AFTER EXCELLING ON RALLY OF PORTUGAL, JOSH MCERLEAN STARRED ON ERC'S RALLY POLAND
Josh McErlean has had his moments in the spotlight.
Think back to his American Rally Association debut in 2021, where he set an overall fastest time on Olympus Rally’s infamous Wildcat stage against the might of the Open 4WD machines in a much less powerful R5 car.
Or Rally of Portugal’s Porto – Foz superspecial stage last year, where the Irishman set an outright fastest time against all the Rally1s in his Rally2 Hyundai.
Two very clear examples of McErlean’s talent that were rightfully lauded.
But to be brutal, these were just snapshots. Fleeting moments are great for the highlight reel, but little use to sporting managers and team principals at any of the big teams.
Instead, the ones making waves from the McErlean camp were his co-drivers as first Keaton Williams, then James Fulton made their way into top-line seats. Aaron Johnston got there via Oliver Solberg too.
What we had all needed to see from the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy’s lead driver then was some consistently fast pace across the duration of a rally weekend that proved he could be a long-term prospect.
That’s exactly what he delivered on the European Rally Championship’s Rally Poland.
McErlean’s international career has been something of a whirlwind. After a Hyundai i20 R5 prize drive on 2019’s Rally GB courtesy of winning that year’s Junior British Rally Championship, a full season in the BRC had been expected in 2020 before the universe had other ideas.
With rallying taking longer to restart as everyone accustomed to the so-called ‘new normal’ in the UK and Ireland, McErlean was thrust onto the big stage far sooner than he’d likely have expected with some ERC and WRC experience across 2020 and ’21 – a fine third place on 2021’s Rally di Alba a standout result.
But with a primary objective to build up experience over setting timing screens on fire, only those that knew could observe his aptitude and the quality of his job as, to the outside world, the 23-year-old had done little to truly stand out in what is a deeply competitive class.
A tricky 2022 which featured a few too many crashes didn’t help his case either.
There’s a new-found edge to McErlean in 2023, though. And nowhere has that been more obvious than in Poland.
Off the back of one of his finest WRC performances to date in Portugal where he finished an accomplished seventh in WRC2 amidst a star-studded field, McErlean made sure he was one of the stars himself last weekend in the ERC.
Seeded 21st, there wasn’t a huge deal expected from McErlean and co-driver John Rowan given McErlean’s lack of experience on fast gravel. But immediately from the outset it was clear he meant business as he punched in the seventh fastest time in qualifying – just a whisker over a second off the ultimate pace.
That set him up for a great weekend ahead.
Stopping the clocks just half a second down on Mikko Heikkilä – the reigning Finnish champion – on the first proper stage was a statement of intent, and by first service McErlean had worked his way onto the provisional podium purely on merit against seriously quick opposition you’d expect to better McErlean such as Heikkilä and even Mads Østberg.
McErlean was mixing it with the big boys, and he showed no signs of wilting under the heat.
He lost position to the recovering Miko Marczyk (local favorite and last year’s rally winner) to end Saturday fourth but held his own against Østberg in a thrilling fight on the final morning.
Beating the 2021 WRC2 champion on Sunday’s opener was an important message to send Østberg’s way, and even when Østberg started coming back at him McErlean kept his head.
Arriving at the stop-line of SS11 to learn that Østberg had now drawn level with him overall, McErlean was as relaxed as you like.
“I think you should jump in here and take a go!” he told the stage-end reporter.
“Every man, woman and child should have a go at this! Good fun!”
Oozing confidence, assurance and clearly benefiting from two rallies on successive weekends, McErlean showed the world what he is truly capable of when off the leash and able to send it in a Rally2 car.
Sadly a mistake would come, but it was an incredibly small one as his i20 N popped out the ruts in fourth gear and he spun on the first stage of the Sunday afternoon which dropped him to a final position of seventh.
Sensibly after that he elected to reign it in and reach the finish.
“Honestly it’s been a very good weekend from our side,” McErlean said. “We’ve shown good pace, the spin this afternoon really cost us the push to the fourth place, so we decided after that to get it to the finish.
“Very good job by the team and the Academy to get us here and we’re happy with our progress.”
And so he should be. He certainly made a mockery of WRC Promoter’s decision not to fit an onboard camera to his car as one of the leading contenders all rally long.
But far more importantly than that, McErlean proved that he’s not just a mature head on young shoulders, but a driver who can cut it with the very best in the category too.
Good on the pedals, and good with words too as he proved in Portugal when he delivered this considered message at the stop-line of the powerstage.
“I think the Irish rally community was a bit broken after the passing of Craig, but I hope there’s some sense of happiness with these flags back on these cameras.”
Well if there was happiness after McErlean’s performance in Portugal, there’ll be delight after what he produced in Poland.
There’s a certain someone upstairs who would be very proud indeed.