Martin Holmes chats to Junior World Rally Championship coordinator Phil Short on the success of the 2018 series so far, and what lies ahead for the future.
2018 is the eighth year of M-Sport’s activities in the WRC Junior driver championship work.
Over the years this has taken various forms. It was born out of the earlier Pirelli Star Driver scheme, before moving into the Junior WRC programme.
For a while the scheme reverted into the Drive DMack Fiesta Trophy, before reappearing in 2017 as the JWRC.
Over the years the programme has been supported by Hankook, DMack and then Pirelli tyres, and each year is run on a turn-key, single-make control car basis, always with front-wheel drive Fiestas – currently the R2T model.
JWRC Sporting Supervisor, Phil Short (L) and Sander Parn in 2014. Photo: Martin Holmes
The series has provided fundamental steps in the careers of drivers such as Craig Breen, Elfyn Evans, Pontus Tidemand and last year, Nil Solans.
In the first year the number of eligible drivers was as high as 18, bolstered by prize drives earned in the earlier Star Driver scheme, and this year it is up to 14. The drivers are entered as full WRC entries and provide a healthy boost to the entry levels on the qualifying events.
Each year there have been five or six events, selected as being relatively budget-friendly for competitors.
So far this year there have been three events with two different winners (the Swede Dennis Radstrom twice, and the Frenchman Jean-Francois Franceschi) and there was an incredibly close battle for the lead in Portugal, the most recent round.
Two events remain, with double points to be won on the final round.
Throughout this project the former co-driver, Phil Short, has helped coordinate the series and told us after Portugal how the 2018 season is working at the half way point this year.
Phil Short: Well it’s shaping up very well. Not unexpectedly Swedish drivers dominated the first round in Sweden. In Corsica, the French drivers dominated on tarmac.
In terms of quantity of course we have far more cars than last year. I guess our Juniors tend to divide into two halves, the more experienced half who've done WRC events before, and the young drivers coming in to WRC for the first time.
But of course that is what the JWRC is for, to bring new drivers into the sport, give them experience not just of the events, but working with a professional team under controlled circumstances.
Martin Holmes: The novelty this year was having a winter rally?PS: Yes. We have considered including Sweden before, but had felt it was too early in the season for these guys to get their sponsorship deals together. But on the other hand, it’s a fantastic rally and a good test of driving skill, so we gave it a try.
I have to say it worked very well. Some drivers found it very difficult, it was obviously a surface that most of them didn't understand, and the tyres are quite different.
There was a lot for them to learn, but most of them coped very well. Financially it was not a great deal more expensive, though the tyres increased the cost, but in the end I felt it was well worth doing.
JWRC front runner, Dennis Radstrom, in action in the Rally of Sweden in February. Photo: Holmes
MH: Does the success of both the JWRC and WRC2 categories, and because Junior drivers compete in both JWRC and WRC3, mean WRC3 is superfluous?PS: Well obviously our cars are also part of WRC3. In previous years WRC3 was stronger, but this year our cars are competitive in WRC3 as we are often the only WRC3 competitors!
Perhaps FIA are disappointed there are not more competitors taking up the WRC3 option.
Discussions are starting to take place about next year, both so far as JWRC and WRC3 are concerned, so we have to leave it to the powers that be to decide that one.
MH: With Junior as a stepping stone, how do you think the intended ladder of career opportunity is working?PS: Looking back over the 10 years of various WRC Junior rally programmes, each year has produced a driver who has gone into a factory team.
All the Junior drivers are working their way into top positions, and suddenly jumping into a factory car is not something that's going to happen overnight unless there is a very exceptional talent.
Remember, so much of the sport is experience based. I also think it’s harder now for a young driver to be able to progress so rapidly.
MH: And your general feeling?PS: We are very happy. Having 14 cars here in Portugal is very impressive.
Some of them are looking at a two year project, the first year to get experience, the second year to push for the top places. I think the competitors are looking at things in a sensible way.
And as you say, the objective is to bring young drivers into the sport, develop them so that they can progress and not end up in a dead end.
I believe the WRC team managers are watching what we are doing and hopefully there will be further opportunities for these guys down the line.
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