Jon Armstrong and Phil Hall face their opponents in the Junior World Rally Championship shoot out in Spain starting Thursday, to decide which crew will take the laurels and an all important funded drive in WRC2 in 2022.
Their last outing in September was very different as they were in a HERO-ERA Arrive and Drive 1968 90 bhp Mini Cooper S learning the regularity rallying ropes and trying to stay out of the way of a different championship fight, then it was for the HERO Challenge title in the classic rallying world.
They acquitted themselves extremely well, winning the Newcomers Awards and capturing the prestigious Test Pilot Award for the fastest crew over the Tests, quite a debut!
Now their total concentration is on the JWRC title fight ahead as genuine contenders, just three points behind the championship leaders and rivals, Sami Pajari and Marko Salminen from Finland. Latvians Martins Sesks and Renars Francis are a few points back in third but still in with a chance of the title.
Following their strong second victory of 2021 at Ypres in the Junior World Rally Championship, Jon Armstrong (26), from Kesh, Co Fermanagh N.I. and Phil Hall (33) an RAF High Performing Athlete from Nottingham, developed a plan which worked well in Belgium which could stand them in good stead in Spain.
Jon explained how Ypres panned out and what they need to do in Spain to win.
“We went into the Ypres WRC Rally just trying to get a good result for the championship, we didn’t really know where everyone was going to be in terms of pace. The only driver who had been there before in JWRC was William Creighton, so we didn’t know where they were going to be at.
“Friday morning on the first day of rally, we just went out to try and drive to the pace notes and get a good rhythm. We came to the end of the first stage and I said ‘boy that was really difficult and it didn’t feel amazing’, but when the times came through and we were 6 ½ seconds up on the nearest junior we said whatever we are doing it’s working so let’s just keep doing it. We continued doing that for the rest of the loop, but near the end of the leg we had a scare with a famous Ypres ditch which almost consumed us!
“By then we had built a sizeable enough lead so I thought OK, now we have to take it back a notch. There’s no point throwing it into a ditch when you have quite a decent lead.
“People remember that stuff, I’ve done it in the past, so you try not to do it too many times again. You have to try and show that you can manage a rally. From that point on that’s what we set about doing, trying to keep our lead as a win was going to be a big result for us. We got through the rest of the rally a bit slower but that makes it more difficult as you are not loading the car up as much, you’re not working the tyres as hard. You still have to keep a good rhythm and push in the places you are comfortable, but maybe drop a bit where you are not so comfortable such as the more risky cuts where you can have a lot of gravel, where you can slip off easily, or get a puncture!
“Getting that lead is easier said than done but coming out of the blocks like that and setting a good pace was OK. A tricky rally, one of the most difficult I have ever done, the long straights, the junctions, trying to spot where they are. We were given some good advice before the rally to use markers as much as possible, say on a long straight for the junction at the end to try and pick out a good reference point. It worked, it’s not something I’ve used in my pace notes before but I think I might start to use them more in the future. It worked nicely on Ypres because it was quite a tricky rally.
“The great thing was that the car worked perfectly.
“We have competed on WRC Spain before. It’s quite fortunate, I have done it three times before, this will be my fourth attempt. Previously it was always a mixed event so the first day would be on gravel then the next day and a half was on tarmac but this year it’s all tarmac – which is not a bad thing. But you have to be a bit careful with having previous experience of an event, it’s always been an advantage but you can quite easily become complacent.
“So Phil and I are just trying to prepare for it like any other event. I won’t be using any previous pace notes, our system has evolved a bit and got better, I just think making fresh pace notes is the best approach and keep doing what we’ve been doing all year as that’s been working.
“ We will try to have another good rally approach and not be too cautious, if I can be fast out of the blocks that will be perfect – and we will see what our championship rivals are going to be doing. That’s been one of the hardest things this year, knowing how fast the rivals are going to be on each rally.
“I just need to go there as if was in a championship battle with Loeb or someone like that, I need to bring the best that I can bring. Hopefully that will be enough.
“That is something I learned this year is trying to be the best that I can be rather than trying to be enough to beat everyone else. Our main rival is Sami Pajari (19), a Finn and really fast as you can imagine. Then we have Latvian Martins Sesks (22) he is a little bit further back, he’s had bit of bad luck, mostly self inflicted. They are the main rivals.
“The biggest challenge is to keep moving forward in your career, keep your head above water and don’t stop, I’ve done a lot of stopping in the last few years, you have to try and keep a momentum going.
As always Jon and Phil have been keeping fit as part of their preparations; Jon “ Yes we have been training, mainly running. I used to go to the gym a lot but I was putting on muscle mass way too quickly and as I’m quite tall, I can get quite heavy if I’m not too careful, I just do running and really take care of what I eat, although I like a tiny bit of chocolate too, for energy of course!”
Everyone at HERO-ERA, including their fellow rally competitors from HERO Challenge Three, wish Jon and Phil the very best of luck in their championship shoot out and look forward to following the action as it unfolds on WRC.com