23 April 2019

Feature: Solberg… Furiously Fast to the End!

Jerry Williams has been covering rallying for more than 40 years, attending World Rally Championship events across the globe to get all the insider knowledge.

He has always been one of the most excitable, animated, and likeable of the top World Rally Championship drivers. Over the years I’ve seen enough of Petter Solberg to have some vivid memories of his antics. And now he has retired… well, sort of anyway!

In his time he produced some astonishing drives – Rally Finland, 2003 and the RAC Rally a year later leap to mind – and equally crazy celebrations. In Finland, in 2003, he drove back into the final control after a huge last stage in which he had finally overhauled Richard Burns for second place. Sure, he was still almost a minute down on winner Markko Martin but he had finally bested Burnsie by just 1.2 seconds!

He leapt from his car, yelling at the top of his voice: “I did it. I f****** did it! On the last stage I tell you I was STANDING on the f****** accelerator just trying to make the car go faster…”

And after the RAC Rally in 2004, when a bonkers last stage meant he passed Seb Loeb for first place, he was so overcome that at the final time control in Margam Castle, he literally jumped the fence and crowd-surfed a big group of Scandawegian fans who had gathered there.

“You’ll never believe it,” he told us. “I was off the road more times than on it in there. I cut corners with all four wheels. I was just balls out everywhere, balls out I tell you.”

Seb Loeb, beaten by 6.3 seconds after leading the rally for virtually its entire length looked gobsmacked. He simply couldn’t believe it.

Solberg won the WRX title with his own team!

But perhaps the best of Solberg’s super-speedy runs came on Rally Finland in 2004. Ever since the rally had been run in the WRC, only a few non-Finns have been quickest on Ouninpohja. The names are no surprise:  Loeb (three times), Carlos Sainz and Stig Blomqvist (2 each), Petter Solberg, Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Didier Auriol leap to mind. Yet, curiously, the stage’s outright speed record was held for 10 years by a Norwegian, then a Frenchman.

Back in 2004 Solberg, then in his fastest years as Subaru number one, crashed early on the rally’s first day. Chastened, he was determined to make a mark and cheer up his mechanics. For day two he went out again. Ouninpohja was the second and fourth stage that Saturday. First time through, Solberg and co-driver Phil Mills did the 33.24 km in 15m 29.8 seconds; good enough to win the stage at an average of 128.70 kph. Back in the service park, Solberg told us he thought he could do better. And sure enough, on the afternoon run he was 11.3 seconds faster, for an average of 130.28 kph.

Later, Mills told me his pace notes for Ouninpohja ran to 38 pages with around 105 words per page. That’s 4,000 words spat out in 15 minutes, while constantly being body-checked by jumps, compressions, and big-G-force corners. Check it out on YouTube. It’ll amaze you. Their record - equivalent to 81.40 mph - stood for nine years against all the Finns could do until 2013 when, only adding insult to injury, Frenchman Sébastien Ogier beat it by just 0.30 mph! On that occasion, Ogier admitted he shouldn’t really have gone so mad since he was leading the rally, but just couldn’t stop himself!

But the other effect of Solberg’s 2004 record run was a second period when the rally’s signature stage was dropped. It had already been out from 1987 to 1992. Now it was split into two for 2005 and 2006. In 2007 it was back at full length but with three artificial chicanes to cut speeds. Then it was dropped until 2012. The reason: complaints from locals plus safety concerns after Solberg exceeded the FIA’s nominal 80 mph limit for stage average speeds.

Solberg first came to notice around 1997. I remember Fred Gallagher telling me in Monte Carlo about that time how he had met a remarkable pair of brothers, Petter and Henning Solberg and that Petter was going to be a world champion. “They’re very young and they build rally cars!” he said, wonderingly.

That ended up as a stellar 20-year career in the WRC, a world title – in 2003 – and later two world rallycross titles, making him the only man ever to be Top Dog in more than one FIA discipline. He won 13 world rallies in that time, including a remarkable three RAC Rally victories. All his wins came with Phil Mills as co-driver and if they finally parted on not the very best terms, later on the relationship was restored when Mills, by now set up as a top Escort rally car builder, put together Solberg’s first Escort rally car. 

