After months of speculation, Petter "Hollywood" Solberg's put to rest rumours of a return to the World Rally Championship (WRC) in 2015.
Setting Twitter alight was Solberg's entry into the Rallye du Condroz in December, a massively popular Belgian event for competitors and spectators alike. Solberg's no stranger to one-off rally appearances, but this entry had the makings of a truly big story: Driving a Citroën C4 WRC, he was accompanied by his long-standing co-pilot Phil Mills. Naturally, "Hollywood" played it all up with vague responses to questions regarding a possible WRC return, and offering us golden nuggets such as these:
"I think you all know that rallying is my first love in motorsport. It's what I did for so many years and the chance to go back there and compete again is really good for me."
"Things are happening and, yes, maybe it is possible [to go back to the WRC]. I always said I would never say never when I was asked about going back to the WRC. Rallying is in my heart and always will be."
Without a doubt, Solberg was feverishly working on deals for a World Rallycross (WorldRX) campaign, and I bet there were more than just a few meetings discussing WRC. After all, this Norwegian had the balls to stand up to Sebastien Loeb and take on Marcus Gronholm in his WRC career. He took on 188 WRC starts, won 13 and claimed 460 stage wins in the 13 years of WRC competition.
The Norwegian's best rally and most memorable season for him is most likely his 2003 title-winning campaign. Many WRC drivers come and go, but why is this ballroom-dancing rally driver so admired for his skills behind a WRC car's steering wheel? For me, it can be summed up in WRC's 2004 season, and more specifically in the WRC Rally Japan. The inaugural WRC Rally Japan was Round 11 of the 16-event 2004 calendar (remember those good days Rally Australia AND Rally New Zealand, Rally Turkey and the Acropolis Rally?). Driving for the Subaru World Rally Team on its home event no doubt placed considerable pressure on the shoulders of this team and their Championship-winning driver, and the entry list read like a who's-who of rallying elite of the 2000s: Sebastien Loeb, Markko Martin, Marcus Gronholm, Carlos Sainz, Francois Duval and a young Mikko Hirvonen (as team-mate). This rally's 27 stages of 381 competitive kilometers proved happy hunting ground for Solberg and co-driver Phil Mills. In fact, the pairing handed out a lesson to Loeb et al, dominating the event from start to finish in a confident, cool and inspiring manner. On the way to the top step of the podium, Solberg captured 11 fastest stages and controlled rally in no uncertain terms.
The iconic Blue and Gold WRX STi and its thrumming Boxer motor on the very limit made for some seriously sweaty YouTube searches in research for this article. Like Rally New Zealand and Rally Finland, this event was seemingly created by the Rally Gods: long straights with frightening kinks, blind flat-over-crests, long sweeping bends and changing surface conditions. Top gear, right foot flat and a breathless co-driver: WRC Rally Japan 2004 was a true test of man and machine on that weekend, there was no man more determined, more controlled or faster than Solberg.
Solberg set the pace in SS1, and kept ahead of his rivals. Loeb and Gronholm were engrossed in a ding-dong battle for second place, with Gronholm dropping down the order after paying a heavy price for that furious pace in his Peugeot 307 WRC. He attacked with confidence on Day Two, winning 7 of the days's ten stages to edge out a lead of 01 minute 09 seconds over Loeb and Martin. He was always in posting top five fastest stage times, never easing his focus... With the rally firmly in control, the Norwegian was able to manage his pace and his splits to perfection on Day Three: he was never more than 2.5 seconds off the stage winners' times, and kept his pressure on the rally. He brought his Subie to Parc Ferme with a 01 minute 13.3 second winning margin a proud and pleased rally drivero, and the newest Japanese national hero.
He claimed five rally victories that season: Rally New Zealand; Acropolis Rally Greece; Rally Japan; Wales Rally GB; and, Rally Italia Sardinia. At the end of the season, he finished second in the Drivers' Championship fight, second to Loeb. With four retirements to his name that season (including one mechanical), Solberg could very well have won back-to-back WRC championship titles had Lady Luck showed him some favour. But, as we know all to well, to go toe-to-toe with Sebastien Loeb and Citroën was never a bloodless battle for any WRC driver. Solberg's unquestionably one of the most enthusiastic and passionate WRC personalities in recent history, and the WRC is undoubtedly poorer for not having him on its events in 2015.