19 Jul 2019
Oliver Solberg is taking the rallying world by storm – the son of 2003 World Rally and 2014-15 World Rallycross champion Petter may only be 17, but he’s already proven himself in multiple series, across multiple continents.
After winning the RallyX Nordic title last year, the youngster moved into four-wheel-drive rallying full-time in 2019, combining programmes in Europe and America. He’s already won multiple events in the Latvian national championship this year, and won on his debut in the European championship, while he was also on the pace in the US right away.
Solberg’s participation in the American Rally Association series is an unusual one for a European competitor, but Solberg is using the contrast between rallying on both sides of the Atlantic to help him grow as he steps ever closer to his goal of emulating his father by competing at World Championship level.
“I think it’s good for my experience to drive so many different roads and so many different stages, plus in a new market to build my name and grow in America,” said Solberg at the recent Goodwood Festival of speed, where he was demonstrating his ARA-spec Subaru rally car. “It’s a huge market for motorsports in general, or even cars, so I think if you manage to build a good name there like Travis Pastrana of Ken Block then it can be a very good experience.”
For Solberg’s US campaign, which consists of six events, he’s driving a WRX STI for the ultra-successful Subaru Motorsports USA team – one of the few professional outfits in North American rallying.
“It’s a very good team, I’m very impressed with them. It’s a lot of the people that were at Subaru with my Dad so I know some of them,” he said. “We work very good together, it’s a very organised team and they’re always very well prepared before the races, so it’s a very professional team. It’s not the biggest team on the rally side but they are doing a very good job.”
“They have a high level team with Scott Speed, [Patrik] Sandell, [Chris] Atkinson, and [David] Higgins – so they have good drivers to learn from and everyone has different experiences,” Solberg continued. “Atko I know from before and I also know Sandell quite well so it’s nice to see someone that you’ve met before. Also Scott Speed – he’s a crazy guy! There’s a lot to learn from him too, he’s a very, very good driver so they have a great team to work together with.”
All of Subaru’s entries across rallying and rallycross in the US this year are adorned with a livery remarkably similar to that of the car that his father claimed his rallying world title with. What’s more, it took no time at all for the Solberg/blue Subaru combination to return to the top step of the podium, with Oliver Solberg winning the Olympus Rally on just his second outing.
“It’s very emotional,” he said of driving the iconic car. “The first race we won in Olympus was special to get a win with the blue colours again.”
“Olympus is a very historical race, a lot of famous drivers have been winning there and driving there so it’s good fun to be winning that rally, especially with the blue colours back again.”
It wasn’t just special for Oliver – who was only two-years-old when his father claimed the WRC crown – it became a whole family affair.
“It’s the first time I’ve been out on stages to watch Oliver. I’d never done it before, it was my first time at Olympus,” said Petter Solberg. “I think to get this experience, driving in America, is great, and to seize the other chance with Subaru here with the colours and everything – they came back with that after it stopped with me in 2008, it’s great to see, it’s a very emotional thing as well.”
For a family which is rallying royalty on European shores, seeing the likes of Oliver and Petter Solberg at events has been a big deal for US fans who, despite the sport’s relatively small footprint in the US, are hugely passionate and knowledgeable about the discipline.
“Of course it’s not as at home in Europe, we have done rallying for many, many years in Europe and developed it to a very high level,” said Oliver Solberg. “Going to America the fun thing is that the roads are very very different everywhere you go so it’s a perfect experience for me because I’m so young.”
“The organisation is also very good, I have to say they’ve done a good job. They still have a lot to learn but the rallying is quite good and I was surprised how many fans were on the stages.”
His father agreed, highlighting the “fantastic roads” that his son has been competing on, while also heaping praise on the US crowds.
“I met a lot of people at Olympus and there’s a great atmosphere there,” he said. “The people have a proper interest and a proper passion.”
“They have a big potential,” he added. “They have the place to do rallying and okay, it’s spread out a lot, but for sure they deserve much bigger attention and hopefully more people will come and do the [US] rallies from Europe and make an even bigger championship.”
“It would be nice to see it growing, but even the guys driving there now are fantastic people and I love these open classes, people can go and it should be a people’s sport, but sometimes you need the top end and the competition for it, but it’s great to see. All the rally drivers I met there love what they’re doing, it’s like an adventure.”
While the Solbergs clearly see a future for rallying in America, Oliver Solberg has his sights firmly set on global domination and his American adventure is just a small piece of a much bigger puzzle.
“I see this America thing as more of an experience travel,” he said. “It would be good fun to have a future there but my dream is to come into WRC and be world champion one day and maybe, you never know, if I manage WRC maybe I could go back to America and try to build rally there. [But] my dream is WRC but we’ll see what the future brings.”
Petter Solberg knows better than everyone what it takes to succeed, and despite being surprised by his son’s performances so far, he sees no reason why the teenager’s progress should be rushed.
“There’s no rush,” the elder Solberg insisted. “To be a rally driver and be fast everywhere, it takes time. I know he’s not driving at 100 percent, he’s maybe driving at 95, and on the tests he is driving 110 percent, because 110 you need sometimes also.”
“If he can be at 95 and still be competitive, then you can build on this last few percent, it will come automatically later, but the main thing is to finish rallies and get the maximum out of everything. if you’re first, second, or third, it doesn’t matter if you feel confident.”
“The only thing you have to understand is that people say you have to drive as much as possible and it’s absolutely true, but to just drive there’s no point. You have to drive and change, do setup changes and learn different setups all the time as well. You have to react quick enough so you can be fast everywhere, not just in five stages, you have to be fast on 10. Identifying the magic setup that is really good, and then you have to find the balance that works a bit everywhere.”
“His performance is much better than I expected. We never though that he’d come so quickly into it,” he said. “We just have to stay positive, he’s won in everything he has driven in Europe also, all the races on snow and gravel so all of this is going fine.”
Oliver and Petter Solberg were speaking at the 2019 Goodwood Festival of Speed – to see more Goodwood content, click here