Jon Armstrong will contest the 2021 Junior World Rally Championship, after securing a deal with the Codemasters DiRT Rally Team to contest the series in a Ford Fiesta Rally 4.

The former Esports World Rally Champion will return to the stages for the opener in Croatia, his first appearance since his spectacular crash on the first round of the 2020 JWRC in Sweden.

He admits he is unsure how competitive he will be, in what looks like a high-quality field of young drivers.

“When you are not getting seat time, it is hard to know where you are in terms of performance.

“I will take it steady enough on the first day of the first rally and see where we are, but I definitely would like a podium.

“It’s easy to get ahead of yourself, but it’s also easy to doubt yourself at the same time, so you have to keep your mindset somewhere in the middle where you can get into the flow of things and see where you are at, and then pick it up from there.

“Obviously, I want to go and do well, and my aim is to feel my way back into a good rhythm that is somewhere near the pace, and then see if we are able to start pushing from there.”

This year’s JWRC will see all competitors competing in identical Ford Fiesta Rally 4 cars run by M-Sport Poland.

The champion will secure a prize of a M-Sport Fiesta Rally 2 car, 200 free tyres from Pirelli and registration into the WRC3 category in 2022, but Jon will face tough competition for the prize from pre-championship favourite Martin Sesks, who finished runner-up in last year’s series, as well as the experienced Martin Koci, who Jon is expecting to feature strongly on the opening round in Croatia.

“Koci raced against Alastair Fisher in the Junior WRC in 2014 or 2015,” he said.

‘Quite quick back then’

“He was quite quick back then, and he finished second in the JWRC in the past. He is from Slovenia, which is a neighbouring country to Croatia, so I think he will be the quickest out of the blocks.

“All the others won’t be too far away because there is a very good line-up of drivers this year.

“Croatia is new for a lot of people, and I have been looking at the stages on Google maps. Quite a bit of it is on [Google] Street View, so you can run your way through the stages and get a feel for what is going on.

“They have used a few of the stages on their national rallies in the past, and there is quite a famous one that goes up a mountain and then down the other side on Sunday morning.

“It’s about 25 kilometres, and it very technical and narrow at the start and once you get to the summit it goes to a wide road, which is faster.

“The other stages are a bit like the Czech Republic, and I think it should suit me okay.”

Jon is one of the more experienced drivers lining up for the championship.

He had previously claimed two Fiesta Trophy victories in 2016 and finished inside the top ten in WRC2 in Spain, and he reckons that experience will stand him in good stead for a title challenge.

‘A good mind-set’

“I think I have a good mindset, where I am not going to say ‘I’m going to win every rally’,” he said.

“The Junior WRC has lots of different events and some are tougher on the cars than others, and sometimes you just need to get through without too many issues.

“I will just prepare as best as I can in terms of the rally route, and figuring out what tyre strategy I want to take, and what set-up I want.

“The main thing is to focus on yourself and then once the rally starts, just see where you are and try and up the pace if you need to.”

Jon had hoped to contest the full 2020 Junior WRC, and after a slow start on the opening round of the series in Sweden it looked as if he was getting on the pace of the top runners before his sudden retirement.

That accident, coupled with a lengthy delay due to Coronavirus restrictions, brought a premature end to his hopes of completing the season, and since then he has been fully focused on piecing together a package with his employer, Codemasters, that would allow him to return to action in time for the 2021 campaign.

“It has been a lot of work over the past eight or nine months to get it all to come together,” said Jon.

“After Sweden, there was the question over whether I would be able to continue in the championship, and when they announced they were going to start it up again, I was trying to figure out if I could get the funds to continue.

“Obviously, it was quite a difficult time for businesses, so my only real hope was through work and Codemasters, and their initial response was that we should try to aim for something next year. I had to go back to the drawing board and come up for a plan for 2021.”

Jon is now hoping the link between real-life rallying and virtual rallying will grab the attention of the public, and prove to be a success for his sponsors.

“It is exciting and something completely different in terms of what I have done before, and it’s new for rallying to have a video game developer get their foot in the door of real rallying,” he added.

‘A cool concept’

“It’s a cool concept and it has gone down very well within the people of the gaming community as well as the motorsport community.

“For me, I need to be getting good results, and obviously the content that we are hoping to capture from the events needs to be up to standard, too.

“There is definitely a requirement on performance, and from a media point of view, that the money they are spending is worth it compared to other areas they could be spending it on.”

Jon has also made the decision to switch co-driver this year, with the experienced Phil Hall replacing long-term navigator Noel O’Sullivan.

Hall has three years’ experience at JWRC level, but the new pairing will add another element of uncertainty to a package that will see Jon drive a new car on events that are largely unfamiliar.

After a long spell out of the car, the Kesh driver is keen to get in as much practice as possible before the season kicks off later this month.

“I could do with getting my eye in before I go to Croatia,” he admitted.

“I am looking at trying to do a small test in Croatia that the M-Sport team are offering.

“On Saturday, I’m doing some testing with the old R2 that both Alastair Fisher and I would have driven in the past.

“It’s quite different to what the Rally4 car is, but it’s more just to get back on tarmac and get back behind the wheel of the rally car and get a feel for driving again.

“Then, hopefully, I will get the main test before the rally.”

The season starts on April 22-25 with a visit to Croatia, with the five-round series featuring rallies in Portugal, Estonia, Ypres and Spain.

2021 JWRC Calendar

Croatia April 22-25

Portugal May 20-23

Estonia July 15-18

Ypres August 13-15

Spain October 14-17