WRC - FIA Rally Star Max is smart for first Junior WRC podium

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FIA Rally Star - 2024 Rally Italia Sardegna (round 3/5)

70 JÜRGENSON Romet, OJA Siim, Ford Fiesta Rally3, action during the Rally Italia Sardegna 2024, 6th round of the 2024 WRC World Rally Car Championship, from May 30 to June 2, 2024 at Alghero, Sardegna - Photo Nikos Katikis / DPPI
  • Max Smart completes FIA Junior WRC podium following standout drive
  • Romet Jürgenson continues to top provisional championship standings
  • Taylor Gill shows pace with stage wins but is out of luck in top-three bid
  • Jose ‘Abito’ Caparó gains more important experience on tough gravel rally

FIA Rally Star Max Smart is a podium finisher in the Junior section of the FIA World Rally Championship – less than a year after he made his rallying debut.

The achievement followed a fine drive from the 21-year-old on the ultra-demanding Rally Italia Sardegna, which the South African completed in third place among the FIA Junior WRC contenders yesterday (June 2).

As well highlighting Smart’s potential, the result showcased the expert training and guidance he and his FIA Rally Star team-mates are receiving as they build their limited competition experience, having been selected for the FIA’s talent detection initiative following a global search.

While Smart celebrated his maiden Junior WRC top-three finish alongside co-driver Cameron Fair, FIA Rally Star team-mate Romet Jürgenson’s capture of five fastest stage times means he continues to lead the provisional championship standings. However, damage sustained during an incident on a liaison section on leg two meant the Croatia Rally Junior WRC winner had to rely on the restart rule to get to the finish after he’d led through the opening five stages.

Taylor Gill was second initially but his hopes of back-to-back Junior WRC podiums were dashed by powersteering failure on Friday. The Australian took sixth place in the final classification and picked up two additional points for twice going quickest on Sardinia’s challenging gravel stages.

Jose ‘Abito’ Caparó was also out of luck but once again demonstrated his promise with three top-five stage times on only his ninth ever rally.

FIA Secretary General for Sport Valerio Iachizzi was in Sardinia to watch the FIA Rally Star drivers in action along with WRC Commission Chairperson Pernilla Solberg and FIA Road Sport Director Andrew Wheatley.

The FIA Road Sport Department, which conceived and manages the FIA Rally Star programme, received extensive assistance from FIA Member Club, Automobile Club d’Italia, plus the Rally Italia Sardegna organising team, before and during the event.

FIA Rally Star Project Leader Jérôme Roussel said: “As anticipated, the condensed format of this year’s Rally Italia Sardegna, combined with the rough gravel stages, was extremely demanding for one-make championship cars, such as the Fiesta Rally3s used by all Junior WRC drivers. We can therefore be satisfied that, as in Sweden and Croatia, we had at least one FIA Rally Star crew on the podium. This time it was Max and Cameron’s turn in the spotlight after an exemplary rally. It’s not simply the position that I’m praising, but their ability to adapt their pace to suit the conditions, including when it came to defending that third place on the final leg.

"I’d also like to highlight the fighting spirit shown by Taylor and Dan when they had to complete two stages without powersteering. Their efforts were rewarded by a sixth-place finish. There could have been another great result from Romet and Siim, who had the perfect approach to win before being halted by something very unnecessary. But the greatest drivers have experienced such frustrating situations and I’m sure it will make them stronger. Abito and Esther also put in a positive performance, setting very good times on a surface that is not the most natural for a former kart driver. Their efforts are not far from coming to fruition.”

FIA Rally Star Rally Italia Sardegna driver-by-driver round-up (listed in seeded order)

#70 Romet Jürgenson (24, Estonia) Co-driver: Siim Oja (EST)
The Junior WRC driver to beat after five stages but hopes of back-to-back wins for the Estonian ended when he broke his Ford Fiesta Rally3’s front-right wishbone hitting a concrete block on a tight corner heading to SS7. He restarted on Sunday and was quickest on three stages out of four to lead the provisional championship standings by 25 points. 

