Petter Solberg: Rally GB hero


There are some drivers who just seem to develop a natural affinity for a particular event – and for Petter Solberg, that event was Rally GB. Four of his 13 WRC wins came in the forests of Wales, including the first one, the last one, and the one that sealed his World Championship title.

No wonder he’s described it as the rally that defines his life, and this year the Norwegian is back in the official capacity of ‘Rally Legend’: an honour bestowed by the Wales Rally GB organisers on its most successful exponents.

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“It’s an event that is very close to my heart for so many reasons,” says Petter. “When I won there for the first time, in 2002, I remember thinking that nothing could beat that feeling. But I was wrong, as it felt even more amazing when I came back to Wales and won the championship 12 months later.”

Solberg triumphed on Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship for the following two years as well, making him still the only man ever to win it for four years on the trot.

Petter either doesn’t quite know the secret of his success or is reluctant to share it, but he does point out: “I think I’m quite good at feeling the different levels of grip and knowing how flat-out I can go. Of course I always try to go flat-out, but sometimes there’s a limit and you have to know where it is! Or maybe it’s down to my co-driver: he knows where he’s going around Wales…”

For every one of those wins, Petter was navigated by Phil Mills (above, middle). To our knowledge, Phil is the only Welsh World Rally Champion (with the possible exception of David Richards, but his status as a Welshman is questionable whereas Phil is as Welsh as you could imagine anyone born in Trefeglwys to be).

Petter was also carried to his successes by a wave of popular support, which had as much to do with his car as his famously outgoing personality: the iconic blue Subaru Impreza was always the model most closely associated with Rally GB in the modern era, perhaps because of the McRae and Burns legacy.

Whatever the reason was – Prodrive’s David Lapworth also points out that the Impreza was always very good at gaining traction on slippery mud – the burbling boxer note of the turbocharged flat four was what got fans out of bed and into the forests of Wales at an obscenely early hour of the morning.

Solberg’s 2003 win was probably the most dramatic, ending up with Petter sealing the title by just one point from Sebastien Loeb. And to this day, Petter remains the only man to defeat the world’s most successful rally driver in a straight fight for the title over the course of a full season.

How come? The answer is actually staring you in the face. On every one of Petter’s rally cars after he became a privateer (following the shock withdrawal of Subaru at the end of 2008) was written the slogan: ‘This is my life’.

Petter put his heart and soul into rallying like no other driver has before or since. Every gamut of emotion was always on uninhibited display, and whether the tears were those of joy or anguish, the fans absolutely loved him for it: particularly in Wales.

From the archive: Simon Arron goes to watch rallycross at Lydden Hill

One of his trademarks during celebrations, for example, was to jump outside the car and sit on the roof while it was still driving, getting as close as possible to an adoring public.

A few years ago Petter wrote his autobiography (which went on to become the best-selling sports book in Norway) and he called it: 110 per cent.

“I chose that title because it’s the best way to describe how I go about everything,” he explained. “If I do something, I do it all the way. Whether that’s driving or starting my own team. It has to be full attack, complete effort. And I’m always asking exactly the same of all the people around me too.”

Petter is the first to admit that his urge to succeed was borderline obsessive compulsive: but he didn’t know any other way. One of his former engineers at Prodrive had to make a point of turning his mobile phone off at night, because otherwise there would be a regular barrage of calls in the early hours, when Petter suddenly developed an idea about how to make the car go quicker.

His last Rally GB was 2012, where he finished on the podium: making a total of four wins and three other podiums from 15 participations on Rally GB.

Then, when the money dried up in WRC, he switched to rallycross and won that as well in 2014: becoming the first man to win an FIA title in two different disciplines.

Intriguingly, even aged 41 now, he hasn’t quite closed the door on Rally GB yet.

“I’m sharp and I can still be competitive,” he points out, having won the rallycross title again this year. “If the right opportunity came along…”

Buy tickets for 2015 Wales Rally GB here

Our thanks to Certina Watches for their help with this feature.

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