Petter Solberg, the 2003 World Rally champion, hasn’t competed at the highest level of the sport since making a successful switch to rallycross in 2013 – a category in which he became a double world champion in 2014 and 2015.
The Norwegian last competed in a World Rally Championship event on Rally Spain in 2012, but after a six-year break was tempted back into action in Catalunya this weekend.
Solberg wasn’t competing in the top division for World Rally Cars but in the second-tier WRC2 division. This meant swapping his 600bhp-plus Volkswagen Polo Supercar for a less powerful 1.6-litre Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, which is built to the cost-controlled R5 class rules and is far closer to a road car.
Solberg was competing for the Volkswagen Motorsport squad, which was itself making a return to the sport it dominated between 2013 and 2016. The firm won four straight WRC titles with Sébastien Ogier, but this comeback was a one-off to showcase the Polo GTI R5 on its debut, ahead of deliveries to customers beginning.
Solberg made an impressive return in the new 1.6-litre Polo GTI R5, battling for the class lead early in the event before falling back a bit in difficult damp conditions on Saturday and Sunday’s Tarmac stages.
Autocar caught up with Solberg, now 43, to discuss his rallying return and his views on the future of rallycross.
How does it feel to be back in rallying?
“It’s good. On the first day, I had big enjoyment on the gravel stages. I had a test day before the event, but on the longest stage of the day we were strong. I had some issues on the smaller stages, but in terms of performance I’m very pleased - and surprised. I was just happy to be here and to be part of this.”
How did the opportunity with Volkswagen come about?
“Sven [Smeets, Volkswagen Motorsport boss] knew I wanted to do one more rally. We’ve discussed it for a long time, but it had to be the right opportunity at the right time. We were looking at Sweden, but I had an illness [the lung disease sarcoidosis] recently, and that changed things a lot. When you go through something like that, it changes your approach a little bit.”
How hard is it to switch from a 600bhp rallycross car to an R5 rally car with just under 300bhp?
“The start line is the biggest difference! When you start an event in a rallycross car, your head is thrown back - 0-100kmh in 1.9 seconds. But for enjoyable driving, with the chassis and so on and how it handles, the rally car is really good fun. For sure, it’s more difficult to drive with less horsepower, especially when you’re used to it all the time.”
Did it take time to adjust?
“I switched the mentality very quickly, but most difficult was that I know where I lost a few seconds - it was on the very high speed bits that require commitment. I was not interested to go right to the limit in terms of risk. It’s quite a big difference having to trust in pacenotes again: if I have in the pacenotes ‘flat six right’, I hear it but I don’t do it. I’m 43 now, so the safeness is here [points to his head]. If you’d asked me before when I was younger, I didn’t have that safeness – it was flat out. It's life, and now you come and have fun with it and enjoy it.”