Mills and Solberg were WRC Champions in 2003

In 1999 he was signed by Malcolm Wilson to the Ford works team. But next year suddenly he appeared in a Subaru. Prodrive had found a chink in the armour of Ford’s contract. And that was that. Solberg stayed at Prodrive until Subaru ran scared at the end of 2008 and abruptly pulled out of the WRC. Once at Prodrive he almost literally exploded onto the scene, finishing championship runner-up to Marcus Grönholm in 2002 and winning the world title outright in 2003. In the next two seasons he was second in the championship only to Seb Loeb before enduring a difficult time with the new Imprezas. 

Then came the bombshell as Subaru went out of the WRC – like Mitsubishi and Suzuki before them – in a mass Japanese hari-kiri. So he found some private backing and started the Petter Solberg WRT, driving a Citroën Xsara, a C4 and later a DS3. Then he switched again, to rallycross, becoming, in 2014 the first winner of the FIA World Rallycross Championship with five race wins and nine podium finishes. Just for good measure, he repeated that feat the following year. 

He had inherited his love of motorsport from his parents, who were keen bilcross fans… a cheaper version of Norwegian rallycross. He was already helping out rebuilding competition cars although he was not yet old enough to drive. In 1992 he entered bilcross, three days after his 18th birthday and one day after he got his driving licence. He was then Norwegian champion at rallycross and hill-climbing. In 1995 he won 19 out of 21 events and in 1996, 15 out of 19 events.

It was in 1995 that he drove in his first rally, the Norwegian Rally Bjørkelangen, in a Volvo 240. His female co-driver was Maud from Sweden, later the wife of his brother Henning. The elder Solberg won the Norwegian rally championship five times between 1999 and 2003. By now WRC team bosses were looking at his talented younger brother from Scandinavia and in late 1998 he signed for Malcolm Wilson to drive for three years. Then he became a nominated points-scorer for Ford on the ultra-gruelling Safari Rally in 1999 after Thomas Rådström was ruled out with a broken leg when Colin McRae rugby tackled him during practice. He duly stunned the rally world by finishing fifth… co-driven by, yes, Fred Gallagher.

Then came the bombshell for Wilson as a loophole was found I his contract and he signed abruptly for Prodrive to drive Subarus. And that was where he stayed, winning his first WRC rally – Rally GB – in 2002 and the championship a year later. Perhaps his least wanted victory was on the RAC Rally when Loeb sacrificed victory after Markko Martin’s co-driver Michael “Beef” Park was killed on the event.

Until last year Solberg headed up the works VW WRX team

Those were his glory years. From then on he struggled with technical problems on the new Subarus and at the end of 2008 Subaru followed Suzuki in withdrawing from the World Rally Championship. But Solberg didn’t give up. He found several sponsors and leased a 2006-spec Citroën Xsara and returned to the WRC for 2009 as a privateer, with Phil Mills again in the other seat.

Then, after testing a Citroën C4 and a Focus RS he plumped for a C4 (2008-spec). He finished fifth in the 2009 drivers’ championship! The following year he came close to winning Rally Turkey before settling for second and the later in the year Mills stopped co-driving to set up his rally car preparation business, ending a 152 event run of their competing together. He was replaced by Chris Patterson and Solberg finished in the championship’s top three.

For 2012 he was back at - yes! - Ford for a year with several good results before, in 2013, starting in the new world rallycross series, winning the FIA title in 2014 and 2015… the only man to win FIA championships in more than one discipline.

He is married to Pernilla, herself from Swedish rally royalty and now their son Oliver is about to embark on a brilliant rally career for himself. Everything has come full circle for Solberg and no-one deserves it more.

“It's the end of one era for me, but the start of a new one!” as he said the other day. “I'm so proud and honoured to have this career in motorsport, but it's time for a change in life. But don't worry - I'll be driving at some events and shows for a long time still, it's impossible to stop completely…”

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