Romet Jürgenson: “The mistake we made just goes to show that you have to be more aware of everything and remember rallying doesn’t stop at the end of stage, there’s a road section as well. Of course it’s disappointing because there was definitely a possibility to win this rally but the regulations allow us to drop one score and we have to remember we learned plenty on this rough event and we know there is room for improvement. The top three was our goal, we didn’t achieve that so we will just have to prepare better and do better on the next rally. Pushing for stage wins on the final morning was our only option and it was actually easier to drive in a fast rhythm when I was really pushing. I was pleased that we maximised what we could.”

#71 Taylor Gill (20, Australia) Co-driver: Daniel Brkic (AUS)
Second after two stages, Gill’s push for a repeat podium unravelled when his Ford Fiesta Rally3’s powersteering failed on SS3 and cost him almost seven minutes. Contact with a rock on SS8 left his car with only three working brakes for the rest of the loop. He was quickest on SS14 on his way to sixth position. He’s third in the provisional standings after three rounds.

Taylor Gill: “It’s a bit of a relief to be at the end. It wasn’t the overall result we were after but the pace was there and, in general, there are so many positives to take away from this weekend. Losing the powersteering put us on a bit of a downward spiral. We pushed hard on Saturday morning trying to grab a couple of stage wins but had a bit of a collision with a rock and that collapsed the wheel bearing and broke the brake disc so it caused us to limp through. But we did a pretty okay job of managing everything to get to the end. We levelled up our pace, particularly in the high-speed sections, and our commitment was really positive, especially on Sunday going toe-to-toe with Romet and trying to get the stage wins. That was really fun and really encouraging to see the sort of speed we’ve got.”

 #79 Jose ‘Abito’ Caparó (27, Peru) Co-driver: Esther Gutiérrez (ESP)
A strong fifth after leg one, Caparó’s prospects dived when he retired on Saturday with broken steering following contact. He returned on Sunday and went fifth quickest on SS14 but had to reduce his pace thereafter due to two flat tyres.

Jose ‘Abito’ Caparó: “I’m pleased to be at the finish. Friday was very good for us, we were matching the speed, the pacenotes, the angle of the turns, everything was to the point. Saturday was a nightmare but a beautiful nightmare because it was still amazing to be competing on his incredible rally. In the third stage of the morning loop we broke a little bracket in the steering and had to retire. It was important to show our pace again on the final morning and we definitely learned you sometimes have to be very slow to be successful on this rally. Passing through all the stages will be the key for the next event. When I came to Sardinia last year for the FIA Rally Star Training Camp it was my first time in a rally car. Now I’m here again after only eight rallies and my third with Esther and we are learning all the time.”

#80 Max Smart (21, South Africa) Co-driver: Cameron Fair (GBR)
Like team-mate Caparo, Smart had never rallied 12 months ago but the ex-motocross rider from Cape Town battled through Sardinia’s rough and tough stages to bank his first Junior WRC podium at his third attempt and move up to sixth place in the provisional standings.

Max Smart: “It’s incredible to get a podium. This has honestly been a dream for me and as we crossed the finish line of the final stage and heard Petr Borodin hadn’t made up enough time on us I started crying. I’m flabbergasted and so happy. At this point last year I’d never done a rally in my life. To come here 12 months later after spectating on this rally last year, standing on the podium in Junior WRC is a dream come true. The support I have received from the FIA Rally Star team and M-Sport Poland has been incredible. My co-driver Cam really pushes me, we’re analysing everything after each stage, trying to work out how we can do better. The teamwork we had throughout the rally was unbreakable, it felt really good and I’m super-happy to be with him. Now I need to keep the momentum and learn from what we did here and keep progressing because there’s so much more to gain. I’m still so young in this sport, but every stage we’re learning, getting faster and more consistent.” 

FIA Junior WRC Championship event schedule refresher

The 2024 FIA Junior WRC Championship consists of five rounds as follows:
Rally Sweden (Snow/ice), February 15-18
Croatia Rally (Tarmac), April 18-21
Rally Italia Sardegna (Gravel), May 30-June 2

Secto Rally Finland (Gravel), August 1-4
EKO Acropolis Rally Greece (Gravel), September 5-8

What’s next?

The FIA Rally Star quartet will swap the rock-lined Sardinian gravel stages for super-smooth and super-fast Finnish roads, complete with their countless jumps and crests, when Secto Rally Finland takes place from August 1-4.