Where can you find the rallying stars of the future? The obvious place to start is the Junior WRC. This takes place across five rounds of the World Rally Championship, with drivers competing in identical Ford Fiesta R2 cars, all equipped with Pirelli tyres.
Up for grabs is a serious prize to help the champion to progress to the next step in their career: the keys to a Ford Fiesta R5 from M-Sport, a Pirelli tyre package and free entries into the WRC3 category for the following season.
The 2020 Junior WRC began on Rally Sweden, with a Swedish driver – Tom Kristensson – claiming the victory ahead of Latvia’s Martins Sesks, Estonia’s Ken Torn and Finnish driver Sami Pajari. Round two in Sardinia has been postponed for now, with events in Finland, Germany and Britain planned for later in the year.
Another breeding ground for future talent is the European Rally Championship. While the WRC is the pinnacle of rallying, the ERC has an even longer history – the first title was awarded in 1953 – and remains popular with teams and drivers today.
Just like the WRC, the ERC features multiple classes of car. Today, the overall title is fought for by drivers in R5 (or Rally2) cars: the same that are seen in WRC 2 and WRC 3.
The ERC is popular with young drivers and enthusiastic amateurs alike as a cost-effective intermediate step up from national competition, and there’s also the chance to fight for overall rally victories. It’s a proven route to the top, with WRC rally winner Esapekka Lappi among its former champions.
As well as the main ERC1 category, there’s ERC2 for production-based cars and ERC3 for front-wheel drive models. On top of that, the ERC provides a distinct focus on helping future stars with separate Junior classifications.
ERC1 Junior, as with the overall championship, features open tyre competition: a great opportunity for Pirelli to test and develop its rallying products across a wide range of different surfaces and conditions.
ERC3 Junior meanwhile is supplied exclusively by Pirelli, which has a long-standing commitment to helping young talent. The Italian manufacturer’s support also includes training for the drivers on how to get the best out of their tyres, plus a contribution towards the prize for the ERC3 Junior champion: a drive in ERC1 Junior on rounds of the following year’s championship.
As with the rest of motorsport, the beginning of the 2020 ERC is on hold for now due to the coronavirus pandemic. But an adjusted calendar has already been mapped out: one that begins with two high-speed gravel events in Poland and Latvia in June and July, followed by a double dose of asphalt on the Rally di Roma and the Czech Rally Zlin.
Naturally, the calendar is subject to further change, but the portfolio of events in the ERC should provide considerable variety regardless, even though the championship is limited to one continent. The spectacular mid-Atlantic events on the Azores and the Canary Islands that would have opened the season are set to be rescheduled for later in the year, where they join rounds in Cyprus and Hungary.
Among the competitors, one of the star attractions once again will be the rapid Russian rocket Alexey Lukyanuk. Always spectacular, Lukyanuk is returning for a second season in a Citroen C3 R5 and will be back on Pirelli tyres, which helped him to take the overall ERC title in 2018.
Another driver worth watching will be the reigning ERC3 and ERC3 Junior champion Efren Llerena of Spain, who makes the step up to ERC1 Junior in another Pirelli-equipped C3 R5. Just like his compatriot Jan Solans, the 2019 Junior WRC champion, Llarena is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Spain’s rallying hero, Carlos Sainz.
If we learn anything from the pandemic it...