,” said Oliver. “So I’m still learning everything, really; learning to drive first on the road was just another lesson on this rally. Seriously though, I knew it would be tough – David had told me this was the worst rally of the season to be first on the road. And then I found out I would be there!”
Oliver coped manfully, demonstrating maturity way beyond his 17 years. By the end of Saturday’s eight stages, he had built a lead of 41 seconds. Sunday’s final day was supposed to be about managing that gap from the front of the field, but that pair of punctures complicated matters. Despite the double deflation, Oliver kept his cool and took the top step of the podium.
“Running first was really tricky, the weather was dry and dusty, which made it very loose,” he said. “OK, it’s a very different situation, but I can understand much more now what Sébastien Ogier is talking about when he explains his frustrations running in this position: you know you are sliding more than the guy behind and you know you are giving them time. All I could do was drive as neat as possible, trying to be efficient with the brake and the throttle and keep it straight.
“We made it and I can’t tell you how proud and happy I am with what we achieved on this rally. I am not doing the full championship in American this year – but still, with a win and a second place from my first two rallies, I really will be trying to push for the title. It’ll be tough, but let’s see.
“The one thing I definitely have to do is say a really big thank you to the team and everybody in Subaru Motorsports USA. We didn’t have to touch the car once and, apart from the two punctures, we didn’t have any issues at all.”
The feeling was the same from Denis’ side of the car. Despite a 43-year difference in age and the fact they’d never even tested together before last week, Oliver and Denis worked perfectly.
Denis said: “I have co-driven a lot of drivers in my career and I have worked with a lot of young drivers, but this really was a special ride. To look across and see this young Solberg doing what he was doing was unbelievable.
“He coped with everything like he had been rallying for years; he coped like you would have expected his father – or his mother – to have. He is a special talent and I thank him and the family for the opportunity to compete and win with him. His future in the sport is really a bright one.”
Petter added: “Like Oliver said, this really is a dream for us all. OK, we knew the result was possible after the last rally (100 Acre Wood), but the way he did it was special. I know what first on the road means and, I tell you, this was a big achievement.
“I went to the stages to watch for the first time on Saturday and I tell you, watching this sport as a father is much harder than competing! But I was impressed. Very impressed.
“To see a Solberg win in those colours again is special. This is a weekend Pernilla and I will never forget.”
With three wins (and a second place) from his first four rallies in a four-wheel drive car, Oliver will now turn his attention back to the Latvian Championship. He will drive a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 on Rally Liepāja next month.
“We won the first two rounds in Latvia in the snow,” said Oliver. “It would be really cool to go to the first gravel round there and try to make it three in a row.”