Kilrea lad Josh McErlean records WRC stage win in Portugal with Hyundai

Josh McErlean in action at the Rally de Portugal.<br /> Pic: Austral, copyright Hyundai Motorsport GmbH
Josh McErlean in action at the Rally de Portugal.
Pic: Austral, copyright Hyundai Motorsport GmbH

Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver Josh McErlean stamped his name among the greats on Saturday, as he took his Hyundai i20 N Rally2 to a fastest overall stage time at WRC Rally de Portugal.

After a gruelling day behind the wheel, the Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing Junior Driver took advantage of the drying conditions to take the fastest overall time across the Porto Super Special, beating the best in the world in a remarkable feat.

His sensational achievement was a career highlight for the 22-year-old from Kilrea, Derry who - along with co-driver James Fulton - took the PCRS Rallysport run Hyundai to fifth place in the WRC2 Junior category after a challenging weekend behind the wheel.

"I`ll never forget that moment," says McErlean. "It's still pretty surreal, even now but everyone keeps reminding me that it is true.

"I know the conditions were certainly more favourable for us on the drying asphalt and cobbles but to be honest, the car felt really good and I felt I could push on a bit, despite it being a Super Special Stage which traditionally can bite back if you are not careful. It really made the weekend very special indeed and looking at the historic list of WRC stage winners, I`m very privileged to be among them."

After Thursday evening's opening crowd-pleaser in Coimbra, McErlean started the first full day in seventh place and the initial stages saw the youngster lie just over 20 seconds away from the lead. With eight tests and over 100 kilometres of special stages without a service halt in store, McErlean would need to manage his pace to ensure he emerged unscathed.

Sadly, a steering issue developed in the fourth stage of the rally, which eventually caused McErlean to park up in the fifth. Utilising Super Rally, he resumed his assault on Saturday but suffered a technical issue which hampered him during the longer tests. A mature approach saw him manage the problem throughout the day and would go on to set his remarkable fastest time on the final stage of the leg.

Starting the final day in fifth place in WRC2 Junior, McErlean elected to preserve the car for the five stages remaining, mindful of the short gap between Portugal and the next round in Sardinia in just over a week and ensured he secured a valuable finish for his campaign.

"It's been a roller-coaster of a rally really and of course, I have plenty of memories to take away from Saturday evening. But above all, I`m proud of the way I managed the issues we faced during the event and was still able to secure fifth place.

"It was the toughest rally I`ve ever done in my career and as unforgiving as it gets. Everyone has worked tirelessly to enable us to secure the finish, from the PCRS team to the efforts of the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy. It's a very special feat and hopefully goes some way to reward their efforts.

"It's been a character-building weekend, but I know I`ll need all that experience to take to Sardinia as that is just as difficult, if not more so".

The focus is now on the Sardinian event which takes place on June 2-5, leaving just a few days to prepare the Hyundai and the crew for the next round. McErlean currently sits eighth in the WRC2 Junior points standings as he heads for his third round of the season.