Just like the twists and turns on the stages, the career of a rally driver is rarely straightforward.
None more so than Jon Armstrong, who, after winning the World Rally Championship esports title in 2018 when his budget dried up, is now in contention for the Junior WRC crown in Spain this weekend.
Heading into the final round of the season, Northern Ireland’s Armstrong and co-driver Phil Hall trail Finnish driver Sami Pajari by three points, with Latvia’s Martins Sesks 11 further back.
However, the championship situation is complicated by the double-points finale in Spain, while each driver will also drop their lowest score from the five rounds. In Armstrong’s case that is set to be his retirement in Portugal.
With 67 points on offer, Northern Ireland’s William Creighton has an outside shot at the title from fifth in the championship too. However, the Motorsport Ireland driver would need the leading trio to all hit trouble and for him to bag a solid number of stage wins.
The Junior WRC is the first step of the world rally ladder. Previous winners include Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier – who have 16 WRC titles between them – and rally front runners Dani Sordo, Elyfn Evans and Craig Breen. Armstrong hopes to add his name to this prestigious list.
“When I started rallying I never knew where I would end up. I started doing local sprints and it snowballed from there,” he recalled.
“In 2016 I got into the World Championship through a scholarship. I did really well, but the budget wasn’t there to continue.
“I turned my attentions to eSports and managed to become world champion, which was pretty crazy.”
Despite his success on the virtual world, Armstrong said he “never gave up” on a return to real-life rallying.
“It’s hard sitting at home knowing you can do good things but the barrier is budget,” said the 26-year-old.
“My focus has always been on driving a rally car at the highest level I can.
“Every since I’ve been 13 this is what I have been working towards. You should never give up on your dream.
“I don’t go into any championship thinking I want to be second or third. It would be amazing to win the Junior WRC. It would go very nicely with my virtual World Championship.”
In the fight
The Fermanagh driver started his season in style by winning in Croatia. He was right in contention in Portugal before engine issues forced him to retire, but bounced back with second in Estonia – expected to be his weakest event – and dominated in Belgium to set up his title challenge.
“With the way the rally is set up – and it is double points – it likely means whoever wins the rally will likely win the championship,” added Armstrong.
“I need to focus on being fast at the start of the rally and see how it progresses from there.
“It’s hard not to think about the end goal, it’s always in the back of my mind.”
Armstrong has competed in Spain on three previous occasions and with many fans travelling from Ireland and the UK, he says it’s “it’s almost a home rally for me”.
“It should suit me but I need to work really hard. You can take it for granted having previous experience of an event and that can make you lazy,” he added.
“We need to treat it like any other rally and keep doing what we have been doing. I have enough experience now to know when I need to be pushing and don’t need to be pushing.
“There is more pressure, but it is about trying to block that out and not get too drawn into the hype around it.”
‘It annoys my rivals’
After finding a way back into the sport, Armstrong is still operating on a shoestring budget compared to his rivals and has limited testing opportunities. Despite his lack of seat time, he has impressed at every event from the first stage, highlighting his natural flair and ability behind the wheel.
He uses his simulator to work on his relationship with co-driver Hall and keep improving his reflexes and approach, and has progressed with his diet and fitness, saying he has “never been in better shape”.
“I enjoy being the underdog, I think I came into this season as a bit of an outsider,” he added.
“I never really do any testing, so I think that really annoys my rivals when I turn up and start beating them on the first stages.”
So, what about the future? The prize for winning the Junior WRC consists of a Ford Fiesta Rally2 car, tyres and free WRC3 registration, the next category up the ladder.
“If we do win the championship I think the realistic way forward is to keep climbing the ladder,” he added.
“This year has really helped in terms of putting me in the right area and people are noticing what I’m doing.
“I’d still need to find budget, but I think this year I have shown I am able to compete at this level and it is where I belong.”