Jon Armstrong made a dream start to his Junior World Rally Championship campaign, winning the first round in Croatia by over 30 seconds.

The Kesh driver took the lead midway through the second day, and was never headed as he cruised to a win that even he admitted was unexpected.

“It was a surprise,” he confessed. “It was nice to get back to the world stage, and to get a win was more than I expected. Obviously, I know I am capable of doing it, but to do it with so little seat time was really good. I am over the moon.”


Prior to the event the Armstrong admitted he was uncertain how competitive he would be against a strong field of young drivers as he returned to action for the first time since his huge accident in Sweden over a year ago.

With just three rally starts in the past four years his rustiness seemed evident as he posted the slowest time of all the JWRC contenders on the opening stage, but he was unfazed by his slow start and he picked up his pace as the weekend progressed.

“I went there not knowing what to expect because I had only done two and bit rallies in four years, so I was the least match-fit going into the rally,” he said.

“Shakedown seemed to go not too badly for us. I quickly got into a good rhythm and I was surprised not to be too far away. I came to the end of the first stage and I saw I was slowest so far. I didn’t check the times after me, but I could see I wasn’t a million miles away.

‘Stay calm’

“It didn’t really bother me, and then on the next stage I started to go better. The best thing is to try to stay calm and pick your battles with yourself. That was my approach and it seemed to pay off. We picked up the pace on the afternoon loop and almost got a fastest stage time on the last stage of the day.”

Early leader Sami Pajari crashed out of contention on day one, with the Friday’s stage times leaving Jon in third spot, just over 20 seconds off the pacesetter. It did not come without tricky moments however, as the unfamiliar roads posed numerous problems for competitors.

“It was a very challenging rally because each stage had its own character, and they were all unique,” he explained. “There were a lot of different surface changes and there was one type of tarmac that was like ice, whether it was dry or wet. It was bizarre and nothing like I had done before.

“They were very dirty as well, and there was a lot of pollution on the roads from the top guys taking cuts. It was challenging to know how much grip you were going to have in the corners, or how much speed you were going to be able to carry through.”

Jon was among the drivers to be caught out, but he survived a high speed spin with minimal time loss.

“There was a bit of mud on the breaking and the rear stepped out and we had a spin,” he revealed. “I was lucky to get away with it because if it had dropped off the road it would have been down a bank and I wouldn’t have got out.

“Even when you are being on the cautious side these things can happen, and you have to have a bit of luck sometimes. Thankfully, we got away with it.”

Three way battle

The three way battle for the lead of the JWRC category continued over Saturday’s opening five stages, but the event took a decisive swing towards Armstrong on stage 14.

“I had one really good run where the stage seemed to suit my driving style and the set up we had in the car, and we managed to beat everyone by 14 seconds,” Jon recalled.

“Then it was all about trying to build that gap to second on Saturday, and then on Sunday it was all about trying not to be too cautious. It was about going as fast as I could and as safely as I could, and we managed to extend our lead in the morning. The second last stage was cancelled and then it was a matter of then getting through the last stage without making any mistakes.”

Local drivers have a long tradition of competing in the Junior World Rally Championship, with Niall McShea competing in the inaugural series in 2001, and Alastair Fisher winning two events in 2014. Neither of those drivers could top the series at the end of the campaign, but this year, with a prize on offer described as the most valuable in world rallying, Armstrong has put himself in pole position. He now takes his Championship lead into the second round in Portugal from 20-23 May, where he will be looking to consolidate his early advantage.

“I think I have probably done some of the stages before, which might be beneficial to me, but it’s another tricky rally. It’s rough and you have to stay out of trouble on those gravel rallies. There are very quick guys across the whole championship, but I am in a good position now. I will just keep trying to improve and get my performance better overall, and hopefully we won’t be too far away as the season goes on.”