The day prior to the launch of the 2022 FIA World Rally Championship at Rally Monte Carlo, 20 year-old Oliver Solberg talked about lining up as a full-on Hyundai factory in the Hyundai i20 N WRC Hybrid.
“It is a dream come true for me to be joining the factory team for the first time,” said the son of 2003 World Rally champion Petter Solberg. “I am very excited; it’s just fantastically cool to be starting this new season.”
Working off of a master plan devised by Hyundai Motorsport and the Solberg family, the opening phase of the 2022 WRC World Championship has been all about racking up mileage and experience for the young Swede. WRC rounds in Monte Carlo and Croatia ended early via mechanical issues and a crash, while Rally Sweden brought a solid sixth-place overall finish. Shuffled back to the Rally2 car for the Vodafone Rally de Portugal to gain more time behind the wheel, Solberg showed strongly, winning the Power Stage along the way. We caught up with Solberg while he was back home in Sweden and getting both mentally and physically prepared for the Safari Rally Kenya in June, in which he will compete in the premiere WRC classification.
Q: How’s the WRC season been for you so far?
OLIVER SOLBERG: It’s been a bit up and down. It has been a good few races, but there has been a lot of bad luck also. At Monte Carlo we had some technical issues and Sweden was a really good race with a really good pace. Also, then we had some technical issues there. Of course the Croatian round was a big learning process as it was the first time back on tarmac in a long time. I went off the road there in the qualifier, so that was quite exciting. Yeah, it has been a bit up and down, but I think all in all we have had good speed and good progress. For sure it has been tough for the while team, but I think it is going well.
Q: You placed sixth in the WRC car at Rally Sweden. Certainly a solid result for a rookie driver.
OS: Sweden should have been much better, but I think at least the speed was really positive. We were almost leading the rally at some points and everything was looking good but unfortunately we had some technical issues on Friday night and they continued on into Saturday. We lost a lot of time, but I think sixth place in the end was good points for the team and they needed it, so I think it was OK.
Q: Hyundai Motorsport put you back in the WRC2 car for the Vodafone Rally de Portugal. You won a stage there; what was that like?
OS: I mean, the plan was not to race there at all, but as I said to the team, “I can’t sit at home. When you’re 20 years old, you can’t miss out n the chances.” You really need to drive a lot of cars and get into it and learn and get experience for the future. So they managed to fix me a car which was very good and very nice. We managed to get it all together with the sponsors and it was a bit like old times again, you know? That was nice. I had my own team with me and I had a lot of old friends with me. It was awesome. It was a nice race. It all went quite well until we unfortunately had some technical issues again, but that’s just part of the game. We got to do all of the stages, we got experience and that was the main thing. The result looked quite good up until the end, but that’s how it is.
Q: Are you good with competing in both the WRC and WRC2 car?
OS: I would like to do, for sure, a full season of WRC. I have to share a few races with Dani Sordo in WRC this year but that’s fine. I think it is good to get into a team and they have a good plan for the future, so on that side I think it is very positive. As a young guy, though, I would like to do all of them.
Q: The Safari Rally Kenya is approaching. I know you’re a fan of the history of the sport. Does that make you more excited to go?
OS: Yeah, for sure. It’s one of the coolest races in the world. Unfortunately, last year it didn’t go well, but I think this year we’ve got a new chance. The car should be really strong and reliable and hopefully we can have a good race and just drive clean. For sure it is such a special place with all of the people and the fans and the places. It’s something and it’s a place you could never imagine. It’s just an amazing adventure.
Q: You guys sure travel to some pretty far-flung places. It has to be a challenge to get everything from place to place…
OS: Yeah, definitely. For the whole team. Especially now with new cars and new regulations. Then we get into a lot of travel and a lot of testing, for a young guy, I think it is fantastic. I get to travel the world and it is the same for the whole team. It is a lot of work, but that is how it is at the moment. It’s always a lot of work at the beginning and then you get everything settled and then you get into a good rhythm and then it settles down. At the moment it is a lot of work and we’ve now got four events behind us. Believe it or not, the race is actually the calm part!
Q: You and Hyundai seem heavily invested in one another. Hyundai has made it clear that they have a lot of patience with you and fully want to see you develop into a world championship-contending driver.
OS: That’s the plan and I think we have a really good goal for it. Definitely we are in tough times at the moment, but the team is still fighting and I think they have a good plan for the future with me. Hopefully I can get some papers signed soon so we can get going even quicker into the future. It looks very good — I have a good relationship with the Koreans and we both come from a very humble place, so it’s a nice relationship and we really enjoy it together and I think that’s important.
Q: It’s all about WRC mileage and experience for you now, isn’t it? In the WRC driver haver to be constantly learning, don’t they?
OS: Rally is quite crazy, to be honest. Every race is so different and you see so many different conditions and different roads. You never stop learning, even if you’re 10-time world champion. I mean it all takes a really long time to learn. Also, these days you don’t have a lot of testing, so basically the race is the test — especially for us youngsters. With where I am at in my right now, it will definitely take some time, but I feel I’ve shown some strong pace to be in the top and now it is just to work with everything around the team. I’ll also need to work on consistency and stuff like that. The speed is there and that’s why the team is really happy with me. I think we’re working well together.
Q: How do you look at the rest of the season from here on in?
OS: There are a few races I really, really want to do well in and where I definitely hope to maybe make some podium finishes. We are really working towards that. For sure there are some other races where I have never been and where I just need to get some mileage in and get experience, play the long game and then helpfully it will all turn out well in the end. There are many very different races that I have to prepare for differently, mentally. It’s going to be a challenge, but I really enjoy all if it.
Q: How is your dad doing? Has he been keeping an eye on you?
Yeah, for sure. He is at every race. He’s super excited. He’s more in the background this year, but he’s always with me and that’s fantastic.