A weekend at the Goodwood rally stage, or why I want to be a Solberg
Real quick, take a second to think back to whatever job you had in high school. Maybe you worked in food service. Maybe you were a bagger at a grocery store. Me? I was slinging lava lamps and, um, adult products at a shop in the local mall. Hardly glamorous stuff, all around.
Now let's talk about 17-year-old Oliver Solberg, who recently signed on to race in the 2019 American Rally Association championship season with Subaru . He's the son of 2003 World Rally Champion Petter Solberg, was named the RallyX Nordic champion, has competed in Crosskart racing since elementary school and is the youngest driver to ever run in a World Rallycross supercar. This kid's been racing almost as long as I've been driving, yet he only recently got his legal road driver's license.
I'll admit I'm a little (OK, extremely) jealous of the younger Solberg as he suits up and hops into his Vermont SportsCar-prepared Subaru WRX STI rally car in the Goodwood Forest Rally Stage paddock. We tend to shine a spotlight on Goodwood for its annual run up the Duke of Richmond's long driveway, but my weekend with the Solbergs shows me that the rally event is absolutely where it's at.
Into the woods
The Forest Rally Stage is situated in the lush, wooded area near the top of the Goodwood Hill Climb. It's a single-car track about two miles long and starts and ends at the very top of the Goodwood hill. Through the forest, drivers face super-tight hairpin turns, seriously narrow passages and a pretty solid jump about three-quarters of the way down the course. The light changes as the sun cuts between the trees. It's dark and bright, all at the same time. For drivers, it's a challenge. For passengers, it's better than any rollercoaster.
"It's very, very technical," Oliver Solberg tells me as we sit next to his car in the paddock. "It's a fun challenge; you have jumps and narrow sections. You have the slippery stuff also."
Much like the Goodwood Hill Climb, the Forest Rally Stage is open to all number of rally-prepped vehicles. Classic Subarus and Lancias mix it up with Land Rover Defenders. A Dacia Duster with mud flaps lines up near the start line. Since the course is so narrow, cars run one at a time, and marshals keep them spaced well apart to avoid calamity. Sure, the occasional Mitsubishi goes off mid-corner, or a Citroen grazes the hay bale barriers. But largely, the event is accident-free. Challenging and dangerous, yet safe at the same time.
For spectators, the entire rally stage is open for viewing. You can walk through the paddock and high-five your favorite drivers. You can have a beer and ogle dirty old Toyotas. You can stand and get a sunburn while pit crews sweat in their fire suits. You can wipe dust off the cars as they line up to launch, and paths through the woods that offer viewpoints of all the major turns. People huddle together and applaud as racers get air over the track's jump.
More than any other part of the Goodwood Festival of Speed, the Forest Rally Stage gives you the most access to the cars, racers, and action. I'd be remiss not to mention that the Hill Climb is a solid experience in its own right, but I could have camped out at the rally stage all weekend and never, ever been bored.
A 2-minute, 34-second thrill ride
The 2019 Subaru Open Class Rally Car is based on the current-generation WRX STI, first introduced in 2015. Its boxer four-cylinder engine produces around 330 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque, thanks to a larger turbocharger, and it sends power to all four wheels via a six-speed sequential gearbox.
"You can go quite fast in the corners," the younger Solberg says of his Subaru-backed rally car. "It's a big car, but it's nice to drive." Solberg admits a smaller car would be better on the narrow Goodwood circuit -- "maybe the car is too big" -- but for American races, it's perfect.
Strapping into the STI's Recaro passenger seat, the rally car's size is obvious. It feels big from inside, and Oliver and I don't feel packed in like sardines. "It's actually kind of comfy," I say to him minutes before we set off. If this whole car writing thing ever goes south, Oliver, I'll totally be your co-driver.
With a few revs of the engine and a brap-brap-brap-brap out the exhaust, Oliver launches us down the Forest Rally Stage, fishtailing slightly before we brake hard for the first left-hand turn. If you've never been in a rally car before, it's a fantastic experience -- incredibly fast and loud as hell, amplified by the sound of gravel and sand flying up all around you. Throughout my 2-minute, 34-second lap, I'm either smiling or laughing. But then again, so is Oliver.
Make no bones about it, this kid is quick. Oliver largely drives with one hand on the wheel, one hand slamming the sequential shifter up and down through the gears. His actions seem so fluid, so natural. It's like he's been doing this, you know, his whole life.
To rally enthusiasts like me, Petter Solberg is a hero. He raced for the Subaru World Rally Team and was named the 2003 World Rally Champion. He's attending the Goodwood Festival of Speed not just to support his son, but to race his own Subaru rally car -- part of a farewell tour as he sunsets his motorsports career to let his son take the spotlight.
Sitting together in the paddock, both Solbergs smile a lot. Petter is proud of the incredible career he's had, and he's amazed at what Oliver has accomplished in such a short time.
"Look at his style," Petter says of Oliver, "it's so nice to watch."
But it wasn't easy for Petter at first. "It's getting better now, but the first times, when he was 15 and he was in rally, I was shit-scared," Petter recounts.
"I didn't go to his first race," Petter says. Not because he didn't want to, but because he was competing at the same time. "We were in Portugal in the World Championship. Me and Sébastien Loeb ... we watched the race live. [Oliver] came in third."
For Oliver, this has been a lifelong dream -- not just rally racing, but doing it for Subaru.
"You have no idea what this means to him," Petter says. "That color, and the stripes -- he's born with Subaru." Petter laughs and talks about how Oliver had blue-and-yellow Subaru bedsheets as a kid. If Subaru made an Impreza race car bed, he probably would've had one of those, too.
"Subaru wanted to sign him when he got old enough, and now he's driving a Subaru," Petter says. "It's just strange and crazy."
Outside of rallying, Oliver is still your average 17-year-old kid. He likes to play ice hockey, and his phone lights up with Snapchat notifications during our interview. Girls and dates aren't a huge priority (yet), and during his free time, he still goes out driving as much as possible. School is an absolute priority, Oliver says, and his parents ensure his education never lacks.
"School is important," Petter says. "I didn't have any school. When I came into the World Championship I didn't speak English, but I really regret that I didn't do more."
As Oliver's career progresses, Petter says his main goal is to make sure his son has the best experience possible. From spending time with fans to handling the sponsorship deals (motorsport is very much a business, after all), Petter doesn't want Oliver to miss a beat. In fact, the entire Solberg family is in on the action. Oliver's mother, and Petter's wife, Pernilla, is the team manager. She's also Petter's former spotter and Oliver's current spotter.
"I want him to be happy and enjoy. And when he's driving, that he has a smile on his face," Petter says.
Racing together at Goodwood is not without some friendly family competition, of course. Off the rally stage, Petter posted a faster run than Oliver on the Goodwood Hill Climb, though both Solbergs shared top honors.
"I am very happy to be on the podium with my dad," Oliver said on his Instagram page. "It's still unbelievable to me that I'm driving a blue-and-yellow Subaru just like my father did."
Even so, Oliver is getting quicker all the time. "We are very equal in times," Petter says. "I think rallying takes a long time."
And what about the times when Oliver is quicker than his rally-legend father? Petter just smiles, puts his hands up and shakes his head.
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