McErlean secures career-best World Rally Championship result in Portugal
McErlean in action on the iconic Fafe stage of Rally Portugal
Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver Josh McErlean secured the best FIA World Rally Championship result of his career last weekend, taking fifth place in the WRC3 category at a gruelling Vodafone Rally de Portugal (21-23 May).
Driving a PCRS Rallysport run Hyundai i20 R5, McErlean and co-driver Keaton Williams brushed aside the rough and torturous gravel roads to overcome a lowly road position to set a string of impressive times on their way to 17th overall, further cementing their potential for the future.
McErlean, 21-years-old from Kilrea, Co. Derry has enjoyed a strong showing in 2021, with an impressive third overall at Dirtfish Olympus Rally in the United States before another confidence-boosting result at Rali Terras D'Aboboreira, the pre-cursor to his Portuguese WRC outing.
The Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing Junior Driver would be starting his third World Rally Championship counter and the Portugal gravel tracks would provide a daunting test of his abilities.
With world-famous tests such as Fafe in store, the stages are renowned for their soft and sandy surface, meaning those running further down the order would have to cope with large ruts and unpredictable surface changes.
The aim for the young pilot would undoubtedly be to gain more experience of large events such as those in the World tour but also climb the leader board and with over 20 contenders in the WRC3 category, it would be a tough ask for McErlean on his first time at the iconic event.
The opening day would arguably be the toughest thanks to over 120 kilometres of flat out driving and no service halt available. As predicted, running further down the road order than many in the category hampered progress for McErlean with punctures on the fourth and fifth test leaving three stages remaining and no spares available.
A sensible drive ensured McErlean finished the leg inside the top ten despite backing off over the closing stages, he finished well ahead of many local experts who had honed much of their careers on the notorious terrain.
The longest leg of the event offered little respite for the crews, but a mid-point service was a welcome addition to the day. Despite a small intercom issue which made hearing co-driver Williams difficult, McErlean put in a strong performance to set a brace of top-five stage times and a monumental climb up the leader board, vaulting from tenth to fifth in WRC3 by the time the cars entered Parc Ferme that night.
McErlean would have been forgiven for consolidating his impressive position on the leader board on the final day but he felt comfortable enough through the opening stage of the leg to set equal third fastest out of the blocks on Sunday.
A clean and sensible run throughout the remaining four stages saw McErlean secure his best WRC result with fifth in the category.
“What an amazing experience to contest another World Championship event and to come away with a strong result is great for my continued development,” said McErlean.
“It’s been a very encouraging weekend all round and we can take a lot from this result and our performance throughout the whole weekend. We always said we would be learning as we went but also pushing harder when we felt comfortable and that showed on the times which is pleasing. Our road position was always going to be a battle, but we managed that well and despite the punctures, we have had a very consistent rally. I`m really happy”.
McErlean cites the weekend as one of the best all-round performances.
“It’s not just about the good result for me” he continues. “Portugal is a really tough event for many reasons so to go there and get fifth with the relatively little experience I have on the WRC is probably one of the best drives I’ve had. I really can’t thank everyone enough who came together to make this happen and it will certainly benefit me in the next stage of my career development”.